Commentary: Obama brings Hollywood back into the big picture


Finally, the curtain has come down on what was arguably the most astonishing and unpredictable piece of political theater in U.S. history.

Neither a Frank Capra, nor a Garry Trudeau, nor an Aaron Sorkin could have come up with plot points so implausible and make them stick.

Yet the real-life drama -- and occasional comedy -- of the real-life race for the White House not only took a leaf or two from the Hollywood playbook, it handily upstaged Hollywood, reinvigorating the electorate as well as the audience for cable news shows, talk radio and "Saturday Night Live."

Looking ahead, the victory for Barack Obama will likely mean more to this town, psychologically and culturally, than any such national election in decades.

Oddly though, the entertainment biz did not figure prominently in the calculations or the preoccupations of the two candidates.

The two parties and their leading players were more in our minds than we were in theirs, not only because the problems facing the nation are so daunting -- who wants to bring up indecency when there's economic meltdown? -- but because Hollywood has been AWOL from the Washington whirligig for almost the entire duration of the Bush administration.

(Remember W's call for the biz to get behind efforts to improve America's image abroad? It went virtually unanswered in Tinseltown.)

That dismissive attitude will likely change.

"There's going to be a lot more vitality and a lot more interplay going back and forth," is how one industryite put it on a panel last week.

While Obama has been deftly nonchalant about his own star power and more bemused than bedazzled by celebrity culture, he has proved himself on the campaign trail as a hard-knuckle pragmatist: There is money, talent and pent-up goodwill in our town eager to be tapped to help solve any number of problems, from climate change and equal opportunity to AIDS, poverty and global cooperation.

He and his team should take note.

There might be more intangible effects of Obamarama -- the dialogue between Wilshire and Washington could eventually affect the storytelling and open us up to new storytellers.

Diversity, for example, may cease to be a begrudged obligation that every studio and producer has to fulfill and become an opportunity to be seized upon. A new dynamic in D.C. could mean breaking free of long-held stereotypes and ingrained practices, not just in politics but in pop culture.

Although he has a lot to prove, Obama did effectively defy the expectations of conservatives and liberals, outmaneuvering and outwitting both the well-oiled Clinton machine in the primaries and the acolytes of Karl Rove in the race against John McCain.

In Sunday's New York Times, columnist Frank Rich aptly described the inadequacies past and present of Hollywood and media cliches, pointing to a classic film that eerily presages in part but ultimately is incapable of explaining the Obama phenom:

"Our political and news media establishments ... consistently underestimated Obama's candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Sidney Poitier had to shoulder in 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' "

This upstart Democrat was, from the media's point of view, too lofty an intellectual to be a street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to real Americans.

Well, given his performance on the stump, in debates and in interviews, complexity of character is back in.

We shall see whether Obama is decisive and effective as commander-in-chief. We do know he follows in the line of John Adams, at least as re-imagined by HBO: This president-elect speaks in complete sentences about complicated subjects.

Could this trait, dare I suggest, eventually affect how political discourse is conducted on the TV newsies and talk radio? Well, probably not ...

In any case, the news media will have to rethink how they do a lot of things now that the air is out of the balloon and viewers are freed up to turn their attention to other things -- like their jobs, their mortgages, or just their entertainment. That in itself will be a fascinating story to follow.

And on the larger national stage, there will be mistakes, missteps, miscues to chronicle, especially as neither Obama nor McCain was able to articulate anything coherent about how to fix the economy. Or how other priorities can be accomplished when there is so little money available.

In short, our revels are not now ended: The second act is just getting started.
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