The wondrous and strange creature that is American culture took another turn with the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Three nice girls from Texas, who were once stars in a profoundly traditional and conservative medium, are posed naked as the day they were born. Spattered across their bodies like mud are slurs like “Dixie Sluts” and “Traitors.”

Six weeks ago, the Dixie Chicks were wholesome All-American gals, but after Natalie Maines made her now-infamous onstage remarks about G.W. Bush the best-selling trio were thrown across the rack of a 24-hour news cycle, stars and victims of a modern day auto-da-fe. The Entertainment Weekly cover is a brilliant and logical one in which the women attempt to save their careers by posing naked. Their nudity certainly panders to newstand prurience but it also shows their vulnerability and their humanity. Of course, the outcome of this stratagem remains to be seen, but we’ll know more when their American tour begins this Thursday in Greenville, S.C.

Inside the magazine, the profile and interview is a mixture of damage control and defiance. Maines is admirably unrepentant, saying of her sufferings at one point, “Some days I just feel proud.”

But what is truly disturbing about this episode–and what should be been reported more extensively in Entertainment Weekly–is the way corporate interests with significant business before the Bush administration have largely orchestrated the backlash, which has included death threats, public hate-ins and a radio blacklist. The message is clear: If they can do this to three amiable, attractive and fundamentally harmless women from Dallas, they can also do it to you.

And they can do it to Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Fifteen years ago, Sarandon and Robbins co-starred with Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, a charming romantic comedy that is also among the two or three best baseball movies ever made. The movie, scripted and directed by Ron Shelton, was filmed in Durham and other locations around the state and is still the pride and joy of the Triangle film commission.

In the ensuing decade and a half, Sarandon and Robbins have become the poster children for Liberal Hollywood. Robbins even wrote and directed a fascinating but little-seen film called The Cradle Will Rock which celebrated the brief moment in the 1930s in which artists, intellectuals and laborers were united in a mass cultural movement. Left unsaid in the film is that in today’s culture the right-wing has succeeded in completely marginalizing dissent from celebrities, artists and would-be “public intellectuals.”

Sarandon and Robbins’ ubiquity in national political debates has been their own choice, and lately they’ve been paying a heavy price. Earlier this month, the Baseball Hall of Fame canceled plans to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the film, for fears that Robbins and Sarandon’s “public criticism of President Bush helps undermine the U.S. position, which ultimately could put our troops in even more danger.” The author of these remarks, Hall of Fame head (and former Reagan staffer) Dale Petroskey, has since disavowed his concerns, although he didn’t reinstate the screening.

After the Hall of Fame rejected the film, a number of venues stepped forward to host this charming but completely innocuous film that nonetheless had suddenly turned into an urgent opportunity for protest against Bush era repression. The film’s producer Thom Mount decided on Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinema, which will hold the event Wednesday, April 30, with appearances by Sarandon, Robbins and writer/director Ron Shelton.

Last week, however, the entertainment trade paper Daily Variety reported that “another hopeful was a restored theater in downtown Durham, N.C.” It sounds like the Carolina on Morgan Street, but programming director Jim Carl isn’t aware of any such move. “It would be nice, but no one has contacted us,” he said by telephone on Monday. “I would have loved to have held it.”

Carl noted, however, that the film’s producer Thom Mount, who was cited in the Variety article, has local roots. Mount, who claims several Roman Polanski titles among his distinguished producing credits, including the recent Oscar winner’s 1994 adaptation of Duke prof Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, could have tossed out the possibility to the Variety reporter.

One might imagine that being Susan Sarandon might be a lonely and thankless job, but at least one young actress seems primed to emulate the Oscar-winning star of Dead Man Walking, both in professional accomplishment and in public soapboxing. That actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal, visited the UNC campus last Thursday for two separate events. The first was a private seminar for acting students; later, the star who electrified audiences last fall in the S&M romance Secretary addressed the public at the Student Union.

I was out of town that night, but organizer Kerri French reports that this was Gyllenhaal’s first public address in an academic setting. After meeting with acting students in a small seminar setting in the afternoon, Gyllenhaal spoke to a large crowd of about 250 in the Union auditorium later in the evening. French reports that the actress fielded many questions about the sexual politics of Secretary, a film that was scripted by Duke theater prof Erin Cressida Wilson and suggested the liberating possibilities of sexual submission.

“She was surprised that there wasn’t any criticism of film,” said French, a UNC senior who worked out the event’s details only days in advance, and purchased Gyllenhaal’s plane ticket on Wednesday.

French was drawn to the Columbia-educated Gyllenhaal for her unusual independence and intelligence that manages to emerge in even the most vapid of showbiz settings. “She’s one of the few actresses I connect with. I really like the way she connects politics with the movies she’s made,” French said of Gyllenhaal, whose mother, Naomi Foner, scripted the 1960s-radicals-on-the-lam drama Running on Empty.

Though she’s only 25 years old, Gyllenhaal is already gaining a reputation as a political noisemaker. At last January’s Sundance Film Festival, she was virtually alone in using her public face time to exhort the audience to pay attention to the Bush administration’s war buildup.

However, when the subject came up last Thursday, Gyllenhaal waved off the applause, French reports. “She didn’t want to be singled out for being a great person for doing that,” said French. “She said that it’s a lot harder to protest as a regular person in your office [than as a movie star].”

Despite her charming modesty, the degree of Gyllenhaal’s outspokenness is impressive when one considers how much she has to lose. She’s hardly a household name, but with several high-profile projects in the works, that could change. For instance, she’ll be in the multiplexes next Christmas with Mona Lisa Smile, a sort of Dead Poetesses Society in which she’ll jostle for screen time with the likes of Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles.

Gyllenhaal also will be seen in a (probably) more interesting project next fall when she leads an ensemble cast in Casa de Los Babys, the latest from John Sayles (Sunshine State, Lone Star). In this film Gyllenhaal plays an American woman who travels to Latin America to pick up the baby she has adopted and encounters the complexities of the foreign adoption business.

Chapel Hill native Michael Galinsky’s Horns and Halos has been such a hit that, after two successful weeks at Chapel Hill’s Chelsea Theater, the film is moving over to Cary’s Madstone Theater, starting this Friday.

The run at Chelsea was capped last Saturday by a sold-out crowd that gathered for a post-film discussion with Galinsky, UNC’s visiting screenwriting teacher David Sontag, and the journalism and mass communications professor Paul Jones. The film, which concerns the efforts of two underdog publishers to get an unflattering biography of George W. Bush into stores, stimulated a lively half-hour of discussion, according to Bruce Stone, the Chelsea’s owner.

“There were questions about the vertical control of the media and how that is used to suppress things,” Stone reported. Not surprisingly, anti-Bush sentiment ran high among the crowd of 140. “There was a lot of incredulity that Bush’s transgressions as a young man have never caught on as a story,” Stone said, contrasting Bush’s free ride with the well-funded vendetta against the Clintons that went on for eight years.

Horns and Halos isn’t a very big threat to the onetime party boy who is now the most powerful man in the world, but the local community’s willingness to support the film is a heartening sign that resistance and dissent are alive and well. EndBlock