Why Do Actors Take to Politics Effortlessly?

ByABC News via logo

Feb. 23, 2003 -- Money-guzzling dictators, footwear-amassing first ladies and a movie star president complete with gambling rackets, mistresses and illegitimate children all may be followed by … another movie star.

When Fernando Poe Jr. announced his intention to run for president of the Philippines in the May 10 election, many Filipinos experienced a familiar, if resigned, sense of déjà vu. Poe is a movie star and his run comes barely three years after Joseph Estrada, another actor-turned-politician, was forced to resign over corruption allegations.

The feeling may be something similar to the reaction that came when Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor in California … a move that was also a first step for one-time Hollywood star-turned-president, Ronald Reagan.

Star power mixed with political clout is still a big draw in the United States. At the annual meeting of the National Governors Association over the weekend, 49 governors looked on bemused, but indulgent as Schwarzenegger grabbed the center stage at the Washington, D.C., event.

As organizers of the meeting were forced to move his place to accommodate the battery of reporters trailing the former Mr. Universe-turned Hollywood star-turned governor of California, Gov. Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island said, "In the room he's one of 50. But," he conceded, "everybody would secretly like to have his autograph."

Halfway around the world, Filipinos have also experienced the pull of star power. But they have little appetite for another ex-film star as president. "A country isn't a movie set," said one columnist while bemoaning the fact that, "many will still choose to believe in the movies."

But Filipinos are not the only ones prone to blurring the lines between histrionics and politics these days.

Humble Origins and Celebrity Appeal

As big-draw stars appealing to popular audiences, a number of actors and actresses across the world have exploited a winning combination of humble origins and current celebrity to launch high-profile political careers.

In a meteoric rise from rural poverty, former Philippine President Estrada cultivated a public image as a "Robin Hood" figure far removed from the wealthy elite that have dominated political life.

But the workers' hero himself amassed considerable wealth — as well as an embarrassingly long list of mistresses. And although he is currently in detention in a Manila facility, Estrada is widely believed to still wield considerable political clout.

So when Poe — the hero of action films such as The Ravagers and The Walls of Hell, and "Da King" of the Philippine movie industry — threw his hat into the presidential race, many pundits wondered if modern societies have a problem separating fact from fantasy.

Bollywood Actors and Italian Porn Stars

It's a trend that has been noted across geographic and cultural divides.

Half a world away from Hollywood, with an output that far outstrips the U.S. film industry, India's colossal movie business has also yielded a host of politicians. And to the consternation of many educated Indians, a number of these thespian-turned-politicians have been adept at exploiting their screen roles as Hindu gods and goddesses to maintain a near-worshipful fan base.

The tangled, twisted world of post-World War II Italian politics has also thrown up a few actor-politicians that have periodically raised Anglo-Saxon brows. In 1987, former porn star Ilona Staller — popularly known as "Cicciolina" or "cuddles" — was elected to parliament, but lost a mayoral race in the northern Italian city of Monza last year.

In Egypt, home to the Arab world's biggest entertainment businesses, singers and pop stars are not uncommon in politics. And in Turkey, the vice president of the opposition Motherland Party (ANAP) and a sitting member of parliament is Ediz Hun, a veteran Turkish film actor.

Click here for more about some of the world's most colorful actor-politicians.

Similar Sets of Skills

"I suppose this is inevitable," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. "With 24-hour news channels, a political leader has to look good, appeal to an audience, talk to the cameras, present a persona — in many respects it's a relatively similar set of skills required of an actor."

What's more, according to Thompson, movie actors invariably begin their political races with a tremendous head start over their rivals. "They have instant brand name recognition," he explains. "They are starting way ahead of someone working up to name recognition — which needs a good amount of time and money."

But while the election of actors often sparks fulminations about the intellectual inadequacies of the voting populace, not everyone believes it simply boils down to the irrational populism of the democratic system.

Arvind Rajagopal, a professor of media studies at New York University, believes — like the German sociologist Max Weber — that with the increasing bureaucratization of modern life, "charismatic power is seen as the only way of breaking out of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationality."

"In cases where there is an uncertain outcome, where there is no guarantee of a good leader, we can see a substantive logic in seeking out a charismatic leader," says Rajagopal.

Warning Notes

Certainly stars who have shed their acting costumes for a new political garb have had a mixed track record. Reagan, by all accounts, is considered a success, who will be remembered for his political rather than his acting roles.

But in India, Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest star of Bollywood — as the Bombay film industry is known — proved to be a failure in politics. Voted into parliament in the 1980s, Bollywood's most popular actor was unable to complete his five-year term due to persistent corruption allegations.

The journey from being an adored movie star to a widely derided politician can sometimes be so harrowing that from his prison cell in Manila, Estrada had a few warning notes for Schwarzenegger.

"The pitfall is if you do not perform in the movies, it's just acting," he told reporters shortly after the Austrian-born Hollywood star was elected governor. "But in politics, it's real life."

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