risky business

Transcending race, gender from boxoffice to ballot box

The early numbers pointed to the potential viability of Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy as the Democratic presidential nominee. But in this case, the data in question were not the early returns from Iowa or New Hampshire.

Instead, the telltale numbers were the opening-day grosses for Will Smith's latest movie "I Am Legend," which beat even the most upbeat expectations by grossing $30.1 million on its first day of release last month and has gone on to take in more than $230 million domestically.

Pop culture often can suggest answers to questions posed in the political sphere. And if one of the questions surrounding Obama's campaign before his own breakthrough performance in Iowa was whether he could hope to transcend race, Smith's career suggests that there is a sizable audience in America that no longer views every black male through the prism of race.

With "Legend," Smith consolidated his standing as Hollywood's biggest current boxoffice draw, supplanting such previous standard-bearers as Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. What stands out along the trajectory of his film career is how often he has played characters for whom race is not a defining factor. While the actor hasn't shied away from the subject in such movies as "Ali" and the recent "The Pursuit of Happyness," he has found even bigger success in roles where he simply plays a man of action.

His film career first took off when he strapped on his flight suit as a fighter pilot who joins forces with Bill Pullman's president to shoot down aliens in 1996's "Independence Day." And though the current "Legend" is set in a futuristic New York, as Smith strides across the screen — accompanied by just his rifle and his dog — he actually plays one of the most American of archetypes: the lone frontiersman whose lineage can be traced all the way back to the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.

Moviegoers of all ages and ethnicities turning out for Smith's star turn in "Legend" should have sent a signal to the political commentators that voters, particularly younger voters, might well be willing to similarly applaud a candidate like Obama, who presents himself as a standard-bearer not just for his party or for race but for a broader coalition of potential voters.

Just as part of this season's political soap opera has evolved around the question of Obama's transcending race, there's been the parallel question of whether Hillary Clinton's appeal can transcend gender. It's not as easy to point to a star who embodies Clinton's dilemma — if for no other reason than when it comes to the top female boxoffice players, such actresses as Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon have tended to win over their biggest audiences when they stick to flattering gender roles.

But in Meryl Streep's performance in "The Devil Wears Prada" there is a foreshadowing of the drama that surrounded Clinton this past week. As reigning magazine editor Miranda Priestly, Streep played a commanding, self-confident figure, admired but fearsome. Technically, she's the film's villain, but Streep and the filmmakers humanized the character in one scene where, alone in her hotel room and stripped of makeup, she reveals her vulnerability.

In effect, Clinton, who has spent most of the campaign so far demonstrating her expertise and command, echoed that scene when she let down her guard and let her eyes well with emotion the day before the New Hampshire primary. Commentators are now pointing to that moment as a significant factor in Clinton's surprise showing in the primary, lending her a sudden surge of support — just as female moviegoers led the way in turning "Prada" into a surprise boxoffice hit.
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