Tinseltown splashes a little whitewash on the White House

The DreamWorks studio stands accused of recutting 'The Contender' to please the Democrats. And that's the verdict of the film's own producer
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Film Studies

Film Studies

A movie opened in America two weeks ago, in time for election season, called The Contender. If you were spiteful, you could say you knew Hollywood was struggling when it let film critics make pictures - The Contender is written and directed by Rod Lurie, who was once film critic at Los Angeles magazine.

At some point in the near future, the vice-president dies. The president (Jeff Bridges) nominates a female senator (Joan Allen). She must withstand Senate investigation before she is confirmed, namely the committee headed by a kind of Uriah Heep in a strange wig pretending to be a right-wing extremist (and played by Gary Oldman). Rumours surface, with lurid photographs, that Joan was sexually wild in college. She neither denies nor confirms this. She says that responding would be beneath her dignity and a violation of her privacy, as well as something no man would have to endure.

There's some merit in the proposition that no one should have to confront such ancient and healthy charges - having plenty of sex, even in groups, isn't against the law. But the merit is undermined by a scene in which tight-lipped Joan confides in Jeff (and all of us) that the alleged situation never occurred. She's a good girl. How much more interesting it would be if Joan said, sure, she had a lot of sex and wouldn't have missed it, because better to have it in college than when she's in the White House.

The film is a jerry-rigged cheat, offset by sharp talk and acting: Allen's role is thankless - she specialises in that line - but Bridges makes an entertaining president; and Oldman is inanely brilliant.

The picture was made for DreamWorks (the alliance of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg), the company that has been close to Bill Clinton. There are a couple of passing references to Clinton in The Contender, and you could easily believe that the picture is an apologia for Clinton, as well as propaganda for the Democrats in the moment of Gush-Bore. I put it down to the naivety of Mr Lurie, that the story had been trampled on to make Oldman's character so odious - he walks out of the chamber in shame and defiance when the President levels his dishonest tactics.

I didn't get any more concerned because the film is so bad. America felt the same and did its best to avoid the movie, just as it has hidden from the actual campaign.

Then a week ago, in Premiere magazine, the story broke - coming from Oldman and his associate, Doug Urbanski (both are named producers on The Contender) - that DreamWorks pushed the film closer to Democrat propaganda in the final editing. Of course, denials broke out like a rash. Lurie said he'd never been meddled with. DreamWorks said it was all nonsense, and they looked forward to promoting Mr Oldman's performance for an Oscar.

But you have to be deaf and blind to ignore the mindless liberalism at play in today's Hollywood. In fact, the Republicans had the good sense to say nothing about The Contender. The picture vanished, but - either in the editing or in the set-up - it is heavily biased towards the Democrat party and firm in the opinion that Republicans need to be played by hyper-active Brits like Oldman.

All of this will pass because the American public is bored by all politics at the moment. But here's the point that might wake them up: Bill Clinton is unemployed, as of next January; he is also the most electable person in the country - polls suggest he would still beat Bush. So what will become of this restless fellow?

His future as a lawyer is uncertain - he could be disbarred. He will write his book. But Bill likes a bit of life around him, and writing is a solitary pursuit. The DreamWorks team, I feel safe in saying, could secure him Jack Valenti's job as president of the Motion Picture Producers Association. This is the body that represents the industry and which organises the ratings system. Valenti is 79, and wearisome, if not yet weary.

Clinton could be a fabulous spokesman for tinseltown, and a resilient defender if President Bush turns his sulky gaze on such things as the ratings. I wrote a few weeks ago about how hypocrisy has used the "R" rating to save face and sell as many tickets as possible, while permitting young children to see anything in the way of sex, violence and adult talk.

The thing nobody can swallow is Clinton retiring or giving up some limelight. There were rumours throughout his time of impeachment that Hollywood friends were keeping a corner warm for him. Such plans would require him to be friendly with lovely young women - and if a man has a calling, he has it. Moreover, the film industry faces very large issues: a strike could kill production next year; the technology of the medium could shift so radically that business can't keep up. And it's always handy having a president around. Moreover, if Hollywood is going to do Bill's story one day, then Bill could be in worse places than there, giving it and us his spin. His show could keep going.