Matt Damon, fresh off an Oscar nomination for his role in Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus,' recently criticized President Obama for his failure to take the lead on the health care debate and for his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Damon made it clear that he likes Obama and voted for him, but despite the socialist label right-wingers have affixed to him, he hasn't been as progressive as Damon would like.

Now, why should anyone care what Damon thinks about Obama? Well, I guarantee you that if you were a reporter interviewing him about the Friday opener 'The Green Zone,' which delves into the phony intelligence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction shortly after the U.S. invasion, you'd ask him something about his political views. And in this instance, he answered with no apparent concern for how his speaking out might affect either him or the movie. Matt Damon, fresh off an Oscar nomination for his role in Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus,' recently criticized President Obama for his failure to take the lead on the health care debate and for his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Damon made it clear that he likes Obama and voted for him, but despite the socialist label right-wingers have affixed to him, he hasn't been as progressive as Damon would like.

Now, why should anyone care what Damon thinks about Obama? Well, I guarantee you that if you were a reporter interviewing him about the Friday opener 'The Green Zone,' which delves into the phony intelligence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction shortly after the U.S. invasion, you'd ask him something about his political views. And in this instance, he answered with no apparent concern for how his speaking out might affect either him or the movie.

In fact, a lot of actors are eager to share such things, much to the consternation of the political right. When Chuck Norris or Stephen Baldwin spout off about the sins of the left, the left ignores them, but when it's Damon or George Clooney or Sean Penn or Barbra Streisand speaking out against the right, the right is apoplectic. In any case, they can speak out without fear of repercussions (though it's hard to see how anything could lower the career prospects of Norris and Baldwin).

It was not always thus. When actors were on contract in the studio era, they were forbidden to say or do anything that could be used against their bosses. Those few who did speak out, at least those on the left who spoke out, saw their careers come to a halt as their names appeared on the infamous Hollywood Black List. That began to change, along with everything else in American life, in the 1960s.

In fact, the first telephone call I ever made as a journalist was to an actor about revealing his politics. The trend of actors going public was significant enough for Newsweek magazine, for whom I was working as an intern in Los Angeles, to do a story on it, and I got the assignment of calling a few of them.

The first name on a list that had been provided by the staff of then-California Governor Pat Brown was Peter Falk. He and others were campaigning for Brown, a progressive Democrat, which was thought by old-timers to be a foolish thing to do. Falk said he didn't care how it would affect his career, he felt passionately about Brown and was happy to lend his weight to his re-election campaign. But there weren't a lot of names on that list and it was still unusual for a star to speak out.

It's no problem now, not since the end of the studio system and the repudiation of the Black List. Movie stars and other celebrities are free to spout off on whatever issues moves them and with little fear of consequence. Damon, who is best known for his title roles in the 'Bourne' action films, has been making his views known for a while. And he has appeared in such politically driven movies as 'Syriana' and 'The Good Shepherd.' But 'Green Zone,' which dramatizes one of the most pungent criticisms of the Bush administration, is the one that will thrust him into the company of George Clooney, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Tim Robbins.

Clooney has been outspoken about his political views since he became a star more than 20 years ago and has been heavily promoted as a left-wing loony by such right-wing foghorns as Bill O'Reilly. Clooney directed and starred in 'Good Night and Good Luck,' which trashed Cold War conservative hero Joe McCarthy; he played a CIA assassin in 'Syriana,' a movie that conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said could have been written by Osama bin Laden; and he's recently starred in 'The Men Who Stare at Goats,' a broad comedy that satirizes real-life experiments by U.S. military intelligence.

As much as he has angered people on the right, Clooney has rendered the career risk question moot. His films have grossed more than $1 billion and he's had three Oscar nominations, including a win for his supporting role in 'Syriana.'

Damon has derived most of his fortune and A-list fame from playing Jason Bourne, a mysterious foreign service agent who seems to be very much like the character he plays in 'Green Zone,' which is directed by two-time 'Bourne' director Paul Greengrass. When your films have grossed more than $2 billion, you can pretty much say whatever you want.

Penn is a different case. Since he began punching out photographers as a hot-headed young actor, and then as a middle-aged celebrity began playing citizen-journalist in Iran, citizen-diplomat in Venezuela and citizen-responder in flooded New Orleans, he has burrowed deep under the public's skin. Never a major box office star, and rarely an actor in a political film, Penn has had little reason to worry about his public image affecting his movies.

But that began to change with the 2008 'Milk,' a biographical drama about the murdered gay San Francisco City Councilman that earned him his second Best Actor Oscar. His next role will really put a bulge in conservative eyeballs. He'll play Joe Wilson in 'Fair Game,' a dramatic retelling of the outing of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. There are only two sides here: the Bush White House is guilty of something approaching treason, or Wilson betrayed his President. I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that Penn takes the first view.

Yes, much has changed in both Hollywood and American politics since my chat with Peter Falk (who, by the way, didn't think his Brown endorsement had hurt him, which he proved by making another 80 movies). The country is so divided now that a movie starring an actor with a high political profile -- right or left -- has at least half the population to appeal to.

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