Stars Face Hollywood Backlash in War of Words Over Israel
Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz face backlash over explosive comments as Relativity's Ryan Kavanaugh goes public with his disgust and Haim Saban rallies mostly silent moguls.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When the latest battle in Gaza finally is over, as someday it will be, hard feelings could linger in the corner offices of Hollywood toward the stars who have voiced anti-Israel sentiments. But will the artists who criticize Israel military strikes -- particularly married Spaniards Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who accused the country of "genocide" in a widely circulated July 25 letter -- suffer career backlash in a town whose power brokers tend to be strong supporters of Israel?
So far, Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh is the only studio head willing to go public with his disgust. "As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I know that anyone calling what's going on in Israel 'genocide' vs. self-defense is either ignorant and shouldn't be commenting or is truly anti-Semitic," Kavanaugh told THR on Aug. 2, saying the Spanish letter, signed by 100 film luminaries including Pedro Almodovar, "makes my blood boil." Kavanaugh says he received more than 500 calls, emails and texts of support in the 24 hours after his comments were published, including from high-ranking industry executives, suggesting the sentiment is widespread.
Indeed, though they decline to go on record, many top execs contacted by THR privately express similar feelings -- one says he's "furious at Javier and Penelope" -- and questioned whether they would want to work with the couple again. The stars' letter laid the blame for the conflict on Israel, which it said "keeps advancing on Palestinian territories instead of withdrawing to the 1967 borders." The actors' follow-up attempts to clarify their open letter and express support for the Jewish people were met with "a collective eye roll," according to one top exec. Some, like Kavanaugh, are taking the Israel statements personally. With the reports of Hamas' sophisticated tunnel network and its 3,000 missile attacks against Israeli citizens in 2014, many are convinced that the current crisis underscores a threat to the Jewish state itself. (Kelly Bush, a rep for Bardem, and Amanda Silverman, who reps Cruz, declined comment.)
Among Hollywood figures, the typically outspoken Howard Stern, Joan Rivers and Bill Maher have expressed support for Israel in the conflict, which has killed more than 1,800 people, mostly Palestinians. And Ray Donovan actor Jon Voight penned an open letter Aug. 2 demanding that Cruz, 40, and Bardem, 45, "hang your heads in shame." Wrote Voight: "I am asking all my peers who signed that poison letter against Israel to examine their motives. Can you take back the fire of anti-Semitism that is raging all over the world now?"
But for the most part, Hollywood's power brokers -- including those who have raised money for pro-Israel causes, such as Barbra Streisand, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg -- have avoided public comments on the conflict. Nor has there been criticism of other industry figures, including Jon Stewart, director Jonathan Demme and Mark Ruffalo, who have voiced nuanced concerns about Israel's military action in Gaza while supporting the nation in general. "I don't know why more prominent Hollywood people don't speak out about what's going on there," Stern said on his radio show July 28. "They're all afraid." Hollywood political donor Haim Saban, one of the industry's biggest Israel supporters, echoed those sentiments. "I don't understand this myself," Saban told the Jewish Journal on Aug. 1. "But starting today, I will be working the phones to enlist the vocal support of people who I know have an interest in supporting our staunchest ally in the region -- which also happens to be the only democracy in the region."
Despite his strongly worded letter, Voight says he doesn't think Cruz and Bardem -- who are currently in South Africa as Bardem shoots Sean Penn's The Last Face -- should suffer career fallout. "Don't try to create a blacklist," says Voight. "That doesn't help you." And one industry executive says he doesn't believe the Israel comments reach the "Mel Gibson threshold." When the actor was caught making virulent anti-Semitic remarks in 2010, he was marginalized and eventually dropped by agency WME (which reps Bardem, ironically) and faced widespread backlash.
In fact, many throughout Hollywood believe the careers of celebrities -- those such as Rihanna, who tweeted "#FreePalestine," or Piers Morgan, who tweeted "A WAR CRIME" in reaction to a news report of Palestinian children killed in an air strike -- are unlikely to be impacted solely by political views that many executives oppose. During her best supporting actress acceptance speech at the 1977 Oscars, Vanessa Redgrave called out "a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world" and was booed. Nonetheless, Redgrave continued to work in major studio films.
One top producer who has worked with Cruz says he privately has vowed not to hire her again. Still, even Kavanaugh doesn't foresee the letter hurting either of their careers as long as the audience for their work doesn't turn. Or, as another producer points out: "I think the thing any executive or producer will try to calculate before working with Penelope Cruz or Javier Bardem in the near future is what their value is in the all-important international marketplace. And what territories they might have alienated people in by what they said. It might not be that many. But it's really all about business."