Celebrity Politicians: Steven J. Ross's "Hollywood Left and Right"

By Elbert VenturaNovember 22, 2011

Hollywood Left and Right by Steven J. Ross

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 KidCity Lights) through his more obviously political later work (The Great DictatorMonsieur Verdoux), Chaplin famously elaborated on left-liberal motifs: the innate decency of the underclass, the amorality of the rich, the deadening effects of industrialization, and, in the 1930s, robust internationalism against the fascist threat (then a controversial stance in an isolationist country). In one of the best-known stories of Hollywood players in politics, Chaplin eventually became more outspoken in his calls for the United States to come to Russia's aid against Germany and for economic justice — positions that got him branded as a Communist and led to his professional exile. 

In Louis B. Mayer, Ross finds another type of political operator: the behind-the-scenes campaigner. As head of MGM, Mayer used his power to make Hollywood a hospitable place for the Republican Party and played an essential role in Herbert Hoover's 1928 presidential campaign. So important was Mayer to Hoover's victory, in fact, that he and his family were the first guests the Hoovers entertained at the White House. For years afterward, MGM was the hub of Hollywood conservatism, and in 1932 Mayer became the chair of the California GOP. 

Mayer was also responsible for another innovation: the campaign event as showbiz production. In the 1932 election, he was a key player in mounting the GOP convention and Hoover's re-election campaign. "Understanding that voters, like moviegoers, wanted a good show," Ross writes, "[Mayer] taught Republicans how to produce and sell a more effective drama for a mass audience." Decades later, another high-profile Hollywood citizen would do the same for the Democrats, when Warren Beatty served advisory and fundraising roles for George McGovern's and Gary Hart's campaigns. According to Ross, Beatty did much more than lend glamour to the campaigns. The star was an engaged insider, providing important advice on policy and media strategy. During the McGovern campaign he invented the concert fundraiser, convincing Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, and Carole King to perform, and bringing in $300,000 for the campaign on the eve of the California primary. Just as impressive was how completely the star was able to blend into the background. As Ross notes of Beatty's stint with McGovern, "This period in Beatty's life is unknown to most Americans because ... he understood the importance of keeping public attention focused on the political leader."

Mayer's and Beatty's direct involvement in electoral campaigns is unusual; more common among celebrity politicos is issue-oriented advocacy. Over the decades, stars have reflected the spotlight cast on them to causes they cared about. Robinson in the late 1930s pushed for U.S. entry into World War II. Another popular celebrity, Harry Belafonte, "was the most important left movement celebrity in the country" in the 1950s and 1960s, and the restless civil rights activist has grown only more radical in his old age.

But as Ross points out, "no two stars attracted more venomous responses to their politics than Jane Fonda and Charlton Heston." In 1959, a twenty-two-year-old Fonda was "Miss Army Recruiter"; by the early 1970s, she was "the most controversial and hated movie star of her generation," an antiwar crusader who would forever be saddled with the sobriquet "Hanoi Jane." Despite being vilified by the public for her advocacy, Fonda, Ross notes, remained a big star throughout the rest of the 1970s. Meanwhile, Heston earned — and seemingly courted — notoriety in the 1980s through the 1990s as the most prominent spokesman for gun owners' rights. 

Then there are the celebrities who, not content to advise politicians or stump for political causes, decide to become politicians themselves. For whatever reason, they tend to be overwhelmingly conservative. Ross profiles George Murphy, who would go from a career in musicals to one-term stint as a California senator, defeating former Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger in 1964. "While Salinger focused on winning the battle of ideas," Ross writes, "Murphy focused on winning the hearts of voters" — a now-familiar refrain in the age of mass media politics. A decisive debate in which Murphy looked more confident and senatorial narrowed Salinger's lead. Pundits chortled at the late-night reruns of Shirley Temple films starring Murphy, but the candidate himself saw them as an advantage: "Those old pictures," he bragged, "are getting me votes." His victory over Salinger would prove to be one of the biggest political upsets of the year.

Murphy's success paved the way for future California politicos Reagan and Schwarzenegger. Facility with ad-libbing, a way with speeches, a familiar face and name — these were the advantages that actors had over the competition in vying for office. Neither Reagan nor Schwarzenegger was known for his policy wonkishness (though Ross scrupulously notes that Reagan was more learned about his positions than his critics give him credit for). But in the TV age, the ability to always be "on" for audiences no doubt gives actors a leg up over their old-media adversaries.


Ross does a creditable job of providing the historical frame for today's political Hollywood. Writing in clear, workmanlike prose, he offers engrossing profiles of each of his subjects. At its best — the heartbreaking chapter on Robinson, the juicier passages on Beatty — the book can be downright revelatory. Indeed, the substance is impressive. A book about Hollywood, with its aura of frivolity, might invite short cuts from a lesser researcher. But this is a book grounded in serious, careful work, with countless hours of interviews and archival research. Despite the thoroughness, the book never gets bogged down in minutiae, a mistake historians sometimes make in the quest to get everything on paper. 

