Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, by Steven J Ross, OUP USA, RRP£18.99, 512 pages
Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn once said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Anyone who’s endured mid-period Jean-Luc Godard or the work of Michael Moore could only agree, though the truth is that even the most mainstream movies have been sending messages right from the get-go. As Steven Ross argues in this penetratingly researched history, Hollywood Left and Right, “political Hollywood started much earlier than most people realise”.
Not that Hollywood politics were always amenable to American politics. In 1918, J Edgar Hoover ordered agents at the FBI to keep tabs on actors they suspected of radicalism. Soon enough, numerous stars – among them British émigré Charlie Chaplin – were found to be taking “an active part in the Red movement” and planning to disseminate “communist propaganda ... via the movies”.
What worried Hoover was the idea that because people looked up to stars, they would tend to agree with them on questions of politics. “If an actor can be influential selling deodorants,” Marlon Brando would much later say, “he can be just as useful selling ideas.” Well, perhaps.
All the evidence suggests that Brando’s boycotting of the 1973 Academy Awards, when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather in protest at the way countless westerns had misrepresented Native Americans, achieved nothing but the irritation of fans bent on seeing their hero mumble and stutter his way through an acceptance speech.
The truth, says Ross, is that the Hollywood right has had a far more profound effect on the governance of America than liberal do-gooders such as Brando and Chaplin.
Jane Fonda has had generations of men hanging on her every word, but few paid any attention when she started campaigning against US involvement in Vietnam. This was partly because Fonda, who had been unwise enough to be photographed in Hanoi wearing a Vietnamese soldier’s helmet and looking through the eyepiece of an anti-aircraft gun, was frequently getting her facts about the war wrong. But mainly it was because Americans doubted her credentials in the first place.
The people preferred to listen to that old draft-dodger John Wayne, whose portrayal of a commie-kicking colonel in The Green Berets (1968) at least gave him the appearance of knowing what he was on about.
Then there is Warren Beatty who, having had the ear of the Kennedy clan and having been more than once mooted as presidential material, doubtless counts himself one of Hollywood’s more successful liberals. But the price of Beatty’s politics, Ross reminds us, has been a career rather less glittering than his talents merited.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Way We Were, The Godfather – most actors would knife their face surgeon for the chance to star in pictures such as these. Beatty turned them all down, the better to go on raising the money George McGovern needed to lose the 1972 presidential election to Richard Nixon.
Undaunted, Beatty went on to counsel Gary Hart on policy and presentation for his 1984 campaign against one Ronald Reagan.
“No!” studio head Jack Warner is said to have barked when told of Reagan’s political ambitions. “Jimmy Stewart for president, Ronald Reagan for his best friend.” It’s a great gag, though Stewart (himself no slouch as a rightwing Republican) has only a walk-on part in Ross’s story.
Meanwhile, the man Gore Vidal called “the acting president” gets the starring role in the book’s longest chapter. Not that Ross toes the Vidal line. As far as he’s concerned, Reagan was more than a mere mouthpiece. Unlike many a politico, he really believed what he said, and communicated it without recourse to Hollywood ham.
All of which may be true, but just because Reagan looked good as president it doesn’t necessarily follow that he was a good president.
Ross, who elsewhere keeps a weather eye on the loopier link-ups of ideology and image, gets muddled here. Blinded by the starry glow of the Reagan White House, he loses sight of his book’s key lesson – that the problem with personality politics is that politics is about far more than personality.
If that were the case, things would be a lot easier but life is only ever easy in the movies.
Christopher Bray is author of ‘Sean Connery: The Measure of a Man’ (Faber)