A gilded Cage

There are few people more gifted at the art of phony moral preening than your average Hollywood movie star. Most of them know next to nothing about anything, but a remarkable number of them are quick to weigh in on political issues and say whatever they think will make them look like pillars of virtue.

And yet one after another of these stars, who are already extremely well paid, are also quick to sell their services, for the right price, to any brutal dictator who comes down the pike.

Will Smith

We’ve seen, for example, that Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, have gone all-out to promote Dubai, which, of course, is one of the United Arab Emirates, where gays are executed and where straight tourists who engage in even the tamest public displays of affection are subject to long prison terms. We’ve discovered how Sting took a million or two dollars to perform for the daughter of murderous Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov and how Nicki Minaj cashed a $2 million check from the Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos for a similar gig.

Sharon Stone with Putin and unidentified girl

We’ve listed the names of several celebrities – among them Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, Mickey Rourke, and Sharon Stone – who’ve taken money from Vladimir Putin to turn up at official events in Russia, and other luminaries – including Seal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Hilary Swank – who’ve accepted payments to entertain Putin’s puppet leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Now it’s time to add another Tinseltown name to this roster of shame: Nicolas Cage. Born Nicolas Coppola, a nephew of filmland’s master of nepotism, Francis Ford Coppola, Cage, now 53, has been one of the luckiest men in the business, reaping great rewards in exchange for a very modest talent. He gets millions of dollars per picture and is reportedly worth about $25 million.

Nicolas Cage in Kazakhstan with an official of the Eurasia Film Festival

In short, he is not a man in drastic financial need. Nonetheless, in exchange for an unknown but presumably hefty sum, he recently attended the Eurasia Film Festival in Kazakhstan, a country that has been ruled for over a quarter of a century by the tyrannical Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Some people will do anything for a buck. Cage, who invariably comes off on talk shows as something of a self-important jerk and all-around dimbulb, was willing to don a native Kazakh outfit that earned him widespread mockery online. “I would be pleased to participate in some film project on the territory of Kazakhstan,” Cage told local journalists during his lucrative visit. “I enjoyed the architecture of your capital. What I saw reminded me of an old black-and-white film that depicted the future.” These stars often make such dopey, ingratiating statements in these situations. It’s hard not to believe they are reading from a script. In any event, one thing is clear: Nicolas Cage didn’t go to Kazakhstan for his health.

Nicki Minaj’s dirty payday

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Swank onstage in Chechnya

We’ve spent some time on this site pondering celebrities who’ve taken money to perform for – and thus help whitewash the images of – authoritarian tyrants. In 2001, for instance, Hilary Swank, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Seal took a six-figure fee to entertain Putin’s puppet leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. When Swank’s involvement in this disgraceful episode was exposed, she tried to shift responsibility to her PR firm, which promptly dropped her. She also promised to donate her paycheck to charity – but later refused to say exactly which charity, if any, she’d given it to.

Then there’s the night in 2010 when Vladimir Putin hosted Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, Mickey Rourke – and, last but not least, Sharon Stone, who according to the Independent is a regular at events promoting Putin, showing up each time for a fee somewhere in the ballpark of a quarter-million dollars. 

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Nicki Minaj

The latest example of this kind of shameless showbiz sellout: hip-hop artist Nicki Minaj. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and raised in the South Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, the 33-year-old Minaj was the first female solo performer to have seven singles appear simultaneously on Billboard‘s Hot 100 in the United States; no female rapper has broken into the Hot 100 more times than she has. Her latest album, The Pinkprint, released in December 2014, went triple platinum. A fixture on the record charts and at the awards shows for the last five years or so, in 2015 she climbed to bigger heights than ever: at the American Music Awards she was named Favorite Rap/Hip-Hop Artist; she walked away from the BET Awards with the trophy for Best Female Hip-Hop Artist; at the MTV Awards she won Best Hip-Hop Video, and at the MTV Europe Awards she took Best Hip-Hop.

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Minaj Barbie

In addition to the millions she’s raked in from her music, moreover, she’s pursued a highly lucrative career in merchandising and endorsement deals: there’s a Nicki Minaj Barbie doll, a Nicki Minaj brand of lipstick and lip gloss, a Nicki Minaj line of clothing, accessories, and housewares for K-mart, and several Nicki Minaj fragrances. She’s also been the face of Pepsi, Adidas, and a range of other products.

