It wasn't so long ago that Alec Baldwin—his never-all-that-imposing days as a leading man well behind him—was just another Hollywood dolt with a waning grip on our attention and an apparently well-deserved reputation as an arrogant putz. However you define "cultural cachet" in the 21st-century infotainment thunderdome, betting on him to achieve it would have made predicting a Newt Gingrich inaugural seem like the consensus opinion of reasonable people everywhere. Given their shared propensity for giving vanity a bad name, prognosticators would have felt on firmer ground guessing that both men would end up competing on Dancing With the Stars—something Newt, needless to say, may yet end up doing once camera deprivation kicks in for real.
Not Alec, though. The beautiful absurdity of his current status as some sort of avatar of How We Live Now recalls Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn's horrified reaction to director Billy Wilder's projected biopic of Nijinsky. Goldwyn doubted moviegoers would cotton to a story about a dancer who ended his days convinced he was a horse, but Wilder had the answer: "There's a happy ending, Sam. In the final scene, we show him winning the Kentucky Derby!"
That's more or less what's happened to Baldwin in the past half dozen years. Out of the blue, the now 54-year-old star of 1990's The Hunt for Red October, among other non-classics, has become the yeast in our zeitgeist, the unrepentant olive in America's Manichean martini—and, just possibly, one of the most promising politicians ever to run for (so far) no definable office whatsoever.
Expert politicos will snort, but most politicos' grasp of pop culture's wonders traditionally rivals Stephen Hawking's boxing skills. For the rest of us, Baldwin’s career-recouping turn as obscenely self-delighted network honcho Jack Donaghy on NBC's 30 Rock—which ends its run tonight—was only the gateway drug in everybody else's unexpected craving for Baldwin-ness. Big-screen directors as unalike as Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated) and Woody Allen (To Rome With Love) know that casting him adds instant cred to their differing notions of how midlife cynicism can curdle innocence while remaining an obtuse variation on it. Meanwhile, millions of Americans came to dote on Baldwin as the sleekly outrageous pitchman for Capital One—a gig that let him parody douchebag privilege even as he incarnated it on behalf of one of the more despised financial institutions around.
How others cast him gets a lot of its punch out of being a now consciously parodic dialogue with how he casts himself. The real-life Baldwin is a staunch liberal (he's on the board of the People for The American Way Foundation, among other good-guy chits) who espouses the opposite of Donaghy's philosophy—not to mention Capital One's—in his soapbox slot as a Huffington Post regular. On newsstands, Magazine Alec—subject of upscale puff pieces that invariably wonder whether Gracie Mansion or Capitol Hill will figure in his post-30 Rock plans—has mostly eclipsed the Tabloid Alec of yore.
That’s before we even get to New York Alec, philanthropist (he's got his own arts foundation) bon vivant (he actually makes Manhattan seem almost Gershwin-like again), and regular host of both The New York Philharmonic This Week and WNYC's Here's The Thing postcast. As for the Twitterverse, he's all over it—even making news when he quits Twitter, only to return with more GOP-phobic dudgeon.
All this amounts to a triumphant demonstration that one man's baggage is another man's Acela. When Baldwin started mining his image for comic gold, turning his runamok egotism from bellicose and unwarranted to hilarious and enviable, he became our poster boy for eating one's cake and having it too. And that's just why liberals whose default mode is prissiness might want to consider going rogue and exulting in having all the Alecs on their side—not just the virtuous arts patron and the HuffPo agit-pop maven, but the burlesque Mr. Privilege and even the tabloid jackass. Their common denominator is an unabashed appetite for life in all its guises, just what the doctor ordered whenever sanctimony turns anemic.
Early on, Baldwin was very much the young dodo in earnest. Long after even Marlon Brando had demonstrated that being Marlon Brando was a crock, Alec still wanted to be the next Brando, ultimately stepping into the great man's shoes—and, to be fair, reportedly holding his own—as Stanley Kowalski opposite Jessica Lange in a 1992 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. Adding to the quaintness of his ambitions was his too-evident investment in a kind of virility his contemporaries (e.g., Sean Penn) had decided was better left to the likes of action-flick cheesehead Steven Seagal, no matter how many of them (e.g., Sean Penn) were still in hock to macho off-screen.
