There are two main kinds of heroism in Hollywood, as I see it. The one that gets most of the attention is on the screen—the movies, the roles, the performances that inspire and thrill: To Kill a Mockingbird, It’s a Wonderful Life, Schindler’s List, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gandhi, Casablanca, High Noon, The Harriet Tubman Story, Slingblade, Saving Private Ryan, Gran Torino, Invictus, and many many more, heroism large and small. Each of us can generate a formidable list of favored movies depicting various forms of heroism. The concept itself is central to much of Hollywood’s oeuvre.
But I write here of another aspect of Hollywood heroism—off-screen and actual, not acted. This is the personal involvement of Hollywood icons in pursuing good works, using their fame, charisma, personal power and media influence to do great and generous things. I got to thinking of this side of the Hollywood world when last year my days became inundated with media queries concerning the life and times of Elizabeth Taylor upon her death at age 79. Thus followed multiple media interviews on my perceptions of this Hollywood grande dame (indeed she was truly a Dame as bestowed by Queen Elizabeth). And despite her great beauty, interesting movies, amazing marital history, and long-time star power, a feature of her career that stood out for me was her deep and continuing commitment to a profound social, scientific, humane and charitable cause, eliminating the horror of HIV/AIDS. As someone who has studied heroes and heroism for a long time, I saw here aspects of real heroism.
Two central features of much heroism are risk-taking and generosity (“the G-Factor”). Taylor was one of the early and deeply committed benefactors in the battle against HIV/AIDS, at a time when there was extreme prejudice, ignorance, moralizing and stigma attached to the topic. She gave enormous amounts of time and money to this effort, including raising funds from Hollywood, the political world, and elsewhere. It was truly a lifelong cause for her. And it was risky for her career and reputation. One wonders what were the opportunity costs she incurred in unrealized media and movie accomplishments. Taylor was one of the earlier and most famous Hollywood icons as I understand it to contribute so much personally to a great cause. Her contemporary Paul Newman worked extensively in supporting efforts to ameliorate juvenile delinquency. Perhaps the legacy of these and a handful of others is found in the current contributions of such as George Clooney (the Sudanese horror), Sean Penn (Haiti), Angelina Jolie (UN and more), Brad Pitt (Katrina), Oprah Winfrey (AIDS, disaster relief, animal rescue, etc.), to name a few.
The cynical might say that many of these efforts are superficial and directed at public relations and careerism in one way or another. This is always a possibility for some celebrities, but whatever the reasons, the attention they can bring to important public problems is itself valuable in motivating solutions to those problems. Any celebrity seriously involved in reducing the horrors of life is showing a form of heroism—fame in the service of humanity. One wishes that many more of the famous and the powerful of the media were so inclined!
Maybe you have your own stories of fame in the service of humanity!
This is a revised version of a brief article by the author from The Amplifier, the publication of the Division of Media Psychology of the American Psychological Association.
Copyright 2012 by Frank Farley, PhD
Frank Farley, PhD, is L.H.Carnell Professor, Temple University, Philadelphia, and former President of the American Psychological Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215)668-7581.