Today, Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus revealed that she has breast cancer. It is, as such news always is, tragic. But she could not have gone public with it—and, to be clear, she certainly had no responsibility to go public with it—in a more powerful way.
“1 in 8 women get breast cancer. Today, I’m the one,” she wrote in a text post that published on the star’s Instagram this morning. “The good news is that I have the most glorious group of supportive and caring family and friends, and fantastic insurance through my union. The bad news is that not all women are so lucky, so let’s fight all cancers and make universal health care a reality.”
The note channels how so many cancer patients and survivors feel after a diagnosis: Resigned. A little fearful, a little brave. And suddenly very aware of the large population of people who suffer the same way you have or are about to, and therefore grateful for whatever blessings and privileges you have during that fight—not to mention boundless compassion for those who don’t.
It’s that latter point which is so potent in Louis-Dreyfus’s statement. It’s a political statement, made at a time when Donald Trump is doubling down on his promise to repeal Obamacare, even without a suitable or, hell, even non-dangerous replacement at the ready. But it’s a political statement made with a personal appeal for compassion.
There’s no shortage of celebrities ready and willing to speak out against the Trump administration and its healthcare plan. Louis-Dreyfus hasn’t done that yet, but, having heard her speak on a number of other issues, for example her awards speech opposing the immigration ban, it’s not hard to surmise where she might stand.
But at a time when actors are voicing their political beliefs louder than ever, and conservatives are attempting to drown them out with equally loud dismissals of out-of-touch “liberal elites,” Louis-Dreyfus is joining several celebrity colleagues in thwarting that reaction by using personal, relatable appeals to make powerful political statements.
Jimmy Kimmel, whose tearful recollection of his infant son’s near-fatal health scare and how he would’ve died without access to the kind of medical care he received—medical care that families in less privileged positions wouldn’t receive without affordable and reliable health insurance—went viral to the point of affecting policy on Capitol Hill, is the best example of this.
In fact, his candor and emotion in telling that story and repeating his position about healthcare each night on his show might deserve much of the credit for the Graham-Cassidy bill stalling.
As The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern wrote recapping Tuesday night’s show, "The Jimmy Kimmel Live! host had done more than perhaps any civilian to sink the problematic GOP health-care bill, devoting several passionate segments on his late-night program to exposing the bill’s myriad deficiencies. Kimmel was motivated to take on the Republicans’ attempts to gut Obamacare by the recent birth of his baby son, who was born with a congenital heart disease (Tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia) and nearly died.”
Louis-Dreyfus’s brief, effective note obviously is not going to suddenly lead to nationwide support for universal healthcare. But it’s an emotional, resonant and reasoned argument for why it matters, an appeal that will have reach.
There is, of course, a (sadly) long history of actresses doing everything they can to raise awareness for breast cancer awareness and advancement in research, testing, and treatment, whether it’s candidly recounting their own cancer battles, making PSAs to get checked, or Angelina Jolie penning an essay explaining why she elected to have a double mastectomy.
Now, however, the message is broader and more crushing: Not just about combatting disease, but also about not taking away the healthcare needed for people to do so.
If every cancer patient could shout from the rooftops how invaluable health insurance is in mitigating the cost of healthcare for life-saving treatment from the reality of “unattainable” and “bankrupting,” they would. These public figures are the closest thing those patients have to those rooftops: a platform and voice that people cover and listen to. (Hell, we’re writing about Louis-Dreyfus’s statement here.)
When we talked to Kyra Sedgwick this week, she spoke about how it feels “practically impossible” to do traditional press while promoting projects when what’s going on in politics, culture, and the world demands more serious conversations beyond the inspiration for a drama series character.
“It feels so minor, unimportant, irresponsible,” she told us. “I mean, it’s irresponsible for me to have a meeting with you and not talk about these things. I’m glad you’re open to talking about it. It’s just so unmanageable. My nervous system is at an all-time high.”
For so long, one of the biggest frustrations that actors felt while trying to use their platform in the way Sedgwick mentions—for conversations that we’re all having—is that, by virtue of their position and their fame, many Americans feel those celebrities aren't entitled to have those conversations, or should not attempt to change the minds of readers when it comes to politics.
Meryl Streep mentioned that in a Golden Globes speech, reminding us that most of the actors in the ballroom aren’t “Hollywood elites,” but Americans from all over the country, from backgrounds impacted by the trials and tribulations that face all of us. Hollywood isn’t who they are, she seemed to say, but where they are now.
Of course, that speech was greeted with a tidal wave of criticism from people insisting politics should be kept out of Hollywood, blasting Streep for being partisan from the awards stage, and ridiculing her for being out of touch—perhaps just as she predicted.
Nine months after that speech, George Clooney spoke to Marlow Stern about that label of “elite,” and he had fiery things to say about it.
“Here’s the thing: I grew up in Kentucky,” he said.” I sold insurance door-to-door. I sold ladies’ shoes. I worked at an all-night liquor store. I would buy suits that were too big and too long and cut the bottom of the pants off to make ties so I’d have a tie to go on job interviews. I grew up understanding what it was like to not have health insurance for eight years. So this idea that I’m somehow the ‘Hollywood elite’ and this guy who takes a shit in a gold toilet is somehow the man of the people is laughable.”
“People in Hollywood, for the most part, are people from the Midwest who moved to Hollywood to have a career,” he added. “So this idea of ‘coastal elites’ living in a bubble is ridiculous. Who lives in a bigger bubble? He lives in a gold tower and has twelve people in his company. He doesn’t run a corporation of hundreds of thousands of people he employs and takes care of. He ran a company of twelve people! When you direct a film you have seven different unions all wanting different things, you have to find consensus with all of them, and you have to get them moving in the same direction. He’s never had to do any of that kind of stuff. I just look at it and I laugh when I see him say “Hollywood elite.” Hollywood elite? I don’t have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, Donald Trump has a star on Hollywood Boulevard! Fuck you!”
Those last two incendiary words weren’t explicit in Louis-Dreyfus’s statement this morning, which was a pointed message specifically about health-care. But they might as well have been. And that’s why it was so powerful.