Movies are built on the suspension of disbelief, and you’ll need it to buy the argument Steven Ross is selling in Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. You’ll have to ignore that Hollywood supported FDR over Alf Landon by a ratio of 6 to 1 and that Democrats outraised Republicans in the television, movie, and music industries 70 percent to 29 percent over the last two decades. It would also help if you forgot the possibly apocryphal exclamation from the movie industry’s most feared critic, and briefly its most impotent executive, that she couldn’t understand how Nixon had won—after all, no one she knew had voted for him.
Banish, too, from your memory the Communist infiltration of the industry in the first half of the 20th century and then the industry’s disdain for the U.S. military in the second half. While you’re at it, try to imagine a Hollywood that would give a best-documentary Oscar to a filmmaker who slanders Barack Obama, just as Michael Moore was rewarded in 2004 for his Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11.
This is the Hollywood that leaps to mind for many conservatives. Ross wants them to know that they’ve got it all wrong. In Hollywood Left and Right, he observes that there have been Republicans in the entertainment industry since the beginning. MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer was a stalwart Republican who served as the state chairman of the California GOP from 1932 to 1933. There’s Ronald Reagan, too, of course, but also George Murphy, who served one term as a California senator. Charlton Heston—Moses himself!—was a conservative spokesman, and who can forget the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Ross examines these Republican case studies beside those of leading liberals Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty. He spins a story of liberals being unfairly tarred for their involvement in politics—the House Committee on Un-American Activities is a frequent bogeyman—while Republicans received passes for their more effective political activism. “Although the Hollywood left has been more numerous and visible,” argues Ross, “the Hollywood right…has had a greater impact on Americanpolitical life.”
Such a statement has to be evaluated through two distinct lenses: impact onscreen and impact offscreen. Have Hollywood conservatives exerted more influence on the products that enter American homes and are beamed around the world? Have they had a greater impact on issue advocacy, movement politics, and electoral campaigns?
The answer to the first question is a resounding no. Ross tries to fit Hollywood mogul Mayer into some strange version of the auteur theory as an executive presenting his vision of a happy, confident America to the world. What he only briefly mentions, however, is that Irving G. Thalberg, a liberal, was almost completely in charge of production at MGM. As Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin put it in A Short History of the Movies, “Thalberg was in charge of the actual activity of film production, planning, approving, and supervising the making of all MGM films.”
Likewise, Ross tries to stretch the intentions behind some of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early filmography. In Ross’s highly questionable analysis, The Terminator is a “Cold War allegory [that] depicts an Evil Empire that destroys most of mankind by launching a worldwide nuclear attack.” Certainly the movie was informed by anxieties over Mutually Assured Destruction, but its liberal writer-director, James Cameron, would likely be surprised to read his film recast as a defense of Reagan-era foreign policy.
There’s simply little doubt that liberal visions outnumber conservative treatises on screens big and small, from antinuclear agitprop such as The China Syndrome (1979) that radically altered the energy debate to today’s comedy “news” programs such as The Daily Show that inform the political narrative. Pointing this out is not an aesthetic judgment: Films can be, and often are, both liberal and brilliant. But that imbalance is a fact that a book like this should emphasize.
The bulk of Ross’s argument relates to off-screen activity, however. It’s fair to say that Hollywood Republicans have had a bigger impact electorally—look no further than Reagan and Schwarzenegger—but when it comes to issue advocacy, liberal Democrats vastly outnumber conservative Republicans in the entertainment industry and have had the greater impact on issues ranging from the environment to gay rights.
Look back to the Vietnam war: You were far more likely to find outspoken critics such as Fonda or Donald Sutherland leading “F— the Army” protests and providing aid and comfort to the enemy than conservatives such as John Wayne defending America from attack.
Speaking of Fonda, Ross fails to grapple with the pronounced change in liberal behavior in the last century. Chaplin and Robinson, as Ross notes, used their celebrity to buoy war-bond drives during the First and Second World Wars. No friends of the Nazis, these actors used their star power to help bring attention to the growing threat of Hitler (though it’s fair to ask how much of their effort was a result, even indirectly, of pressure from Hollywood members of the Communist Party taking dictates from the Kremlin).
But by the time of Fonda and Belafonte, liberal activism had shifted in a much darker direction. Fonda deserves particular scrutiny for posing in an antiaircraft turret used to shoot down American GIs over Vietnam, but Ross is all too happy to give her the benefit of the doubt: “What she did not realize was how easily North Vietnamese government officials could manipulate her….When photographers asked their naive guest to sit on an antiaircraft emplacement, she donned a hard hat and laughed along with her hosts as they took photos.” It’s not difficult to understand why she caught so much grief—the American public tends to dislike those who cavort with our enemies and name their children after Viet Cong heroes—and yet Ross decries the enmity she received, and continues to receive, for that act.
Conservatives get no such quarter from Ross: “As Heston’s early liberalism faded, his harsh invectives against homosexuals, feminists, rappers, and leftists earned him a venerated place on former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s web site,” he clucks. And he later asks, “After years of temperate comments, why did Heston grow so mean and angry?”
Ross seems to hold a special level of disgust for Heston: He derides him as “not a deep political thinker” while commenting often on his “blond-haired, square-jawed,” and “buff” appearance. In Hollywood Left and Right, it’s sexist to suggest that Fonda was just a pretty star too easily impressed by well-read radicals, but Heston’s appearance is relevant. Harry Belafonte can travel to Venezuela in order to praise Hugo Chavez and call George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world,” but it’s Heston who is “mean and angry.”
And yet Ross states that “the goal of this book is not to demonize one side of the political spectrum and praise the other.” Though informative and well researched, Ross’s book suffers from blind spots and biases that throw into question his conclusions. In the end, it seems as if Ross is frustrated that liberals haven’t had as large an impact on politics as he thinks they should have had and that the limited conservative victories have been far too great. Counterintuitive arguments can be fun, but usually there’s a reason they defy common sense.