Twenty-three years ago, actress/comedian/producer Fran Drescher went up against uterine cancer and won. Last week, as president of the Screen Actors Guild since 2021, she took up arms against an opponent less personal but more broadly powerful. So, the question is: Can the Nanny conquer Mickey Mouse and the MGM lion?
It doesn’t hurt that she and her 160,000 fellow SAG-AFTRA union members went on strike after some 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America had already walked off, effectively shutting down new projects and scripted shows across TV and the big screen. It’s the first time the two creative guilds have been simultaneously on strike together since 1960… when Ronald Reagan was Screen Actors Guild President. And that job led him to a much bigger leading role!
But it should come as no surprise that the star of the wildly popular 1990s sitcom “The Nanny,” famed for her nasal “Noo Yawk” honk of a voice, is standing up for her fellow union members in their negotiations with the major film and TV studios. Drescher herself may have a net worth that has been estimated at $25 million, but she has long come down on the side of labor. She has explained that the vast majority of the SAG-AFTRA rank-and-file (actors at all levels, singers, show hosts, radio personalities, stunt performers, voiceover artists, and more) depend on negotiated pay rates and healthcare benefits to get them from project to project and achieve a middle-class lifestyle.
In an animated, even fiery, speech kicking off the strike, Drescher proclaimed that “we are labor and we . . . demand to be honored for our contribution.” The studios, the entertainment industry, need us, she said, her brow furrowed with wrinkles that aren’t seen in her red-carpet appearances, where she glows and could pass for half her 65 years. “You cannot exist without us,” she added.
But that’s the problem.
The issue facing the men and women who make our entertainment is not so different from what is facing the world of work everywhere: technology.
Auto factory workers around the world are being replaced by robots, and customer service phone reps are being replaced by computerized voices. And while broadcast and cable TV networks are still popular, big media companies lost billions of dollars starting their own streaming services to try to catch Netflix, which lost millions of dollars and subscribers in the streaming wars. Media moguls say that this huge financial setback is the main reason they can’t pay the writers and actors what they want.
The other big issue is Artificial Intelligence, or AI, which has the potential to replace writers and actors with computer-generated creations. Colleges are already trying to deal with the fact that Chat GPT, an AI writing technology, can write term papers for students, and visual artists are concerned that some of their work as designers, illustrators, and video creators can be done by AI.
In the case of Leo the lion, the icon of MGM since 1924: The last of the eight living-and-breathing big cats is gone, replaced during the pandemic by a computer-generated version . . . who doesn’t have to be tended and fed. Actors and extras are very worried that once they are captured on digital video for a movie or TV show, the producer could generate digital versions of them for the future. The actors would only get paid for their initial work and could lose complete control of their image and voice.
It seems that the only people making more than they did before this technological transition and streaming loss are those in the studio C-suites, half a dozen of whose CEOs each earned in the neighborhood of $500 million over the past five years, per the Wall Street Journal.
Drescher told her union members that the studios “cannot expect the business model to change and not expect the contract to change.” The writers and SAG-AFTRA performers alike are looking for more buffers for what has become gig work, akin to driving for Uber, and protection from being replaced by artificial intelligence and computer-generated words and images.
It’s hard to be a tiny pebble on the beach when a tsunami is headed your way. Or, in the case of poor Leo, is already here. But Drescher likes to see her attitude as “taking negatives and turning them into positives.”
A case in point was her ordeal in 2000, searching for an explanation as to why she was all of a sudden at odds with her own body. After two years, eight doctors, and as many misdiagnoses, she was found to have uterine cancer, for which the doctors in those two years had not even run tests. A complete hysterectomy eventually remedied the immediate condition, but there followed a long period of recovery just to get back to normal.
Her negative-into-positive attitude resulted in her 2002 book, Cancer Schmancer, a dry-chuckle-laced account of her cancer journey. Are we interested in the minutiae of her suspicious cramps and the changes in her stool? Yes, because she’s Fran Drescher, but the book is also a practical guide to recognizing odd symptoms and getting help as early as possible. (Particularly helpful is the computer-and-telephone research she and her boyfriend did that led her not to have follow-up radiation).
Drescher is also a producer, though, and that took her from Why me? to Why any woman? So, half a dozen years later, she “produced” the nonprofit Cancer Schmancer Movement, whose goal is to ensure that women be diagnosed at Stage 1 when cancer is at its most curable.
The Fran Drescher script based on her own life also includes her opening up about being raped at gunpoint at age 28 and later becoming active in LGBT causes after her high school sweetheart and husband of 20 years came out as gay. She has used these and other serious challenges as inspiration to make a difference in the world.
Drescher’s active role in life crosses other boundaries as well. She’s a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama, but she also was tapped by the Bush administration in 2008 as a U.S. diplomat, traveling the world to meet with healthcare groups and women’s organizations.
The presidential term for SAG-AFTRA lasts only two years, and there’s already competition for Drescher’s spot. Her visibility in leading this strike may make her a shoo-in at the September election. Or maybe it will lead to the next chapter in a script still being written. Will she follow in the footsteps of her fellow SAG president Ronald Reagan?