A certain dignity had always been denied him anyway, thanks mainly to the other Baldwin brothers: Daniel, Billy, and Stephen. (Stephen, the youngest, is the evangelical Christian and hardcore conservative that Republicans rejoice—or do they?—in seeing as their Baldwin.) Actors of less repute than Alec, they had a downright clownish gift for suggesting endless proliferation, "The Trouble With Tribbles"-style. Even today, what some people would give to see the Baldwin clan face off against the Kardashians in a revival of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is beyond computing.
No wonder things never quite jelled for him. Tellingly, his most memorable movie parts in the '90s were as rat-fink villains: the killer in Miami Blues, the office enforcer in Glengarry Glen Ross. Though he'd always done comedy—including multiple guest shots on Saturday Night Live, which he holds the record for hosting—he still took himself more seriously than the world had any reason to corroborate. Not until 2000's State and Main, a David Mamet trinket about moviemaking in which he's very funny as a wondrously complacent actor, did the outline of the latter-day "Alec Baldwin" start getting discernible.
Literally, too. By then, the onetime aspirant to beefcake status had started to get fat—not obese, like the great Marlon, but portly enough to suggest a new je-m'en-foutisme about leading-man brass rings. At the time, those extra pounds just added to the impression of a career turning disheveled, even before Tabloid Alec's heyday: a messy 2002 divorce from actress Kim Basinger, followed by a far messier (and lengthier) custody battle over their daughter. Not many people were rooting for Baldwin during the latter, especially after an abusive phone message he'd left for the 11-year-old went viral in 2007. It was just lucky for him that 30 Rock—the beginning of his resurrection—was already on the air by then.
Despite his new-found sanguinity, Baldwin may never wean himself from behaving like a jerk. As recently as 2011, he made news by getting himself tossed off an American Airlines flight after taking umbrage at a stewardess who asked him to quit playing Words With Friends on his cell phone—clearly, Baldwin's rapier of choice—just before takeoff. Now that he's "Alec Baldwin," though, such incidents are just more grist for the mill. After doing a new Capital One ad that wryly alluded to his runway contretemps, he spoofed it as well on SNL, turning the whole thing into one more puckish item in his legend. Besides being the definition of an inside job, his satire of vulgar selfishness and licenced bad behavior gives him something he never showed much instinct for as a dramatic actor—an intimate, mischievous rapport with the audience.
Granted, the "we" in play here is on the nebulous side, considering that the Baldwin persona both sends up and basks in the notion that straight white dudes with moolah not only still do (mainly true, sadly) but should (ho, ho, ho) run the planet. Plenty of precedents teach us that satirizing an outmoded world-view can be an inadvertent way of giving it new vitality: Just ask Norman Lear, who never guessed that All in the Family's bigoted Archie Bunker would end up beloved. Then again, any confusion will probably be to Baldwin's benefit if he ever does enter public life. He'll get votes from people who relish how he's lampooned solipsistic dickwads and the vindicated dickwads themselves. Needless to say, neither camp will be entirely mistaken.
It would be old-fashioned to suppose that Baldwin's appetite for sounding off about politics is discredited by the rest of his persona. The key word is "appetite"—and Baldwin, just like Bill Clinton, doesn't do anything he doesn't enjoy. Plunging into the ideological fray isn't a solemn duty he takes care to segregate from the rest of his public image, the way his fellow fun-lover George Clooney does when George is honorably trying to raise public awareness about, say, Darfur. The paradox is that, as a result, Clooney's earnestness ends up looking fraudulent because it's at odds with what we dig him for. But Baldwin's political passions are convincing because they're consistent with all the other ways he loves getting in our faces.
Baldwin’s commitments range from conventional showbiz liberalism (he's a big Obama supporter) to mildly eccentric (PETA) to mildly radical (he was down with Occupy Wall Street). In a fairly remarkable appearance at the National Press Club last April, he was the first to acknowledge—and defuse—the irony of starring in a big bank's ad campaign just as OWS got rolling, somehow converting it into a wonderful joke on him before praising Capital One as "great partners" and explaining that everything they pay him gets funneled to his arts foundation anyway. Easily found on YouTube, it's a performance bound to impress anyone who doubts Baldwin would make a first-rate politician. Had Donald Trump ever demonstrated a similar grasp of the nature of his own celebrity, he might have made a formidable candidate.
