Steven J. Ross, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.
New York: Oxford, 2012. 498 pages

As I was editing Jeffrey Oberman’s analysis of Hollywood films (see p. 100), I noticed a book that had been gathering dust on my desk. Hollywood Left and Right presents case studies of ten politically active Hollywood figures, five liberals and five conservatives. Although I have long followed American politics, and seen a great many Hollywood movies, I learned a lot from this very well-written and engaging yet carefully researched book. Though he has nothing to say about other countries, Steven J. Ross, a film historian at the University of Southern California, confirms to us outside observers of the United States that American politics is indeed exceptional: nothing like this is to be found in comparable countries. Moreover, while it reinforced the prevailing impression that Hollywood is a liberal place, it drove home the point that it was the conservatives who put their involvement to greater political effect.

Ross starts in the early days, with Charlie Chaplin, still perhaps the greatest genius Hollywood has produced. Despite his immense success, Chaplin never strayed from his progressive beliefs, beliefs which, in part, caused him to have to leave the United States in the 1950s. In contrast, during the same period, Louis B. Mayer of MGM produced films that celebrated the status quo as he came to play a major role in the California Republican Party. Actor Edward G. Robinson shared Mayer’s eastern European Jewish background, yet espoused diametrically opposed political views, views that in the 1950s attracted the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and ended his career.

22_Brother_Orchid_(1940)_Edward G. Robinson
Brother Orchid (1940) Edward G. Robinson

Ross usefully notes that HUAC members and staff were not simply reactionaries on a political witch-hunt. They targeted Hollywood because they realized that movie audiences were made up of voters who could readily be influenced by glamorous movie stars. And despite the efforts of Mayer and his friends, all but a few of the many prominent figures in Hollywood who shared his European Jewish background remained liberal Democrats, though typically more circumspect than Robinson.

Among the more recent politically active progressives, Ross follows the career of Warren Beatty. As Mayer was to Herbert Hoover, Beatty was a close adviser and funder of Democratic presidential aspirants George McGovern and Gary Hart, though neither proved successful. Beatty was regularly urged to run, but chose to remain behind the scenes, stressing that he was good at promoting his left-liberal views – through his films Bulworth and Reds in particular – but knew nothing about implementing policy. (He also knew that his promiscuous lifestyle was incompatible with a political career, a fact driven home by the political demise of Gary Hart when his adultery was exposed.) Informative chapters also recount the tireless efforts of Harry Belafonte in support of the civil rights movement and Jane Fonda’s sometimes counterproductive role in the antiwar movement.

Ross details the vast sums that left-wing Hollywood political activists were able to earn and then contribute to progressive causes and candidates. When it came to money, it was Hollywood, along with the trade unions, that funded Democratic politicians at a level high enough to counter corporate generosity to the GOP and allowed the Democrats to win elections. When conservatives identify Hollywood as their enemy, they are not simply spouting rhetoric.

Yet Ross suggests that despite its far greater clout and financial resources, the Hollywood left’s overall effect on politics and policy proved to be less durable than the right’s. Among his case studies, he includes the unexpected accession to the U.S. Senate by musical comedy actor George Murphy in 1964, followed by his famous successors Ronald Reagan, elected Governor of California in 1966 and later President, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments

While it is well known that Reagan started out as a liberal, Ross points out that Charlton Heston, too, was for many years a mainstream Democrat before becoming a National Rifle Association spokesman and symbol. According to Ross, Heston was offended and pushed to the right by the McGovernites’ takeover of the Democratic Party in 1972. The Heston case illustrates Ross’s contention that movie audiences can be moved by the political views of their favourite actors, as long as those views give expression to an appropriate projected image. Many years after The Ten Commandments, Heston was still Moses for a large swath of Americans.

According to Ross, there is a parallel in Reagan’s move to the right. Here the catalyst was the intransigence of doctrinaire leftists who dominated the Hollywood unions. His experience as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the context of the anti-Communism of the 1950s led him to question his own roots as a New Deal Democrat. By the end of the decade, Reagan was ripe for recruitment by the Republican right. The rest is history.

Hollywood Left and Right ends after the 2008 election cycle, drawing attention to media personalities who influence politics, like Oprah Winfrey and Jon Stewart. Perhaps a new category of actor/celebrity/politico is emerging – a fitting subject for Ross’s next book. But he will have to take into account the fact that while media celebrities are still predominantly liberal, now that the Supreme Court has opened up American politics to effectively unlimited corporate funding, they can no longer dream of acting as a counterweight to business’s financial support for the GOP.