In short, this is a woman who, unless she is really bad with money, almost certainly has no cash-flow problems.

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Dos Santos with Fidel Castro, 2007

This is also a woman who has striven to polish her image, associating herself with AIDS charities, education projects, and arts funding. It’s all the more odd, then, that Minaj agreed to perform in Luanda, Angola, on December 19, in exchange for a reported $2 million fee. She announced her plans in an Instagram post only a few days before the engagement, explaining that she would be performing at a Christmas gala hosted by Unitel. And what’s Unitel? It’s a phone company controlled by none other than José Eduardo dos Santos, the autocrat who has run the country singlehandedly since 1979, and by his daughter Isabel. Dos Santos and his family, as it happens, have their fingers in a great many businesses in Angola, and are worth (as Carl Sagan might have put it) billions and billions – in a country where  half the people live on $2 a day.

It’s called corruption.

Human-rights activists were quick to blast Minaj for accepting the Angolan gig. And how did Minaj react? Tune in tomorrow.

 

Depardieu et ses amis

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Gérard Depardieu

Over the course of his long career, the veteran French actor Gérard Depardieu has been showered with numerous awards and nominations. He’s been nominated once for an Oscar and fifteen times for the César (France’s answer to the Oscar). He won the Golden Globe in 1991 for his role in Green Card as the unlikely love interest of Andie MacDowell. He’s also won best actor awards at the Cannes and Venice film festivals. He’s been named a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.

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Les Deux amis

And he’s won one other major prize – the friendship of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In June, we wrote about a Moscow event back in December 2010 at which Depardieu – along with a number of other screen idols, among them Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, and Mickey Rourkepartied into the night with Vladimir Putin. 

But Depardieu appears to be especially close to the Kremlin leader. And this relationship has already won him yet another prize: in 2013, after Depardieu criticized his homeland, the Republic of France, for its high tax rates, Putin arranged for him to have a Russian passport. Depardieu snapped it up gratefully – and gleefully. 

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Depardieu with his Russian passport

I adore my Russian passport,” he has said. “I feel very Russian inside.”

He’s been a good friend to Putin. For example, he made comments suggesting that he fully supported his pal’s annexation of Crimea. In July, Ivan Kirilenko, Ukraine’s culture minister, reacted to his remarks by  banning Depardieu from entering his country. 

Flash forward to early October, when Depardieu had what was apparently a wide-ranging interview with Russian journalists. True to form, he wasn’t shy. Among other things, he expressed remarkable contempt for American culture. (This, as pointed out by many Western reporters who’ve passed along bits of his disparaging rant, from an actor who in Peter Weir’s Green Card “played a man willing to do anything to live in the USA.”)

greencardOne excerpt of Depardieu’s wisdom: “I have never wanted to be a U.S. citizen. That’s totally out of the question. They have a very aggressive culture. And I don’t like U.S. films.” This from an actor who’s accepted generous paychecks for appearing in several of them.

Here’s more: “The U.S.? They’re a people who have constantly destroyed others. They fought each other, destroyed the Indians, after that they perpetrated slavery, then there was the Civil War.” Then “they were the first to use the atomic bomb. Everywhere they go, they cause shit.” This from a Frenchman who was born in 1948, three years after American soldiers liberated his country from the Nazis.

(There’s no indication, by the way, that he said anything to those Russian reporters about some of the rather questionable activities of Napoleon, Stalin, and other familiar names from French and Russian history.) 

Depardieu_2527989b“If the Europeans stopped listening to the Americans,” Depardieu concluded, “well, I’d be a lot happier.”

Depardieu also told his Russian interlocutors that he “prefers being Russian.” Not that he lives there. Some confusion seems to surround the question of where exactly he is currently domiciled. In September, he informed reporters that he planned to unload all his possessions in France – including a vineyard in the Loire Valley and a couple of restaurants in Paris. He’s now reportedly in Italy, although he’s also suggested that he might pack his things and relocate to Belarus. Why? One reason, he’s said, is that the vile autocrat who runs Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko – who is famously known as “Europe’s last dictator,” and who, if anything, is an even more transparent and unsavory thug than Putin – is a “nice guy.”

