A FEW DAYS BEFORE the October 2003 recall election to oust California Governor Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger staged a campaign event in Orange County. Speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters, the movie star turned candidate declared, "In the movies, if I played a character and I didn't like something, you know what I did? I destroyed it." Cue a large crane dropping a wrecking ball onto a car, capped off by the inevitable groaner "Hasta la vista, car tax!"
Citizen Schwarzenegger would go on to win the governorship, swept into Sacramento by voter discontent and a campaign to "Let Arnold be Arnold." His was the apotheosis of the modern celebrity campaign, one in which movie fame was not something to be downplayed, but was the motif of the candidacy. Newspaper editorial boards were shunned; entertainment shows were courted. Stunts like the one in Orange County underscored the philosophy (if one can call it that): Terminator, governor, whatever — it's all a role to be played.
But we can't blame Schwarzenegger for the Hollywoodization of politics; he just happened to perfect a process that had been decades in motion. As Steven J. Ross reminds us in Hollywood Left and Right, an entertaining history of the nexus between celebrity and politics, Hollywood intervention in politics is as old as the silents. On the left, Charlie Chaplin flirted with radicalism; on the right, studio honcho Louis B. Mayer helped run Herbert Hoover's campaign. Others followed their footsteps in the decades to come, using fame, power, and wealth to advance their particular causes.
A film historian at the University of Southern California, Ross tells his story through a series of case studies. Instead of one overarching narrative, the book provides discreet profiles of individual celebrity activists and politicians. "Hollywood has a longer history of conservatism than liberalism," Ross argues in a corrective to the pervasive impression that Hollywood politics is dominated by the left. "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."
Hollywood Left and Right highlights five liberals and five conservatives of that now-familiar breed: the celeb as political animal. Arranged in rough chronological order, the profiles run from the 1910s (Chaplin and Mayer) through the present (Schwarzenegger). Momentous events of the decades in between are recounted through the lens of different celebrity activists: Edward G. Robinson and the upheaval of the 1930s and the postwar HUAC hearings; George Murphy and Ronald Reagan and the rise of modern American conservatism; Harry Belafonte and the civil rights movement; Jane Fonda and Vietnam; Warren Beatty and the left's flameout in the 1970s and 1980s; Charlton Heston and the Reagan revolution.
Ross distinguishes between different kinds of political engagement. In the young Chaplin, for instance, he finds an example of the artist who preferred smuggling politics into his movies rather than speaking out in public. From his early films (The Kid, City Lights) through his more obviously ...