Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics

March 15, 2012

As witness recent squawks on Fox News about the "communist" leanings of the latest Muppets movie, the idea of Hollywood as a hotbed of leftist subversion dies hard. Steven Ross aims to set the record straight, showing that although plenty of Tinseltown players - actors especially - have held and have often acted on left-liberal and even socialist beliefs, there has been no shortage of right-wingers counterbalancing them. He argues, moreover, that Hollywood figures throwing their weight and fame behind the Republican Party have enjoyed rather more success than supporters of the Democrats or other forces of the Left. As he puts it: "Republicans have offered voters better storylines than Democrats...The Hollywood right achieved many of their victories by talking about a nostalgic Golden Age of America that never was."

In support of his thesis, Ross outlines the careers and political initiatives of 10 Hollywood activists - five on the Left and five on the Right. The leftists are all actors or actor/directors: Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty. Confronting them on the Right are four actors and one studio boss: George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Louis B. Mayer. Although none of the leftists ever gained public office - and few would have wanted to - three of the right-wingers were elected: Murphy as a senator, Schwarzenegger as governor of California and Reagan, of course, as California's governor and then as US president.

As Ross tells it, it was Mayer - head of the MGM studio in its glory years and arguably then the most powerful man in Hollywood - who laid down the template for all subsequent rightwards initiatives within the movie colony. A friend of presidential candidate Herbert Hoover, whose 1928 election he helped to secure, he enlivened party rallies with showbiz glamour, sending MGM stars to rally the faithful and attract swing voters. He also pressured his employees, whatever their allegiances, to donate a day's pay to the Republican cause and, with an absence of scruple that even Fox News might baulk at, had fake vox pop interviews shot to scupper the electoral chances of left-wing novelist Upton Sinclair.

Not all right-wing Hollywood activists ventured that far down the dirty-tricks road, but in terms of message they all followed Mayer's lead, summed up by Ross as "a simple but compelling story of American triumphalism", a mixture of fear (of the forces of leftist subversion) and reassurance (America is great, a shining city on a hill). Against this, the Left's message of "hope and guilt" ("hope of what the United States could be and guilt that we are not doing enough to achieve that vision") would always face an uphill struggle, no matter how much movie-star glamour got behind it.

Of course, these activists' beliefs often emerged in the films they made, from Chaplin's authority-kicked-up-the-rear farces to Beatty's 1998 film Bulworth, but Ross concentrates less on these than on directly political initiatives. Although he insists that his aim "is not to demonize one side of the political spectrum and praise the other", it's not hard to guess where his sympathies lie, especially when he's recounting the vilification suffered by Robinson or wondering why Heston (who, like Reagan, started out on the Left and moved steadily rightwards) grew "so mean and angry". But for the most part this is a fluent, even-handed account of an often-overlooked or over-simplified aspect of the US movie industry, and one whose lasting influence on politics can be felt today.

Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics

By Steven J. Ross. Oxford University Press. 320pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780195181722. Published 24 November 2011

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