One mistake Baldwin seldom makes is to pretend he's just another citizen. He knows his platform at the Huffington Post—not a venue exactly allergic to celebrity chic—is one more perk of being Alec Baldwin, and he wouldn't be Alec Baldwin if he didn't take advantage of it to the max. When he tackles issues like fracking (he's against it), he usually does his homework, or at least has some nice, wonky factotum on the payroll to do it. Yet some of his most effective HuffPo pieces have functioned as One Concerned Celebrity's Diary, candidly copping to the well-heeled folk he hangs with or mentioning that he was off shooting a movie in Rome when last year's debt-ceiling crisis erupted. His c.v. is never irrelevant, sometimes implicitly—when he empathized with disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner, nobody needed to be reminded that our Alec knows all about the embarrassment of private communications going public—and sometimes explicitly, as when he defended Michael Bloomberg's campaign against giant-size sodas by describing his own conversion to a low-sugar diet after being diagnosed as pre-diabetic back in 2011.
Along with the influence of his recent bride, 28-year-old yoga instructor Hilaria Thomas, that medical verdict explains the newly spruce Baldwin we're now getting used to. Still, as Washington hands know, getting into fighting trim can also be a useful indicator that someone's preparing to enter or re-enter the political arena. Now that 30 Rock is history, what are the chances he'll toss his hat in the ring at last? And if he does, for what office?
Over the years, in a just-musing-aloud sort of way—albeit with a mite more credibility than if Lady Gaga, say, were to start speculating about the joys of motherhood—he's toyed with the idea of running for several: Governor of New York at one point, Congress at another. (Empathizing with Weiner didn't stop him from mulling the chance to replace him.) Yet Baldwin seems—how to put this?—miscast for both. Arnold Schwarzenegger could tell him all about governing a state whose capital isn't its most glittering metropolis, and an Alec deprived of Lincoln Center and Zabar's would be sad. As for Congress, newly minted representatives are often stunned by the discovery that even their D.C. dentist isn't all that impressed by their status.
The job Baldwin has most openly coveted, on the other hand, strikes me as ideal for him. Who among us can say he wouldn't make a wonderful Mayor of New York? The adjective isn't idly chosen, because "wonderful" is not the same thing as "brilliant" or even "capable," though Baldwin could probably manage the latter. I mean "wonderful" in the sense of "The wonderful, wonderful things he does.”
Remember, the city once had a great tradition of showmanship at City Hall: Gentleman Jimmy Walker, Fiorello La Guardia, even John V. Lindsay's faux-Kennedy routine. But things haven't been the same since Ed Koch, the last of the local-color shamans, left office in 1989. Passing over David Dinkins's tenure in silence, Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg both had their impressive sides, but a riotous love of the raw juices of life wasn't among them. A lot of the flavor and uniqueness of the city's once raucous personality has been bleached out during their combined tenures.
Baldwin in Gracie Mansion could do a lot to make New York feel like New York again. Even his well-known short fuse would be no disqualifier, since the Hizzoners of yesteryear only endeared themselves by popping off on occasion. Hence La Guardia's "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut," a motto one can easily imagine Mayor Baldwin carving into his desk. (No, not on a plaque: just the desk.) Unquestionably, he'd generate excitement—a quality vital to New York's vanity, but all too often in abeyance lately.
Alas, Baldwin told the New York Times last August that, once 30 Rock was done, he'd look into enrolling in a master's program to better understand the nuts and bolts of city government—meaning no candidacy in 2013. While this advertises his seriousness, it hardly lowers his profile in the event 2017 beckons: Alec Baldwin in Back to School is an image-maker's dream. If he tosses in a minor in anger management, he might even get through his studies without decking a single paparazzo.
Whatever his next chapter turns out to be, however, it's supremely unlikely to be dull—if only because, in a somewhat mysterious way, we're invested in him now. Amazing, isn't it? Here's this guy who spent over two decades mostly striking the public as either trivial or unpleasant, and overweening either way. Now his image has become part of our self-image, one of those collaborative projects that make chicken-and-egg arguments moot. Though not quite a hero, he's clearly a protagonist of some sort in The Big American Movie. Our current attachment to Baldwin may come down to the way he pins down a fantasy we never knew we had. He's our object lesson in how to reinvent yourself without having to change a bit.
Correction: This piece originally misstated the name of Baldwin's "30 Rock" character, Jack Donaghy.