Winter 2012

Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie
(Oxford University Press, 512 pages, $29.95)
By Steven J. Ross

The stereotype of “Liberal Hollywood,” always something between a myth and a slur, takes a sustained shellacking in Steven J. Ross’ eye-opening history of the relationship between the movie industry and national politics. Using 10 Hollywood activist-celebrities as examples—five from the left, five from the right—Ross, the chair of the history department at USC, demonstrates that it has been the right that has walked away holding the political spoils, changed the country’s politics, and elected more politicians, including the ultimate riposte to the notion of a left-wing film business: President Ronald Reagan.

As Ross has it, behind the right wing’s long march to the White House lay decades of activism and commitment, and the long-term honing of a simple message, well delivered by attractive people trained to deliver lines appealingly. Meanwhile, he shows how the activist Hollywood Left, for all its courageous idealism, has proved itself easily demonized by cynical forces from J. Edgar Hoover, to the House Un-American Activities Committee (which silenced post-FDR left-wing discontent), and myriad conservatives who dined long and well on the corpus of “Hanoi Jane” Fonda. The left-wing chapters trace a familiar trajectory for Charlie Chaplin, Fonda, and the saddest story in the book, the political demolition of the fundamentally decent Edward G. Robinson: Stardom prompts political awareness and vocal activism, then right-wing condemnation, ridicule, and ostracism.

Meanwhile, the right established an institutional framework dating back to Louis B. Mayer’s conjoining of newly corporate Hollywood and the business-oriented Republican Party of the 1920s. Mayer also pioneered the vicious politics we witness today in his demolition of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC gubernatorial campaign in 1934—using movie extras to play parasitic bums in faux newsreels that included uncredited stills from the Depression-era drama Wild Boys of the Road. Mayer’s protégés included hoofer, actor, and senator George Murphy, who tutored Eisenhower on camera-friendliness before the 1952 election; and Reagan, who understood better than anyone the power of a starkly simple message genially delivered. Arnold Schwarzenegger, using the power of celebrity, learned all his lessons by heart. The politics of image over substance is the one we all live with today, and this remarkable book does for Hollywood what Rick Perlstein’s corrective masterpiece Nixonland did for our understanding of the modern American Right.

Review by John Patterson


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