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Depardieu and Lusashenko out scything

Well, nice to Depardieu, anyway. This summer the two of them went out into the Belarusian countryside and scythed grass together. Pictures of their bucolic adventure, published in the Guardian, made them look like a chummy pair indeed. 

That friendship, as it happens, has also paid off handsomely for Depardieu. In late September, the Hollywood Reporter noted that Lukashenko was kicking in $2 million to help finance a World War II film, Normandie-Niemen, starring the French actor. It’s good to have friends, n’est-ce pas?

Poisonous Waters

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Hilary Swank collecting her paycheck in Grozny

It’s a weird, upside-down planet we live on. Consider this. Around the globe, there are almost too many savage, monstrous regimes to keep track of. They steal their people blind. They employ death squads. They imprison, torture, and murder members of the political opposition. They harass and kill independent journalists. They execute gays and persecute Christians. And so on.

And world-famous stars clamor to entertain them and eulogize them. As we’ve seen on this site, Hollywood actors like Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme have traveled to Chechnya to praise and perform for Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet president.  Jermaine Jackson has fawned all over Yahya Jammeh, the brutal dictator of Gambia.  A boatload of luminaries – among them Steven Seagal, Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Gérard Depardieu, and Mickey Rourke – have partied with Putin himself. Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte palled around with Hugo Chávez. And soccer great Lionel Messi has cozied up to Gabon’s child-murdering dictator, Ali Bongo. 

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Sharon Stone with Putin and unidentified child

And yet which country on earth is the sole target of an organized campaign to pressure show-business figures into turning down invitations to perform within its borders? Israel, of course – the only democracy in the Middle East.

The BDS movement – the letters stand for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” – has a wide reach. It’s not just concerned with entertainers. It’s out to cut off Israel as fully as possible, in every way possible, from the rest of the world. But the effort to break cultural ties is particularly high-profile – and alarmingly successful. In February, several hundred British artists signed a statement announcing that they would “not engage in business-as-usual cultural relations with Israel,” meaning that they would “accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government. Among the artists were Palme d’Or-winning film director Ken Loach; Mike Leigh, the Oscar-nominated director of the 2004 movie Vera Drake; and musician Brian Eno.

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Roger Waters

A number of entertainers have been outspoken in their support of the BDS movement. But few of them are as ardent as musician Roger Waters, formerly of the band Pink Floyd. For Waters, there are apparently no gray areas when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: consistently, he not only condemns Israel but also defends terrorists. He’s called the Israeli government a “racist apartheid regime” and accused it of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” He’s slammed what he calls the “Jewish lobby” in the U.S. and Israel’s “propaganda machine.” He’s accused Israel’s rabbis of viewing Arabs as “sub-human.” And he’s mocked Israeli concern about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, calling it a “diversionary tactic.”

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Waters’s pig balloon

In the summer of 2013, his concerts featured “a pig-shaped balloon adorned with Jewish symbols, including a Star of David.” In December of that year, he explicitly compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians to Nazi treatment of Jews. “The parallels with what went on in the 1930s in Germany are so crushingly obvious,” he told an interviewer. Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, a noted American author and public speaker, offered a memorable reply to these remarks. We’ll get around to that tomorrow.

Mickey Rourke’s price tag – and other Putin purchases

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Sophia Loren and Putin at a 2012 event

Yesterday we discussed a December 2010 benefit at which stars like Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, and Mickey Rourke gleefully rubbed shoulders with Vladimir Putin.

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Paul Anka obviously enjoying himself

That was bad enough. But it gets worse. Guess what? The benefit, it turned out, hadn’t really been a benefit at all: not a single hospital or clinic or other such organization ended up receiving so much as a ruble as a result of it. Yet that didn’t keep Putin’s pals from organizing a similar event the following year – and, astonishingly, it didn’t prevent another gaggle of famous folk from turning up.

Among them: Chris Noth of Sex and the City, Sophia Loren, Steven Seagal, Andrea Bocelli, Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Costner, Woody Allen, Jeremy Irons – and Isabella Rosellini, who, according to the New Yorker, had been informed that morning that she was involved in a scambut was unfazed by it.”

