Dole turns his fire on Hollywood 'depravity'

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America was last night rolling up its sleeves for another brawl over Hollywood sex and violence after Bob Dole, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, accused the entertainment industry of destroying the nation's social fabric by churning out "nightmares of depravity".

In a fiercely-worded speech designed to garner support from his party's right wing, the Kansas senator - who is not usually known as one of the more tub-thumping advocates of the conservatives' moral agenda - accused the industry of marketing images of evil to children in its quest for profit.

"A line has been crossed, not just of taste, but of human dignity," he told a Republican fund-raising gathering in Los Angeles, citing Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and True Romance - films which his aides admitted he had never seen.

The attack from the US Senate majority leader who also had harsh words for several of America's leading "gangsta" rap musicians, is a standard vote-getting manoeuvre, especially from Republicans who seem undeterred by charges of hypocrisy. Three of the party's staunchest supporters in Hollywood are Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, who star in some of the industry's most popular and violent "action" films.

But the ferocity of his speech caused some surprise in entertainment circles, not least because Hollywood is in a virtuous mood, having produced several recent blockbusters which affirm "traditional values", notably the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, French Kiss and Casper.

The debate has echoes of the 1992 controversy when the then vice-president, Dan Quayle, accused the makers of a television sit-com, Murphy Brown, of undermining the nation's morals by allowing its main character to have an illegitimate child.

But this time, the industry was more muted in its response, leaving it to a handful of its more outspoken figures, like producer Norman Lear, to take up the cudgels by accusing Mr Dole - who opposes gun control - of brazen political expediency.

"The name of the game in the entertainment industry is short-term profit," Mr Lear told the New York Times. "This is exactly what Congress is all about - how can we get re-elected in the short term, and every other value be damned."

To support this, Democrats can now cite the extraordinarily warm welcome which Republicans gave to Melanie Griffith during her visit to Washington last week with a pressure group dispatched to plead with Republican leaders to spare the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) from being axed.

Senior party leaders were reportedly falling over themselves to pose for photographs alongside the actress, despite the fact that her film credits include several of the sort of sex-drenched movies which they so energetically rail against. The 92-year-old Strom Thurmond, the conservative senator from South Carolina, sprang "back to life" as he shook her hand, according to one eyewitness.

Newt Gingrich went one step further. He is said to have told her that there would a part for her if his forthcoming novel is made into a film - a job which she later indicated she would accept, if it saved the NEA.

Last night Oliver Stone said: "It is the height of hypocrisy for Senator Dole, who wants to repeal the assault weapons ban, to blame Hollywood for the violence in our society." He added that the senator's comments were a "1990s form of McCarthyism" - a reference to the anti-Communist witch-hunts that hit Hollywood in the 1950s.

And the film critic Andrew Sarris said: "Movies don't kill people, people kill people ... I don't know of any one who was killed by a movie."