Republicans take heart: Hollywood is not as liberal as you think. Steven J. Ross convincingly shows in Hollywood Left and Right that since its early days, the film industry has been as quietly conservative as publicly liberal. After all, where did Ronald Reagan come from? Reagan may be the most successful actor-turned-politician, but Ross makes the case that his transition owes much to George Murphy and the conservative legacy built by Louis B. Mayer at MGM.
Mayer, an up-from-nothing immigrant, became a titan ruling Hollywood's grandest studio back when the studio system was Hollywood. He also turned his ambitions to politics: He was chair of the California Republican Party, and his friendship with Herbert Hoover led him to be the first Hollywood executive to spend a night in the White House. He had no compunctions about combining work and politics: He brought on executive secretary Ida Koverman, who served as a political tutor and liaison, and he required MGM staff to contribute to the causes he chose. His efforts nurtured the thinking and political career of Murphy, who became head of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and United States senator and in turn served as mentor to Reagan, who went from heading SAG to governor of California and then president.
Ross combines biographical sketches with detailed political histories of ten Hollywood figures, five left and five right, to show that the dream factory has been equally devoted to politics on both sides of the aisle. He moves chronologically, beginning with Charlie Chaplin (left) and following with Mayer (right), Edward G. Robinson (left), Murphy (right) and Reagan (left to right), Harry Belafonte (left), Jane Fonda (left), Charlton Heston (left to right), Warren Beatty (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (right). "They were leaders, not just followers. They did not simply bask in their fame and wealth; they worked as hard at their politics as they did at their screen careers," Ross writes. "They fit the Founding Fathers' model of citizen-statesmen in that they had a vision of the world they wanted to see and they were willing to work to usher in that change. And for that, they deserve our respect."
It may be a challenge to get those who respect Reagan to do the same for Jane Fonda and vice versa, but Ross lays out their work and lives fairly, doing his best to keep a level playing field. He shows how Chaplin, an early box-office king, got drawn into politics to the detriment of his career.
Those who have read histories of the Red Scare in Hollywood, thorough explorations of Reagan's political evolution or other investigations of these periods may be frustrated by the gloss Ross takes. While his book is extensively footnoted and deeply researched, a lot of context is lost. Of course, he is covering a century of history through ten individuals. Yet if all politics is local, it is also personal and temporal. The personal gets a solid treatment, yet there is not much larger perspective on social movements outside those the individuals touched, the social environments in which they made their choices or the larger historical contexts. This is at its worst in explaining the importance of Heston, in his role as head of the National Rifle Association, and the 2000 election. "Pundits credit gun owners in West Virginia — where Democrats outnumbered Republicans two to one — with tipping the state and therefore the presidential election in 2000 to George W. Bush. Rarely has a movie star had such a profound importance on national life," Ross writes. Nowhere does he mention the role of Florida's recount or the Supreme Court in the election's final result.
If there is a theme, it is that Hollywood activist leftists have often leveraged their professional positions to create artworks that support their ideology: Belafonte, Fonda and Beatty all became producers and stars. Often this worked to their financial benefit, but not always. Those on the right — Murphy, Reagan, Heston and Schwarzenegger — tended to use the lessons they had learnt from appearing on screen and having a public Hollywood life to build a second act in politics. These conclusions, however, are left to be drawn by the reader. Ross is excellent at providing details but never quite figures out what they mean.
Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics By Steven J. Ross, Oxford University Press, 512 pages, $29.95