Fran Drescher Delivered the Performance of a Lifetime as SAG-AFTRA President

It’s the spotlight Fran Drescher turned out, unexpectedly, to be born for. 

Speaking at a press conference announcing the actors strike Thursday, the SAG-AFTRA president, still known best for her winsome and haphazardly charming protagonist of the sitcom “The Nanny,” looked stricken. Speaking at first deliberately and then with increasing passion, Drescher narrated her union’s attempt, initially, to avoid a strike, and then what she cast as the dawning realization that action was required. 

It was a performance with build and emotional heft, culminating in an appeal to labor across the world: “This is a moment of history that is a moment of truth,” she declared — and if that reads a bit awkwardly on the page, well, you should have heard how she delivered it. She continued to excoriate “big business, who care more about Wall Street than you and your family.” On “you,” she gestured out into the audience; on “your family,” she gazed directly into camera, to the unseen viewers out there at home, proletariat and executive alike. 

This was a speech to rally actors, to marshal public sympathy, and to shame the C-suite. To the first point, it seemed plainly a success (Drescher’s righteously annoyed claim that “everybody else tinkers around our artistry” elegantly and firmly distinguished the actors’ cause and claim from the ongoing WGA strike even while standing in solidarity.) To the second point, time will tell, although Drescher’s ability to trade against her Nanny-named-Fran image, to modulate that famous honking accent toward genuine feelings of disappointment and anger, is certainly getting attention. To the third — if not ashamed, exactly, as they too feel in the right, the AMPTP must feel on at least one front in this PR battle outgunned. 

In the ongoing labor dispute between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP, the thespians have a certain structural advantage, at least in terms of winning public sympathy. Actors have been trained in using the spotlight to perform and, in the case of successful actors, to hone sympathetic personae. Executives need only impress the street and the boardroom, but actors have the responsibility, and the privilege, of speaking to us all.

And Drescher — like past SAG presidents including Patty Duke, Melissa Gilbert, and Gabrielle Carteris, a familiar and recognizable figure who’s unafraid to trade on her image — is making the most of her moment, after some stumbles in the public eye to this point. Drescher walked a fine line, not always with aplomb, in trying to clarify her union’s stance on vaccine requirements; her appearance at a Dolce & Gabbana fashion show in Italy this past week, while a work commitment for a performer who needs to keep money coming in, made for unfortunate timing. 

But now Drescher’s giving the performance of her life, and she’s right on time. “The Nanny” was a role defined both by the type of charisma that looks so easy you know it’s hard work and by pinpoint precision with language and gesture. Drescher used both of these qualities in her moment on camera, and notched the first notable PR win for the strike only moments into it. Drescher’s reputation as a famous-for-life sitcom star may make this issue break through to the public many months before they start noticing that the movie and TV pipeline has dried up; her leveraging audience sympathies is a sign she’s not merely resting on her name. Time will tell how many months this strike will last, and how well Drescher will continue to use her megaphone; she’s certainly erred before. But her performance today called to mind the leader of the actors’ union, a washed-up movie star with a tactical way with words, at the moment of the last simultaneous SAG and WGA strike. His name was Ronald Reagan, and it wasn’t his last moment in the national spotlight. 

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