HACKENSACK, N.J. >> Have the entertainment industry’s bold-faced names been behaving a little too boldly in this year’s presidential race? Or, are this election’s nominees — and their assorted, outsized foibles, trials and tribulations — simply too irresistible to ignore?
This summer, Barbra Streisand praised longtime friend Hillary Clinton and dissed her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, during her nine-city “Encore” tour. During an interview at the Sarajevo Film Festival, Robert De Niro compared Trump to Travis Bickle, the deranged fictional character he played in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” And horror author Stephen King described Trump — rather horrifically — as “a rabid coyote with bad hair.”
More than one stand-up comedian has characterized Trump as “the gift that keeps on giving.” But Clinton isn’t faring much better. Throughout the campaign she’s been clobbered by high-profile, right-leaning celebrities — and more than a few on the left. Among the most virulent: outspoken conservative actor James Woods, who said in one tweet that Clinton “could set a school bus on fire and get away with it.”
When it comes to celebrities and their often colorful political opinions, Giancarlo Ghione, a 24-year-old Lyndhurst resident and an executive member of the Young Republicans of Bergen County, says: “For me, it really depends which celebrity we’re talking about. Is it Oprah Winfrey? Is it Alec Baldwin? Oprah has a huge following, she’s not controversial and she’s respected. That’s what she’s known for. Baldwin is best known for yelling at paparazzi at the airport.”
A Trump supporter, Ghione said he was handing out literature recently for county candidates in Rutherford and spoke to a woman who attended one of Streisand’s Brooklyn concerts — and was still livid about the Trump jokes. (In one of the shows on this tour, Streisand introduced mentalist Lior Suchard, who she said was capable of reading anyone’s mind except for Donald Trump’s — “because he doesn’t have one.”)
“The political stuff really bothered this woman,” Ghione said, “and I understood that. If you’re speaking at a rally or putting stuff on your website, that’s one thing. But these people paid a lot of money to see a concert.”
During the Chicago leg of Streisand’s tour, one member of the audience screamed out, “Shut up and sing!” (Perhaps it made a difference. Days later, at her Boston show, Streisand reached out to her Republican fans, thanking them for showing up, “despite our differences.”)
Many performers, Dolly Parton among them, prefer to avoid politics altogether. When asked by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly whether she was conservative or not, Parton said, “I’m more patriotic than political.”
And that’s just fine with Clinton supporter Jared Cardenas of Bergenfield.
“I completely understand and respect that. But others do want to speak out,” Cardenas said.
“A few months ago, at a Springsteen concert, a fan had an anti-Trump sign and Bruce grabbed it and held it up. And people got mad, which baffles me. They say, ‘He should stick to making music,’ which makes it clear to me that they’re not listening to the music he’s making. And, why shouldn’t he share his views? When I’m at work and someone says something political I don’t say ‘Hey, why don’t you stick to program managing?’”
Certainly, actor James Woods, a two-time Oscar nominee, three-time Emmy winner and often-outspoken conservative, isn’t sticking to acting. On Aug. 7, he took to Twitter, posting a green-tinged photo of Clinton — looking not unlike the Wicked Witch of the West — in a meme that asked “Who in hell is voting for this woman?”
Then, days later, Woods wrote, “She is not of this earth when it comes to the truth. She would lie about the color of the moon, just to lie.”
Susan Sarandon, who supported Bernie Sanders before and during the primary season — and who has rarely passed up an opportunity to share her political views — has also repeatedly attacked Clinton on talk shows and in print interviews over the candidate’s support of fracking and the Iraq War.
Sarandon has even chastised Sen. Elizabeth Warren for moving into the Clinton camp, saying that Clinton “represents everything (Warren) has fought against.”
Most voters are used to the political barbs they hear nightly from Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. And on “Saturday Night Live,” larger than life political caricatures (“I can see Russia from my house!”) are routine fare. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that people want to hear about politics during a concert, interview or awards ceremony.
Scott Blakeman, a political comedian who performs frequently in the Garden State and often appears as a commentator on NPR and cable news shows, notes that many performers, regularly promote their causes onstage. “And I think a true fan (doesn’t mind) as long as they sing their hits.”
But Blakeman added that, in his experience on the road, audiences are much more polarized than they used to be and this can have a huge effect on how they react to what a performer — even one they admire — says onstage. “Audiences,” he said, “are less likely to laugh at (these jokes) or accept the political views that they disagree with.”
Pundits on both sides agree that, as a presidential candidate, Trump’s celebrity has contributed to the enormous amount of media coverage he has received. In May alone, The New York Times reported, Trump earned $400 million worth of free media, roughly what Sen. John McCain spent on his entire presidential run eight years ago.
Still, the most curious thing about this race may be that, according to polls by Gallup and Survey Monkey, Clinton and Trump still rank among the worst-rated presidential candidates in American history — a situation that no celebrity-generated jokes or endorsements seems likely to change.