Book review: Hollywood Left and Right, By Steven J Ross

Tinseltown's most radical put the glitz into politics

In an intriguing series of biographical studies, Ross explores the long-standing allure of politics for leading Hollywood figures. Ranging from Chaplin, whose radicalism was sparked by his return visits to Europe in the Twenties, to Schwarzenen-egger, whose "political ambitions exceeded his political abilities", Ross analyses the influence of ten politicised stars on American politics and the effect of politics on them.

Along with obvious examples such as Jane Fonda, whose brave but brittle radicalism was unfortunately immortalised in a photo-op at a North Vietnamese gun emplacement, and Ronald Reagan, "who, while no political genius, was smart enough to fashion a compelling world view and convey it to a mass audience", Ross includes a moving account of Edward G Robinson, whose advocacy of racial equality and "national health care for all Americans" in the late Forties led to persecution by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, which pretty much terminated his career as a major star.

Though we tend to view contemporary Hollywood as a liberal stronghold, Ross shows that the right had an equal appeal. MGM chief Louis B Mayer delivered a covert message in his films that "success was a matter of individual effort and not collective action". Ross should have treated readers to a longer quotation of Mayer's hilarious outburst in Lillian Ross's 1950 book Picture: "I know what the audience wants…Sentiment-ality! What's wrong with it?"

The political trajectory of Charlton Heston is particularly startling. His role as a "blond-haired, square-jawed" Moses in DeMille's 1955 epic Ten Commandments planted the seed for his involvement in liberal causes, particularly civil rights. In the Sixties, Heston's support for the Vietnam war was an early sign of a move to the right.

As president of the National Rifle Association, Heston "led an aggressive campaign to revive the organisation and elect pro-gun candidates to every level of government." It could be argued that this modern Moses had a greater long-term effect on America than any celluloid politico.