Hanoi Jane is back. Thirty five years after she shocked Middle America by posing with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun between her thighs - they were more shocked by the politics than the posture - Jane Fonda has returned to the anti-war movement. She may be a grandmother entering her seventh decade, but Jane Fonda's presence on the platform of the Peace and Justice rally held outside the Capitol last weekend lent the occasion the touch of Hollywood glamour it needed to hit the front pages.
One of those front-page photographs was particularly revealing. It was taken from the back of the platform as Fonda addressed the crowd. You can see the actress silhouetted, raising her arm triumphantly, and in front of her the vast crowd cheering and waving back. Actors are drawn principally to the theatrical stage as they seek the heavenly drug of public acclaim and recognition; but the political rally offers a peculiar attraction to these needy people. They can be guaranteed an adoring audience, without the presence of those infernal critics; and they will be applauded for saying a few words which they have chosen all by themselves.
I don't mean to denigrate the mental acuity of Jane Fonda - this, after all, is the woman who has produced and scripted no fewer than 23 workout videos, culminating in the 1995 triumph Abs, Buns and Thighs - but the presence of actors at the forefront of a political campaign usually tells you that trivialisation cannot be far behind.
The United Nations sees things differently, I know. Its bureaucrats are forever appointing the cosmetically enhanced halfwits of Hollywood as goodwill ambassadors because they know it's pictures that television and magazines are in the business of selling; Hello! will put a photo of a starving African baby on its front page if said baby is attached to the gratifyingly complementary blondness of, say, Gwyneth Paltrow. Otherwise the baby will struggle even to get on to the foreign pages of the grown-up papers. (This reminds me of the wonderfully sick cartoon by Michael Heath when one of the first of the UN's showbusiness ambassadors, the stick-like Audrey Hepburn, flew out to Ethiopia in 1988. Heath portrayed one starving Ethiopian baby saying to another: "I can't believe how thin she is.")
Audrey Hepburn, it should at once be said, was not in the ordinary run of slightly-fading-actresses-desperately-seeking-public-affection. She dedicated the last few years of her life to UNICEF's campaign, partly influenced by her traumatic childhood in Nazi-occupied Europe; and even if an actor's reason for lending his or her name to a campaign to save starving babies is partly careerist, the motives of those who hire them should not be derided. If this is cynicism, at least it is cynicism in a beneficent cause.
There are many less scrupulous organisations skilled at exploiting both the credulity and the celebrity of actors. Sense About Science recently issued an extremely timely report attacking the way in which "celebrities" such as Madonna, Juliet Stevenson and Lady McCartney were being used to promote dodgy health campaigns. At the sinister end of the spectrum there is the so-called "Church" of Scientology, which has captured such people as John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
It's not a coincidence that the Scientologists have been so successful in attracting Hollywood film stars - and not just because such types are so out of touch with the real world that they are more likely than most to believe that we are all implanted memories descended via clams from alien spirits that "Xenu" trapped on earth 75 million years ago.
The inventor of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard, was an extremely shrewd cultic entrepreneur who from the beginning understood that if his organisation could get what he himself called "celebrities" to become converts, then its ability to attract the masses - and masses of their money - would be enormously enhanced. In 1955 Hubbard wrote an article for one of his in-house magazines under the headline "Project Celebrity." In it, Hubbard offers a list of "celebrities" and asks readers to volunteer which of these each of them would want.
"We will allocate this person to you as your game," writes L Ron, adding: "Having been awarded one of these celebrities it will be up to you to learn what you can about your quarry and then put yourself at every hand across his or her path , not permitting discouragements or 'no's' or secretaries to intervene." Hubbard was nothing if not ambitious. His "celebrity quarry" list in 1955 included Greta Garbo, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx.
The poison in all this stems from the fact that much of the public seems to want to emulate those they see on the screen: the strange thing is that what they aspire to is not the person portrayed on the screen by the actor - who might, for example, be a great figure from history - but the much less interesting person the actor is when he or she takes off the make-up. Presumably that's why newspapers and magazines are filled with profiles of, or interviews with, actors.
In the run-up to the Oscars awards ceremony in four weeks time, I can understand anyone wanting to read an interview with that perennial candidate, Peter O'Toole. A man of his age will almost certainly have had enough life-experiences to make for a fascinating encounter - although like most great actors of the old school, O'Toole is properly careful to maintain a sense of mystery and unknowability. Interminable interviews with inarticulate actors under the age of 30 and, I'm afraid, especially American ones, are what dispose me to throw most colour magazines into the bin.
To make matters still more depressing, our politicians are increasingly emulating the plastic vapidity of show business. I know that from the time of Cicero political orators understood that they must absorb the tradecraft of the stage; but the modern politician seems to aspire to the artificial shiny smoothness of the movies. This is not just an American phenomenon. In France, Ségolène Royal seems to have become the Socialists' presidential candidate purely on the basis of her film-star physiognomy and a plausible smile.
As Andreas Whittam Smith pointed out on this page yesterday, she has said nothing, offering instead to construct her policies on the basis of whatever messages are posted to her internet site. In other words, she is playing the part of an actor: an empty vessel waiting for the right words to be placed in her mouth.
We're better off with Jane Fonda. She may say an awful lot of rubbish - but at least it's her own rubbish.