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Likeability and the Lens

eye on the news

Likeability and the Lens

Hillary Clinton’s problem is that the camera doesn’t lie. September 28, 2015
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton knows she’ll never be elected president if she can’t figure out a way to win your affection. The problem is, even with a quarter-century of “public service” under her belt, Hillary can’t seem to connect with the average American. Now, with Vice President Joe Biden making noises about jumping into the race for the Democratic nomination, the likeability issue has taken on added urgency for the Clinton campaign. For all his faults as a candidate, Biden is a pretty likeable guy. Hillary’s team knows what the likeability issue could do to her in a primary fight, which is probably why they were hoping to lock things up early.

In a new book, Unlikeable: The Problem with Hillary, journalist and longtime Clinton family antagonist Edward Klein claims that Bill Clinton once pushed his wife to engage filmmaker Steven Spielberg to help make her more appealing. If true, Spielberg was an odd choice for acting coach. His films are known primarily for their sweeping cinematic qualities and sharp storytelling, not necessarily for the top-shelf performances he coaxes out of his actors. In an excerpt from his book in the New York Post, Klein reports that Hillary reluctantly agreed to the sessions. “I get $250,000 to give a speech . . . and these Hollywood jackasses are going to tell me how to do it!” she reportedly said.

If Klein’s information is correct, and if the quote is accurate, the Clintons are more confused about how to improve Hillary’s public image than anyone knew. For one thing, they’ve made the fundamental mistake of confusing the demands of performing before a live audience with the art of performing for the camera. Giving paid speeches is more like doing the work of a stage actor. Working on camera is a different discipline. No novice performer would ever confuse the two. That Bill and Hillary, this late in their political careers, would fail to recognize the difference is surprising.

All politics is performance, but presidential politics is performance art. The successful candidate adjusts each appearance—whether on stage or on camera—in order to come across as knowledgeable, sincere, reasonable, diplomatic, and, above all, presidential. An actor used to working on stage alters his performance when he appears before a camera. Auditoriums are big; they need big voices and oversize personalities to fill them. Like stage actors, politicians working a live audience need to play to the last row. When a politician speaks from a podium, hosts a town hall meeting, or presses the flesh, the goal is to have each member of the audience leave thinking the performance was delivered directly to him.

Television screens, by contrast, are smaller, and demand a different type of performance. You don’t have to work so hard to get someone watching you on television to think that you’re talking directly to him. Close-ups reward subtlety, honesty, and true emotion. A camera is like an X-Ray machine. “[T]he camera looks into your mind, and the audience sees what the camera sees,” writes the actor Michael Caine in his book, Acting in Film. You can’t lie to a camera; it will expose you. Ronald Reagan understood this better than anyone.

The good news for Hillary is that coming across as genuine on camera is a skill that can be taught. Of course, it helps if you have talent. It’s even better if you take the job seriously, which, according to Klein, she did not. “I decided I had enough with the camera and the recordings and the coaches,” Hillary allegedly said. “I got so angry I knocked the f- -king camera off its tripod. That was the end of my Stanislavski period.” (It’s perhaps worth pointing out that Constantin Stanislavski, the Russian actor and director credited with pioneering an approach to acting eventually known as “the Method,” worked in live theater, not in film.)

With new details about the personal e-mail server she used while secretary of state dribbling out every week, Hillary may have even bigger problems to deal with than likeability. In any event, likeability is not something one easily cultivates. In his 1997 biography of Reagan, Dinesh D’Souza summarized the 40th president’s take on the relationship between honesty and likeability: “[O]nly an actor who truly believes his lines can produce a convincing performance before the lens.” Therein could be Hillary’s biggest hurdle of all.

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