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Mickey Rourke in Putin t-shirt

Max Seddon and Rosie Gray, writing about these shenanigans recently in Buzzfeed, provided information about Seagal’s trips to Russia – which they described as “frequent” – that was new to us. In 2007 he visited Kalmykia, a majority-Buddhist province, and promised its leader, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, to produce and star in a movie about Genghis Khan; when that project failed to get green-lighted, Seagal blamed “the Jews”: “There are no Buddhists among the people who finance movies,” he explained. Another tidbit from Buzzfeed: last August, while Russian troops were pouring into Ukraine, Mickey Rourke, in exchange for a $50,000 Kremlin payment, allowed himself to be photographed wearing a Putin t-shirt. (Rourke had previously said that he purchased the t-shirt of his own accord and solely for reasons of private sentiment: “I have a Russian girlfriend.”) 

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Woody Allen shaking the hand of Roman Abramovich, whom Putin has described as a “son”

Finally, as recently as this June – while Poland and the Baltic republics were begging NATO to beef up their defenses in case of a possible Russian invasion – Woody Allen was spotted in Russia again, this time attending the opening of a new art museum owned by billionaire – and Putin intimate – Roman Abramovich and his wife, Daria Zhukova. Other guests at the opening included George Lucas, Harvey Weinstein, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Salma Hayek. Was Allen, we wonder, paid to be there – or was he, perhaps, fishing for Russian financing for a future project? As for Putin, is he courting these people, who’ve already provided him with positive press in the West, in hopes of developing some larger-scale, longer-term connection with some of the Tinseltown powers-that-be? Who’s better at propaganda, after all, than Hollywood?

Hearts of stone: Putin’s Hollywood pals

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Steven Seagal, Vladimir Putin

Back in April, Buzzfeed ran a useful and perceptive study of the use Vladimir Putin makes of his useful American-showbiz stooges. The focus was on washed-up lowbrow-movie headliner Steven Seagal, whose friendship (Buzzfeed called it a “bromance”) with Putin we’ve already rehearsed here, but the insights were widely applicable.

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Sharon Stone with Putin and unidentified girl

“Putin’s unlikely bromance with Seagal,” wrote Max Seddon and Rosie Gray, “speaks to a core tenet of his rule: that political power is star power, and the president is the biggest celebrity of all. Under Putin, politics has become a carefully stage-managed TV show where spectacle takes the place of substance.” Seddon and Gray quoted Brookings Institution scholar Fiona Hill as saying that Putin “plays an action hero as president.”

Hence the systematic “ferrying” of “foreign celebrities to Moscow to meet Putin, staging displays of his virility and star pull.” Case in point: a December 2010 event in St. Petersburg that was billed as a benefit concert for children with cancer. That night Putin not only mingled with the likes of Sharon Stone, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, and Mickey Rourke, but also (sort of) sang “Blueberry Hill” and (sort of) played a Russian song on a piano.

Did the stars all show up out of the goodness of their hearts? Not according to Shaun Walker of the Independent, who, noting that “Russia is fertile ground for celebrities of all hues to make pots of extra cash,” underscored that the star who’s “been popping up more than any other of late” is Stone:

At anything Russia-related these days, her grinning face seems to put in an appearance, like some kind of recurring nightmare, supporting whatever it is that the particular junket is about. A trusted source told me about the prices to bring different “entertainers” to Russia for events – Stone is one of the more expensive, reportedly coming in at as much as $250,000 a time. But pay that, and, calendar permitting, she’ll likely be there.

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Putin onstage with Sharon Stone, Paul Anka, Goldie Hawn, and others

It has to be said that Stone gives plenty of bang for the buck: at the purported child-cancer benefit, she actually sang a duet with Putin and cheered his own “performance” lustily. But then again, so did Hawn, Russell, and the rest.

This disgraceful conduct didn’t go entirely unnoticed. In a livid commentary, Russian-born adult-film actor and producer Michael Lucas condemned the Hollywood luminaries who attended the so-called benefit for showing such

Stone giving Putin the “V” for victory (or peace sign?) at the 2010 gala

adoration for a man who really is a swell guy — when he’s not ordering people to be thrown out of windows or shot in their doorways. When the camera cuts to the audience during his nails-on-chalkboard performance, the stars have enraptured, ecstatic looks — like they were at Frank Sinatra’s final performance…. Don’t they — or their handlers, know how to use Wikipedia? Did Sharon Stone not realize she was flashing a victory sign to an ex-KGB agent, an eternal Communist, and a historical revisionist? (Now he is forcing Russia’s teachers to portray Josef Stalin — who murdered at least 8 million of his own people in Siberian gulags — as a good leader and the savior of Russia.)

