Ronald Reagan, Shirley Temple, Sony Bono, George Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger are all entertainers who launched their political careers in California, and they are all Republicans. Indeed, aside from Al Franken, no prominent Democratic officeholder on the scene today started out in the entertainment industry. Yet, ironically, a myth that began in the McCarthy era — and persists today — holds that Hollywood celebrities on the left play a powerful role in American politics.
“Quite candidly, when Hollywood speaks, the world listens,” Sen. Arlen Specter once observed. “Sometimes when Washington speaks, the world snoozes.”
The myth is misbegotten, or so argues film historian and USC professor Steven J. Ross in “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics” (Oxford University Press, $29.95), a benchmark study of the role that Hollywood stars and moguls have played in American politics. Like Neal Gabler’s classic “An Empire of Their Own,” Ross’ book allows us look behind the curtain and to glimpse the inner workings of the entertainment industry.
Hollywood began to figure in politics as early as 1918, when federal agents reported that movie stars were playing “an active part in the Red movement.” But, from the start and throughout its history, activists on the left have always been less successful than those on the right. “It was the Republican Party, not the Democratic Party, that established the first political beachhead in Hollywood,” Ross explains. “The Hollywood left has the political glitz, but the Hollywood right sought, won, and exercised electoral power.”
Ross surveys nearly a century of Hollywood history through the lens of politics. Of necessity, he drills down into the nuance and detail of corporate and union politics in the movie business. But he also comes into tight focus on a few of the more famous faces. Charlie Chaplin, for example, is singled out as the first star to strike a political stance — an explicitly anti-fascist stance. “No silent star,” Ross writes, “brought political messages to the mass public more effectively than the man millions of moviegoers affectionately called ‘Charlie.’ ”
But Ross also reminds us that Chaplin was hounded by right-wing activists, both in Hollywood and in federal law enforcement, throughout his long career, and he was ultimately driven into exile as much for his politics as for his supposed promiscuity. “You are the one artist of the theatre,” observed the writer Lion Feuchtwanger, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, “who will go down in American history as having aroused the political antagonism of a whole nation.”
By contrast, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, one of the founders of MGM, is singled out as the archetype of Hollywood Republicanism. He was hailed by Rabbi Edgar Magnin as “an ardent enemy of pseudo-liberals, Reds, and pinks,” and Ross himself credits Mayer with teaching the Republican Party “how to use radio, film, and movie stars to sell candidates and ideas to a mass public.” At a time when Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and George Jessel were campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, for example, Mayer served as executive director of the Southern California campaign committee for Herbert Hoover.
“Hollywood Right and Left” does not overlook the McCarthy era, although it is only one episode in a much grander saga. But Ross approaches the subject from a new and illuminating angle by focusing on the plight of Edward G. Robinson, an early and committed anti-fascist at a time when Irving Thalberg was comforting his boss, Louis B. Mayer, with a rosy report from Nazi Germany: “Hitler and Hitlerism will pass,” Thalberg said. “[T]he Jews will still be there.” Robinson, by contrast, worked with other stars to organize a boycott of Nazi Germany in 1938, an effort that was not popular among isolationists in America.
“[The] movie colony may root for the Jews all they wish, but don’t think that the people of the United States are going to fall in with your plans,” one estranged movie fan wrote. “Those of us who know World History and the Bible know that the Jews have always been in trouble up to their ears.”
Robinson, who was condemned as “Yiddish riff raff” by another letter writer, was repaid for his activism with surveillance by the FBI during the war, a place on the blacklist, and repeated appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee when it targeted Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Outraged by the smear campaign against him,” Ross writes, “Robinson spent the next three years of his life, and over $100,000 of his own money, trying to clear his name and resume his career.” Ultimately, he was reduced to abasing himself as “an unsuspecting agent of the Communist conspiracy,” although he refused to name names. Ironically, he was “restored to semi-respectability” only when Cecil B. DeMille, “one of Hollywood’s most prominent anti-communists,” cast Robinson in “The Ten Commandments” in 1956.
The excesses of the McCarthy era eventually subsided, but Ross makes the point that the balance of power in Hollywood remained on the right as Murphy and Reagan used the denunciation of supposed “Red Menace” in Hollywood to launch their own political careers. Reagan, of course, has been credited with nothing less than a revolution in American politics, while Jane Fonda, an activist on the left in the same era, crashed and burned. Her counterpart on the right, at least in terms of the visibility and intensity of his role in politics, is Charlton Heston, whom Ross describes as “the first prominent practitioner of image politics,” if only because Heston played not only Moses, but also “three saints, three presidents, and two geniuses.”
Fonda “demonstrated that celebrities could use their star power to draw attention to controversial political issues,” Ross explains. “Her subsequent vilification revealed how the public often view such activism, especially left activism, with suspicion and cynicism.” The woman who came to be known as “Hanoi Jane,” Ross points out, “paid a high price for her activism.”
The bottom line, according to Ross, is that one wing of the entertainment industry seems to have connected with the hearts and minds of the American electorate, and the other has not. “From Louis B. Mayer to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood right has told a simple but compelling story of American triumphalism: America is the greatest nation in the world. What else do you need to know?” The Hollywood left, by contrast, has been undercut by its willingness to look behind the façade. “Few citizens want to hear a Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, or Sean Penn point out what is wrong with the United States.” In that sense, Ross’s even-handed but eye-opening book serves as a corrective to some very famous entertainers who simply failed to understand how they come across to their audience.