Weekend Reader: Hollywood Left And Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics

Weekend Reader: <i>Hollywood Left And Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics</i>

This week, Weekend Reader brings you an excerpt from Hollywood Left And Rightby film historian Steven J. Ross. Recently, there has been a consistent relationship between mainstream politics and the entertainment industry — movies like Argo and Lincoln can attract large audiences because Hollywood films have made historical political figures and events so accessible. Celebrities influence politics like never before — between Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s fundraising for President Obama, Ted Nugent and Clint Eastwood promoting the Republican Party, P.Diddy and Russell Simmons advocating for Rock the Vote, and Ashley Judd considering a run at a U.S. Senate seat, entertainers have pretty much infiltrated the political scene. Hollywood Left and Right provides an engaging and historical look at the courtship of D.C. and Hollywood, politician and celebrity.

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Introduction: Movie Stars And Politics

Political Hollywood started much earlier than most people realize. In 1918, FBI leaders William J. Burns and J. Edgar Hoover were so worried about the power of movie stars to affect the political consciousness of a nation that they ordered secret agents to maintain close surveillance over suspected Hollywood radicals. Four years later, Bureau agents confirmed their worst fears. “Numerous movie stars,” they reported, were taking “an active part in the Red movement in this country” and were hatching a plan to circulate “Communist propaganda . . . via the movies.” The Cold War politicians who launched the Red Scare’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s also feared the power of movie stars to alter the way people thought and acted. They understood that movie audiences were also voters, and they asked themselves: Who would people be more likely to listen to: drab politicians or glamorous stars? What if left-leaning celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and Edward G. Robinson used their star appeal to promote radical causes, especially Communist causes?

Such fears about radicalism in the movie industry reflect long-standing conventional wisdom that Hollywood has always been a bastion of the political left. Conventional wisdom, however, is wrong on two counts. First, Hollywood has a longer history of conservatism than liberalism. It was the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party, that established the first political beachhead in Hollywood. Second, and far more surprising, although the Hollywood left has been more numerous and visible, the Hollywood right—led by Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—has had a greater impact on American political life. The Hollywood left has been more effective in publicizing and raising funds for various causes. But if we ask who has done more to change the American government, the answer is the Hollywood right. The Hollywood left has the political glitz, but the Hollywood right sought, won, and exercised electoral power.

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Can such a counterintuitive argument really be true? What did the Hollywood right achieve to merit such a claim? There have been two foundational changes in twentieth-century U.S. politics. The first was the creation of a welfare state under Franklin D. Roosevelt, a development that established a new relationship between government and the governed and crystallized differences among conservatives, liberals, and radicals. The second was the gradual dismantling of the welfare state that began under a movie star, Ronald Reagan. The conservative revolution of the 1980s could not have happened without the groundwork laid by Louis B. Mayer, his protégé George Murphy, and his protégé Ronald Reagan.

Although movie industry conservatives began wielding power in the 1920s, the Hollywood right did not emerge as a major force in American politics until after the postwar era. Once they did, their impact was tremendous. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Murphy and Reagan used their fame, charm, and communication skills to help build an insurgent grassroots constituency by speaking to conservative groups throughout the nation. The two stars articulated an ideological agenda that called for dismantling the New Deal, returning power to the state and local levels, reducing taxes, and waging war against all foes of American security—Communists in particular. During the mid-1960s, the two former stars designed innovative campaign strategies that drew on their experiences as actors to accomplish what more established politicians like the prickly Barry Goldwater could not do: sell conservatism to a wide range of previously skeptical voters. By making conservatism palatable, Murphy and Reagan helped make the conservative revolution possible.

As Murphy and Reagan demonstrated, movie stars do more than just show us how to dress, look, or love. They teach us how to think and act politically. “If an actor can be influential selling deodorants,” Marlon Brando explained just before the 1963 March on Washington, “he can be just as useful selling ideas.” Speaking more recently about the relative importance of Washington and Hollywood in the public mind, former-Republican-turned-Democratic Senator Arlen Specter remarked, “Quite candidly, when Hollywood speaks the world listens. Sometimes when Washington speaks, the world snoozes.”

Americans have long maintained a love–hate relationship with movie stars. Audiences connect with movie stars at an emotional level and with a sense of intimacy they rarely feel about politicians. We love stars when they remain faithful to our fantasy images of them, but we condemn them when they reveal their flaws or disagree with our politics. The public “choose the stars and then make Gods of them,” director William deMille observed in 1935. “They feel a peculiar sense of ownership in these romantic figures they have created—and, of course, an equal sense of outrage in those cases where their idols turn out to have feet of clay.”

While there is a long tradition of political activity in Hollywood, there is an equally long-held fear that being too political can destroy a career. When former child star Jackie Cooper returned from World War II, he “was frightened of everything that was tainted with any kind of politics. My mother always said, ‘The actor has to stay out of politics—think what you want, vote—but you want Catholics, Jews, Arabs, everyone to go to the box-office, and any way you campaign, you’ll lose some box-office.’ I think it’s true.” Jump ahead in time to 1999 and the living room of Arianna Huffington, where actor Billy Baldwin, then president of the Creative Coalition—a group of liberal star activists—was trying to recruit new members. When asked about possible reprisals against outspoken actors, he confessed, “I can’t tell you how many famous stars came up to me and said, ‘Billy, I’m happy to write you a check, but my agent or my lawyer says I can’t appear on stage representing your organization. It might endanger my career.’”

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Hollywood Left and Right tells an important story that has escaped public attention: the emergence of Hollywood as a vital center of political life and the important role that movie stars played in shaping the course of American politics. My cast of characters features ten activists: five on the left  and five on the right. Their stories, told in rough chronological order, reveal how Hollywood’s engagement in politics has been longer, deeper, and more varied than most people would imagine. East person was either the first or most important practitioner of his or her particular form of activism and each left an important legacy. Alternating between stars on the left and the right, the following nine chapters take us from the early twentieth century to the present. They examine the lives and beliefs of their central characters at the height of their political activism and end when that activism stopped or when they got elected to office, for then they became politicians rather than movie stars.

Whatever their ideological differences, all ten people believed that movie stars had a right and an obligation as citizens to participate in the nation’s political life. Yet the ways in which they did so was influenced by the changing structure of the movie industry and by the changing nature of local and national politics. As both evolved over the course of the century, so too did the forms of movie star politics.

Reprinted from Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © 2011 by Steven J. Ross.

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