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Letter From Hollywood: Sympathy for the movie moguls

Spare a thought for Hollywood. Here is an industry with monopolistic designs on the popular imagination, and for once it is utterly upstaged by real life. The Bill and Monica show has stolen all the ratings, dominated the magazine covers and - in the tradition of the biggest box-office smashes - generated a whole sideline in spin-offs from videos to book tie-ins.

There hasn't been much for the producers and marketing men to do except sit back and try to figure out a way of cashing in on the bonanza. Not that it's an easy task: the plot's getting disturbingly well-known, the audience is showing signs of serious fatigue, and with all materials in the public domain already, there aren't even any rights to snap up.

That leaves little more than idle gossip about Monica's fabled book deal (unsigned, but said to be worth at least a million bucks), her invitation to pose naked for Playboy (a widely circulated, but utterly unsubstantiated story) and speculation that we might soon be seeing Monica the movie (unlikely, although someone might have a crack at a low-budget television mini-series).

Perhaps more seriously, one detects considerable resentment towards a conservative establishment which loves to bash Hollywood for its excesses of sex and violence but which has now blown open the whole national media to endless discussion of oral-genital contact as an excuse to open impeachment proceedings against the president. Ken Starr, suggested the entertainment bible Variety last week, was like a film director running out of control: veering dangerously away from his original story in a desperate attempt to justify the time and money he has spent and finally adhering to the old adage: "If it ain't good, at least make it graphic."

And Hollywood, for once, had unusually high-minded plans for the summer and autumn. Alongside the usual flim-flam of rogue asteroids and large explosions, the big theme of the year was to be a re-evaluation of the Second World War - not only in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan - the runaway hit of the summer - but also in Terence Malick's version of James Jones's novel The Thin Red Line.

Why the Second World War, and why now? If the Clinton scandal appears to be in keeping with the zeitgeist, with its themes of personal weakness and media overkill, returning to the D-Day beaches seems at first sight a curiously quaint and old-fashioned proposition. But Hollywood's latest big theme may have more in common with the soap opera being played out in Washington than first meets the eye.

What Saving Private Ryan is about is a yearning for the simpler, if more brutal values of an earlier age; an age when young men on the battlefield did not always behave prettily but knew the meaning of valour and sacrifice. The overwhelmingly graphic depiction of combat, with its pandemonium of terror, severed limbs and random death, is explicitly intended to teach a generation that has never known war what true selflessness is.

What Clinton's enemies yearn for is a similarly old-fashioned sort of value system in the White House. They abhor what they see as the president's moral laxity, his unthinking recklessness, the unruffled ease with which he can spin words to his own advantage and sound like he means them - in short, the lack of those core values of decency and courage commonly associated with the war generation.

Both the film and the scandal are part of a long ideological conflict between fathers and sons in the postwar era. Bill Clinton is a product of the Sixties - the generation that rebelled against the Vietnam War and sought to overthrow the values of a paternalistic society in the name of greater flexibility and personal freedom.

Sixties liberalism has never really gone away as an issue in American politics: trounced upon during the Reagan era, it was seen to be back on the ascendant when Clinton was elected. What makes the debate so strange now is that it is no longer a generational conflict. Ken Starr is the same age as Bill Clinton; so, for that matter, is Steven Spielberg.

What is going on is a re-evaluation of many of the same issues that informed political debate thirty years ago. Is Clinton an articulate, if flawed, spokesman for his generation, or is he simply weaker than those boys in Saving Private Ryan?

The answer seems to be a little bit of both. The president has many friends in Hollywood, including Spielberg, most of whom have remained broadly loyal during the scandal-blasted last few months. As election season approaches, they may be a little less enthusiastic than in 1992 but they still warm to his youthful vigour and vague grooviness at fund-raising parties. After all, many of them are children of the Sixties too.