But there’s more. Tune in tomorrow.

Ménage à trois: Rohrabacher, Putin, and…Steven Seagal?

In the last couple of postings, we’ve looked at a couple of Vladimir Putin’s American fans – Oliver Stone on the left and Christopher Caldwell on the right. In February, Luke O’Brien of Politico served up a substantial report on another Putin apologist, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

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Dana Rohrabacher

O’Brien provided a history Rohrabacher’s Russian ties. One day back in the 1990s, it seems, along with fellow California Congressman Ed Royce and a “professional adventurer and anticommunist activist” named Jack Wheeler, Rohrabacher actually hung out with Putin – who was then mayor of St. Petersburg – at a D.C. watering hole. After a few friendly drinks, Putin and Rohrabacher arm-wrestled. Putin won hands down. Rohrabacher was impressed that such a little guy had so much manly brawn. That, O’Brien says, was the day Rohrabacher “fell for Vladimir Putin.”

Royce now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Rohrabacher chairs its subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and emerging threats. “More than anyone in Congress,” states O’Brien, Rohrabacher

has become a reliable defender of the Russian point of view, whether it has to do with NATO expansion (“not thoughtful in creating a better relationship with our former enemy”), the inadvisability of economic sanctions (“instead of doing it that way, we should be making an all-out effort to create dialogue”) or the current hostilities in Ukraine, which Rohrabacher says were precipitated at least in part by Western meddling (“I don’t think we should blame all this on Russia”).

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Rohrabacher, writes O’Brien, “seems to see in Putin, for all his faults, qualities similar to those of the man he once worked for—a leader who restored national pride after a period of defeat, humiliation and political tumult. Russia, to him, is a country reborn.”

Thanks to his powerful position as head of a major subcommittee, Rohrabacher has been able to provide a platform to other Putin admirers. One of them is Andranik Migranyan, head of a “Kremlin-aligned think tank.” Another is Anthony Salvia, a former State Department official who runs a “little-known nonprofit” called the American Institute in Ukraine and whose presentation to the subcommittee “papered over Russian aggression in Ukraine.” (He also omitted to inform his listeners that he’s a director of a group that lobbies for Rodina, a right-wing Russian political party.)

In April 2013, Rohrabacher could be seen consorting in a Marine hangar in California with Igor Pasternak, Kazakh-born CEO of Worldwide Aeros Corp., and Kazakh officials, including Ambassador Kairat Umarov, who were given “a behind-the-scenes look at the most innovative and revolutionary development in the aviation space, the Aeroscraft.”

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Now, here’s where the whole Rohrabacher-Putin love story turns a tad surreal. Among Rohrabacher’s good buddies and top advisors on Russia, it turns out, is none other than Steven Seagal. Yes, that Steven Seagal – the non-Oscar-winning star of such masterpieces as Above the Law, Under Siege, and Fire Down Below. Apparently, Rohrabacher considers Seagal some kind of global-politics guru – so much so that, a couple of years ago, he “refused to hold a hearing on Russia for his subcommittee in part because Seagal was unavailable as a witness.” At one point Rohrabacher wanted to let Seagal arrange a meeting for him with Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet leader in the Chechen Republic. Rohrabacher was “raring to go” – but Foggy Bottom put the kibosh on his plans.

Like Rohrabacher, Putin himself reportedly holds Seagal in “high regard” as an international wheeler-dealer – so much so that he sought to hire the actor “to lobby for the Russian arms industry in the United States.” The two men, by all accounts, are very chummy: Seagal has called Putin a personal friend, described him as a “brother,” and praised him as “one of the greatest living world leaders.” A defender of Putin’s invasion of Crimea (which he considered a “very reasonable” move), Seagal even appeared on the Kremlin-owned RT channel as – we kid you not – an “expert commentator on the standoff in Ukraine” (!). Seagal’s fellow acting heavyweight and Putin fan Gérard Depardieu turned in his French citizenship for a Russian passport; Seagal has said he’s thinking of making the same move.

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