Commentary: A fan of the working class realizes this sad bunch has fumbled their lines


I grew up, cinematically speaking, watching Sergei Eisenstein classics, Italian movies with Gian Maria Volonte as a factory worker with a cause, and, yes, enjoying multiple viewings of that 1945 melodrama, "The Valley of Decision."

Strikes were romantic and always right, even if sometimes costly: In "Decision," the cantankerous curmudgeon played by Lionel Barrymore gets killed on a bridge in his wheelchair when the scabs show up. (But the scion of the steel mill owner, Gregory Peck, ends up marrying Barrymore's daughter, played with pluck by Greer Garson.)

Anyway, I'm certainly not alone in having been formed, cinematically speaking again, by these images and story lines, so if there is residual bias in me as an editor, it's probably tilted toward the workers. Fat cats generally are just not that appealing, which is partially why Hollywood studios in their movie-making tend to side with the workers.

I say all this because the circus that is now unfolding at SAG is so bizarro that nothing like it could ever be included in a movie script. It would be instantly tossed as too absurd -- not to mention technically niggling -- to be taken seriously.

Most folks around town have been rolling their eyes at the dysfunction on display. "They're living on another planet, and somebody, somehow has to get them back down to Earth" is the utterance I hear when the conversation turns to SAG.

And just look at Earth these days ... pink slips, cutbacks, hiring freezes, bankruptcies in Hollywood and across the nation.

The actors' timing couldn't be worse.

Much has changed since the six Hollywood conglomerates that dominate the producing companies' organization, the AMPTP, prepared their opening salvo in summer 2007, which in turn led into the staggered talks with the various guilds.

Even back then, the producers were crying poverty -- profit margins were razor-thin, costs were spiraling, new media wouldn't pay off for years. At the same time, they boasted to their Wall Street backers their huge boxoffice returns, their hit TV shows, their cable assets, their theme parks, their global strategies.

In short, they talked out of both sides of their mouths, and they eventually were taken to task for it.

Despite missteps on both sides of the table, new three-year labor contracts did get cobbled together with the DGA and the WGA, though it did take a 100-day strike to get the latter done.

Each side in these talks obviously had to give a little. We don't hear much complaint from those quarters with the deals in hand.

But seven months after the end of their contract, the actors union doesn't see it that way.

The problem is they're so caught up in their own internal wrangling that the issues still to be resolved have taken a back seat and the town is losing its patience. (Meanwhile, the country at large has given this labor standoff nary a thought.)

With renewed talks nowhere on the horizon, the actors can't even take advantage of the latest "Obama effect."

There was the President of the United States this week lambasting the outsized salaries and perks of CEOs and actually capping their pay at $500,000 for those that come hat in hand for a government bailout.

And Hollywood? Its top guns -- the Moonveses, the Igers, the Chernins -- are certainly among the best-paid execs in corporate America.

So, to follow on from Obama's related point, how is their performance? Well, boxoffice is still booming and TV viewing is holding up nicely. Conglomerate stocks, on the other hand, are in the toilet.

Still, comparatively speaking, Hollywood hardly needs a bailout, so I don't think we'll see anyone jettisoning the corporate jet.

If you watch the newscasts and newsmags of late (again, these are all owned by the Hollywood biggies), there's a shift in the wind among the public, away from emulation of well-paid execs and toward greater appreciation of those who share the pain of their hard-pressed worker bees.

Here would be a chance for the SAG negotiating team to capitalize on this shift in the zeitgeist: Shouldn't the conglomerates, in our newly more socialized country, be just a little more amenable to sharing the wealth with those who are at the heart of their success, namely us actors?

Well, probably not.

The AMPTP may come out of this looking as sympathetic and long suffering as Gregory Peck did in "The Valley of Decision." The real actors in this drama have just missed another cue.
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