Monday, November 08, 2010

The Celebrity of Courage and Integrity

Richard Gere
The Celebrity of Courage and Integrity

Who's my favorite celebrity and why? My first response was nobody. After all, I loathe the gossip mongers and their ilk. I think Perez Hilton is vulgar, far more so the Paris Hilton could ever hope to be and she's had a sex tape go public. The way the media treats celebrity disgusts me and my admiration for the so-called "celebs" begins and ends with what I see of them on stage or film.

Often, it ends there as well. I will stumble onto a one-on-one interview with a celebrity and listen to what they have to say, which is typically nothing, and find myself disenchanted. Someone who once appealed to me loses their glamor because I've listened to them talk for themselves. How unfortunate. I've taken to avoiding interviews for this reason, leaving the performer where they belong, behind the veil of pretense with the perfect lighting, make-up, and wardrobe, etc.

Then came Richard Gere and Viggo Mortensen.

To be honest, I had not been thrilled with either of them at first. Gere was a media frenzy when he first came on the movie scene, a pretty face who happened to pick the right projects and then rightfully disappeared. I hadn't really cared when he seemingly returned to the screen (and as I write this I suspect he never really went away but I was simply that good at ignoring him altogether).

But after 9/11 he did something incredibly brave for there was a program that aired on every stations, the Concert for New York City, and Gere had the courage to say something that went against the general emotional wave one experienced at that time in the United States. He had the audacity to speak about tolerance and non-violence.

He was boo'd by the audience and I chose to tune out the nonsense people said everywhere I went afterwards, vilifying him and making empty promises about never ever going to see another of his films.

Very few seemed to care that Gere, a Buddhist, would believe in non-violence as a reasonable response to violence. Even fewer were aware of the violence already being experienced by Muslim Americans, especially those men, women, and children living in NYC. (A friend of mine told me about a friend of hers who was afraid to go out with her head appropriately covered because it would draw dangerous attention to herself as she walked her child to and from school.)

Violence is not the answer.

Viggo Mortensen did something similar while promoting the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In an interview he, along with the director and two of the other actors, talked about the film, about Tolkien, about the experience of bringing this iconic literature to life. And all the while he sat there wearing a t-shirt with the message: No Oil for Blood.  The letters looked like they were painted on, a lurid and vivid red dripping like blood against the white of his shirt.

My memory, however, may be off because, as the picture below reveals, he may have been wearing a different shirt altogether.  Then again, this may be a different shirt he wore at a different time. I don't know. I don't care.  I just thought I'd share this because, assuming he had more than one shirt with the same sentiment, it all the more suggests how strongly he felt about the issue at the time.  And remember, this was back in 2002 when some people's anger and self-righteousness were still running high.


At the time, most people were buying part and parcel every word of propaganda being spread about Weapons of Mass Destruction and The War on Terrorism. The alerts were in a perpetual state of red and few people questioned the necessity of doing something about Sadam Hussein.

Too few were unquestioning and seeing that Mortensen not only questioned but demanded answers was a surprise to me because I had never heard of him and I was perhaps one of the few who didn't swoon over his performance as Aragorn.

I would inevitably swoon, however, when I read some of his poetry and heard him in an audio recording sharing some of his own works.

But really, the true celebrity remains a nameless student who once stood in the face of an oncoming tank in the middle of Tianenman Square. According to wikipedia nobody knows if he is still alive although I have heard people say with absolute certainty that he is dead, was killed within a year of the incident. (I believe most recently Robert Thurman in his series on Tibet.)

This is courage and this is the sort of personal integrity and bravery that should be celebrated and should earn an individual the status of celebrity.

I'm almost certain both Gere and Mortensen would agree that they are not nearly as courageous as that young man; they might even agree that he is a more deserving celebrity than they. But I don't know because I can't ask them for myself.

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