Un-candid camera

  • by Tavo Amador
  • Wednesday November 9, 2011
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Today, a motion picture star being an important politician no longer surprises, even if only one has become President. Just how this happened is the subject of Steven J. Ross' superb Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (Oxford University Press, $29.95.)

Ross asserts that Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) was the "first political actor." The English comic, who overcame a Dickensian childhood, was sensitive to all forms of social injustice. His films captured the tragedy of the Great Depression, yet made audiences laugh. In the 1930s, many Americans favored isolationism as a foreign policy. Those who followed European affairs tended to be more concerned about communism than fascism. Chaplin, somewhat naive about the former, was well aware of the dangers of Hitler and satirized him in The Great Dictator (1940). WWII temporarily vindicated him, because Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union was our ally against Germany, Italy and Japan. Chaplin remained a committed leftist, had a messy personal life, and was linked to the Red Scare that prevailed in America following the end of WWII. Ultimately, he was barred from the US, but eventually returned to receive a special Academy Award in 1972.

Despite the book's title, Ross devotes a riveting chapter to Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957), who wasn't a film star but ran MGM, the biggest, most important studio in Hollywood. Mayer, heavily influenced by his executive assistant Ida B. Koverman, championed  Pres. Herbert Hoover. The 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the resultant 20 years of a Democratic White House were disappointments to Mayer. But he used movies to challenge FDR's "paternalistic" government philosophy, notably through the wildly popular Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney. Set in a small town and depicting an idealized  American family, with a wise father (Judge Hardy), a loving, stay-at-home  mother, and good children who sometimes got into innocent scrapes, these films extolled the virtues of self-sufficiency, conventional morality, and flag-waving patriotism.

Mayer also befriended studio contract actor/singer/dancer George Murphy (1902-92), a second-tier star who was once a supporter of Roosevelt's New Deal policies but eventually became a staunch conservative Republican. In 1964, Murphy was elected US Senator from California, defeating Democrat Pierre Salinger in a race decided by television. Tall, relaxed, affable, Murphy, despite his vague message, demolished the short, heavy, brooding but intelligent Salinger during televised debates. Murphy also used his charisma to woo blue-collar Democrats and Independents. He warned of the evils of communism and big government, subtly equating the two. Murphy set the stage for his even more successful protege, Ronald Reagan.

More than  Murphy, Reagan (1911-2004) had been a strong union man and a proud   Democrat, actively campaigning for FDR. Like Murphy, he was elected President of the Screen Actors Guild. And like Murphy, he realized that some Hollywood liberals during the post-WWII era were naive about the American Communist Party and its goal of infiltrating the movie industry. While there were attempts to do so, they weren't very credible. How real the USSR's threat to America was is still being debated, but no one doubts the horrors of the Stalin years in Russia and its satellite states. Like Murphy, Reagan understood the importance of television. Not a great theoretical thinker, he honed his message carefully, delivered it on camera with warmth, charm, and optimism, and despite initially being dismissed by the political establishment, was twice elected California governor and became a popular two-term President. 

Ross discusses Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973), a brilliant actor and an outspoken opponent of fascism who used his celebrity   to help liberal causes, but who fell afoul of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. Robinson spent years defending himself against charges of being affiliated with communism, but ultimately, having drained his financial resources and fearing he would never work again, was compelled to publicly say he had been "duped." It's one of the most wrenching chapters in the book.

Harry Belafonte (b. 1927), the first black actor/singer to become a mainstream matinee idol/sex symbol, was intensely involved in the civil rights movement, but stayed in the background, deferring to Martin Luther King and other politicians. Instead he made films like Island in the Sun (1957), depicting an interracial romance opposite Oscar-winner Joan Fontaine (b. 1917). Their scenes together were chaste, reduced to longing looks. Yet the exquisite Fontaine, a star for nearly 20 years, received a great deal of hate mail, which shocked her. Belafonte believes the role hastened the end of her movie career, although she has never made that assertion.

Other chapters cover Jane Fonda (b. 1937), whose vocal opposition to the Vietnam War made her a polarizing figure; Charlton Heston (1923-2008), a liberal supporter of civil rights who became the spokesman for the right-wing National Rifle Association; Warren Beatty (b. 1937), who once hoped to be the liberal Reagan; and Arnold Schwarzenegger (b. 1947), whose popularity got him elected California governor, but who failed to deliver on his promises and ended his tenure in disgrace.

Ross is a skillful writer and an impeccable researcher. Each chapter is balanced, nuanced, and thoroughly footnoted. The most alarming aspect of this book is that the intellectual content of a political message matters far less than the way in which it's delivered on television. Thus, empty suits who look good on camera, can articulate vague concepts with smiling optimism, will prevail. That's scarier than any Hollywood horror film.