Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Steven J. Ross's "Hollywood Left and Right"

An eminent historian of film, Steven J. Ross is recipient of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Films Scholars Award and author of the prize-winning book, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, and reported the following:
Much to my surprise, Page 99 raised three themes that are central to my book’s arguments. The chapter focuses on Edward G. Robinson and the widespread politicization of Hollywood during the 1930s (conservatives such as Louis B. Mayer began their activism in the 1920s—long before the rise of “liberal” Hollywood). The first key theme raised on Page 99 is that Hollywood politics have always been more diverse than most people think. Over the years, political activism took the form of visual politics, electoral politics, issue-oriented politics, movement politics, image politics, and celebrity politics. In this instance, Page 99 reveals how Hollywood activists of the 1930s responded in multiple ways to the threat of fascism and Nazism: “some became involved with mainstream parties; others allied with third parties like the Communist party (mostly writers and directors); others still participated in issue-oriented politics by promoting one or more specific causes.”(99)

A second critical theme is that “Political categories and alliances were far more fluid during the 1930s than in the postwar years.”(99) When confronted with a major crisis that threatened the very core of democracy, Hollywood activists suspended partisan and ideological divisions to forge a Popular Front that “represented a broad coalition of groups and individuals on the left, center, and right who put aside sectarian differences and united in a common effort to fight the spread of fascism.”(99)

A third key theme raises the idea that the demonization of political opponents so characteristic of contemporary politics, especially the demonization of the left by the right, took root in the late 1940s and 1950s. Fear became a key weapon of far right conservatives; a weapon they used to shift attention away from rational discussion to emotional terror—a tactic used to this very day, especially by Tea Party loyalists. As I note toward the bottom of the page, “It was only during the late 1940s and 1950s, explained screenwriter Philip Dunne, that ‘witch-hunters ... succeeded in twisting this meaning [i.e. Popular Front] into something far more sinister: a front in the sense of a false front of compliant liberals behind which Communists could hatch their nefarious plots.”(99)

Page 99 only hints at one of the major themes of the book: Although the Hollywood left has been more numerous and visible, the Hollywood right has had a greater impact on American politics. The Hollywood left has the political glitz, but if we ask who has done more to change the American government (and dismantle the welfare state), the answer is the Hollywood right. During the postwar years, Hollywood conservatives—led by George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger—sought, won, and exercised the kind of electoral power that liberals and leftists dreamed of but never achieved.
Read more about Hollywood Left and Right at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue