Oxford University Press, £18.99, 500pp. £16.14 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Hollywood Left and Right, By Steven J Ross
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013.
Friday 16 December 2011
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.
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