But for all the impressive detail, the book never quite coheres into the definitive statement on political Hollywood that it could have been. Part of the reason is its structure. In his introduction, Ross describes the book thus: "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 the course of American politics." But the heart sinks with the next line: "My cast of characters features ten activists: five on the left and five on the right." Ross refracts a sweeping story into a collection of mini-biographies, each of which stands on its own, whose sum cannot possibly do the subject justice. A collection of medium shots and close-ups, Hollywood Left and Right is an epic that needs a wide shot.

Taking the book on its own terms, it's also unclear why Ross chose the ten activists that he did. All he offers by way of rationale is the claim that "[e]ach person was either the first or most important practitioner of his or her particular form of activism and each left an important legacy." But why Charlton Heston instead of John Wayne? Why George Murphy instead of Clint Eastwood? What about Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, or Chuck Norris (or countless other possibilities)? Ross may have had a methodology for picking his ten, but he never shares it with the reader, and the enterprise never shakes the whiff of arbitrariness. Put in any of those other names instead and the book wouldn't be all that different.

Ross wants to position his book against simplistic claims of a liberal Hollywood agenda — a worthy goal. The book offers only a partial rebuttal — something more systematic would be needed to clinch that argument — but it does usefully unearth some of the conservative foundation on which today's outwardly liberal Tinseltown stands. From Mayer to Wayne to Cecil B. DeMille to Eastwood, Hollywood has never been short of Republicans. Indeed, it has even proved anti-liberal on occasion, the immediate postwar period providing a conspicuous example. 

Not that such facts will silence the continuing right-wing campaign against Hollywood. A radical movie industry looking to infect the public with its un-American and countercultural attitudes has an enduring place in conservative cosmology, from HUAC and Nixon to Limbaugh and Breitbart. Every new film with a liberal bent is touted as proof of conspiracy — a view that occludes the vast majority of movies made or ones that smuggle in a conservative subtext. If the liberal Hollywood intelligentsia produces hits like 300, or Juno, or The Dark Knight, who needs Hollywood conservatives? 

Frankly, when it comes to politics, Hollywood has typically been late to the party. Take Vietnam: It was the left's biggest cause in the 1960s and 1970s, but films didn't come near the topic until well after the war. (Indeed, the only Vietnam movie to be released during the war was John Wayne's The Green Berets — hardly a peacenik anthem.) Or think of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or Philadelphia, well-meaning, liberal-minded movies that were hardly at the vanguard of public attitudes on race or AIDS, respectively. Looking at the scope of Hollywood history, the obvious conclusion is that studios have long followed rather than shaped public attitudes. In the 1930s, the country turned left, and so did the town. What followed was an efflorescence of Popular Front-colored entertainments. In the 1980s, there was a decided rightward shift — and we got Rambo, John Hughes movies, and the EPA-bashing Ghostbusters. And it continues to this day: Even a screaming lefty like Oliver Stone knows when it's time to make a movie (like World Trade Center) that conservatives will love.




Ross's affection for his outspoken subjects is evident. He ends his book with a ringing peroration in praise of celebrity activists:


All ten Hollywood activists profiled here used their charisma and emotional appeal as movie stars to make people believe in the possibilities of a better nation ... If every citizen behaved like them, the United States would be a far better place.


But the sentiment, honest and charitable though it is, elides a larger problem. No one doubts the civic virtue of these celebrities. What is problematic is that we allow their voices to be louder than ours. When Chaplin toured the world at the height of his fame, he was surprised that reporters and fans kept asking for his opinions on contemporary events and issues. Chaplin wasn't questioning that he had a right to his views, just that his views would carry greater weight than those of an average person or an expert. 


Like so much else when it comes to celebrity culture, we have a love-hate relationship with the citizen celebrity. We scoff at U2's Bono for weighing in on the issue of foreign aid, but only after we've read his New York Times op-ed. The Huffington Post's celebrity blogs are ridiculed, even as they continue to rack up hits and comments. Our pop-besotted culture has socialized stars to have an opinion, informed or not. Some perspective is called for. On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Norm MacDonald was asked by Maher for his thoughts on China — to which the comedian responded that he didn't know, and that Maher should probably ask the foreign policy expert seated at the panel with them instead. But Maher can't be faulted for asking — we tune in to shows like his to be entertained, sure, but also because we do have a pesky desire to know what the George Clooneys and Alec Baldwins think about the news of the day. That they may be no more informed on politics or policy than our neighbor doesn't stop us from paying attention. (To their credit, many celebrity activists would admit that worthier guides exist in the political universe.) Our suspicion of expertise and refusal to be serious has given us the stunted politics that we deserve. Criticize Arnold Schwarzenegger all you want for his content-free campaign, but four million Californians ratified his approach to politics. "Celebrity politics" might be a problem, but it's not the celebrity part that needs fixing.


LARB Contributor

Elbert Ventura is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. He has written for The New Republic, Slate, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other outlets.



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