Oxford University Press, £18.99, 500pp. £16.14 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Hollywood Left and Right, By Steven J Ross

Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democratic Senator, once observed: "When Hollywood speaks the world listens" .

Steven J Ross shows just how true the senator's statement has proved to be in politics. A Californian academic, Ross explores the extent of the 'Hollywood-White House nexus' that has connected Hollywood studios and actors with Washington's elite over the past century. This book is an attempt to chart ten of the most prominent screen figures who have shaped American politics - beginning with Charlie Chaplin and ending with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the one-time "governator" of California. It is a serious history of showbusiness, and serves as well in charting the highs and lows of American history through the prism of Hollywood's responses to World War One, Nazism, Roosevelt's New Deal, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War and beyond.

Ross's ten figures show how short a path it can be from showbusiness to the business of politics. An actor comes to a political platform with instant face recognition, a fan-base, oratory skills, a certain gravitas.

Yet it is not a risk free enterprise to travel down this road. Many a glittering career has been burnt, even destroyed, by the decision to take a political stand. Chaplin was among the first to recognise the political uses of his stardom but he paid dearly for it with plummeting box-office popularity by the 1940s, when his radio speeches against fascism began to sound pro-communist to listeners. A similar fate was met by Eddie Robinson whose career was virtually ended by his anti-fascist polemic that was misconstrued as communist fervour, a charge often used against anti-fascist actors that would become most pronounced in the McCarthy era. Interestingly, Jane Fonda's politics, as unpopular as they were - she led a vociferous anti-war campaign during the Vietnam War which earned her the disparaging moniker of 'Hanoi Jane' - did not damager her career.

Ross's central argument is that although Hollywood is synonymous with Leftist, liberal politics, there has always been a strong rightward pull with the two often tussling for supremacy. Hollywood's Right, he shows us, was not born with the actor turned Republican ex-president Ronald Reagan but with Louis B Mayer, the studio boss of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who helped to forge the first links between Hollywood and the White House. In the most illuminating chapter of the book, Ross explains how Mayer taught the Republican party to use radio and film for image making purposes; he groomed movie stars to sell political candidates to the public, and took to making short films that depicted a "fantasy" version of America to sell his conservative values to movie-goers.

Reagan would build on Mayer's image-making. The actor entered politics just as his Hollywood career was waning but he used the wholesome, "good guy" persona that this film and TV roles had created to woo the electorate. The same sort of image manipulation was employed by Charlton Heston, Ross argues, who had cornered Hollywood's market in historic and biblical heroes (the most memorable of which was Moses in The Ten Commandments) and which he used to powerful effect in his Civil Rights work and later, when he shifted rightwards, his campaign with the National Rifle Association.

There have been actors who have gone down a different road: Harry Belafonte worked quietly and almost invisibly with Martin Luther King, as part of the Civil Rights movement, and Warren Beatty collaborated in a similarly low-key manner on election campaigns for the Democrats. Both men were passionately committed to their politics but did not want their celebrity to eclipse or hijack the cause.

There is much in this book to suggest that actors can make good activists, but less to suggest they make good politicians in power. The last chapter on Schwarzenegger undercuts Ross's belief in the integrity of the Hollywood-Washington nexus. The Austrian-born actor managed to take image-making to a higher, more hollow level, using words and catchphrases from his films in his campaign speeches, announced his candidacy on The Tonight Show and publicising it on Oprah. Even his marriage to Kennedy's niece, Maria Shriver, fitted in nicely.

The centrality of image-making is depressingly evident in Ross's study, a feature that reflects far worse on the business of modern American politics, than it does on the world of showbusiness.

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Gravelle on trial for Danny Latimer's murder as Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Review: Broadchurch episode 7

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Barry Norman has predicted a Best Actor win for Michael Keaton at this Sunday's awards

oscars
Arts and Entertainment
The right stuff: 'Ukip: the First 100 Days'

Review: UKIP: The First 100 Days TV
Arts and Entertainment
Anastasia Steele with Christian Grey in his offices in Fifty Shades of Grey

film
Arts and Entertainment
Class act: Julia McKenzie and Keeley Hawes in 'The Casual Vacancy'

JK Rowling's story is a far better drama than it is a book

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The BBC's version of 'The Crimson Petal and the White'

Books

Arts and Entertainment
We will remember them: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' at the Tower of London

Art Police investigate abuse sent to Paul Cummins over Tower of London installation

Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman was named worst actress for her performance as Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco
film
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, said the UK government ought to honour its subject
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower