When we picture the fire-and-brimstone types that often lead unions into battle against corporate giants, they rarely have much in the way of Hollywood glamour.
But the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) has always been unique in that respect. The union was once led by former US President Ronald Reagan, then best known as a swashbuckling cowboy from cheesy movies.
And less than 24 hours into the guild’s campaign against Hollywood’s streaming giants, its current leader, Fran Drescher, has caught public attention with a fiery speech from her base in Los Angeles.
Branding corporations including Netflix, Disney and Paramount as “disgusting”, she accused the streaming powerhouses of “losing money left and right”, all the while “giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs”.
The speech, which quickly went viral, is emblematic of the wider labor fissures playing out across the world. She accused executives of making “Wall Street and greed their priority” while ignoring the “essential contributors that make the machine run”.
While the grievances aired by Drescher may be recognisable, the 65-year-old’s rise to union leadership is anything but traditional.
She was born in the Queens borough of New York City to a Jewish family in 1957.
And while attending Hillcrest High School in the city, she met Peter Marc Jacobson who she went on to marry in 1977, aged just 21.
In 2010 she recalled that when the couple married they were “just kids and didn’t know who we truly were. We went through a lot together”. Nonetheless, he would soon become his chief artistic collaborator.
Her first break in Hollywood was a minor role in the smash hit Saturday Night Fever, which starred John Travolta.
The brief cameo role, in which she played a dancer at a club, saw her deliver the line “So, are you as good in bed as you are on the dance floor?” to the Hollywood legend.
She soon found success with a series of roles in films, including the critically acclaimed This is Spinal Tap, where she played publicist Bobbi Flekman, before landing a co-starring role in the short-lived sitcom Princesses.
But she achieved fame as the creator and star of The Nanny, a US sitcom in which she portrayed Jewish fashionista Fran Fine, who becomes a nanny to a rich British family.
The show, which she produced and co-wrote with Jacobsen, ran on the CBS network from 1993 to 1999 and earned her two Emmy and two Golden Globe nominations.
In 1999, Drescher and Jacobsen divorced and he afterward came out as gay.
But the pair continued their creative relationship, penning the sitcom Happily Divorced, in which she starred as an actress coming to terms with the revelation that her husband is gay.
Drescher, a cancer survivor, wrote a novel, Cancer Schmancer, in which she discussed her experience receiving treatment for the illness and the eight years of misdiagnosis that preceded it. She afterward founded an organization of the same name, which lobbies for healthcare reform.
Dresser has been politically active throughout her career. In 2008, she endorsed then Senator Hilary Clinton for president and briefly considered a run to replace Ms Clinton as senator for New York before deciding against it.
And she has long expressed opinions to the political left, frequently captioning photos with phrases like “Capitalism has become another word for Ruling Class Elite!”
In a 2017 interview with Vulture, she described herself as an “anti-capitalist”, noting that she was not “anti-money-making”, but that it must be “calibrated within the spectrum of what’s a true value”.
Her political activism ultimately saw her launch a campaign to lead the SAG. In 2021 she won a vicious election against actor Matthew Modine to become president of the guild.
The pair represented different factions of the union and the race became so bitter that Modine accused Drescher of spreading lies about him.
According to Deadline Hollywood, Modine said after the election: “I’m ashamed of Fran Drescher, I’m disappointed. But she’ll be judged by the people in the world after she’s gone, or by whatever God she worships.”
Divisions in the union were so widespread that after the Hollywood Writers union voted to strike earlier this year, studio executives reportedly dismissed any possibility that actors would have the resolve to go through with their own strike action.
But since her election, Drescher has proven to be a steady hand at the head of the union, and has overseen an end to the fighting that previously characterized it. Before taking office, she pledged to end what she called “dysfunctional division in this union”.
The call for strike action was ultimately endorsed by 97.9% of voting members, and Membership First – the opposition faction that supported Modine in the 2021 election – recently endorsed her re-election.
And as she gears up for what promises to be a tough fight with streaming executives, Drescher has shown a willingness to combine her political role with the dramatic flair that made her name.
“They [the studios] stand on the wrong side of history at this very moment,” she told reporters on Thursday as she announced the strike.
And jabbing her finger towards the camera, she said: “We stand in solidarity in unprecedented unity. Our union, our sister union, and the unions around the world, are standing by us.”