Thursday, January 5, 2012

Box office balloting

In Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, Steven J. Ross traces the political arc of figures from Chaplin to Schwartzenegger

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

I didn't really want to read this book. I'm finishing one on a related topic, and have reached that point in the process where I just want to be done with it already. But my editor sent Hollywood Left and Right along to me, as good editors do, as a way of nudging me a little bit farther. I'm glad he did. It's a good piece of scholarship. And, I'm happy to report, an entertaining one.

A seasoned film historian, what Steven J. Ross offers here is a set of ten biographies that function as case studies in the way movies stars and impresarios -- sometimes the same person -- have used their cinematic careers for the purposes of political activism. With a sense of judiciousness and empathy toward all his subjects, he renders  five careers on the left (Charlie Chaplin, Edmund G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty) and five on the right (Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwartzenegger). That said, Ross gently suggests that while we tend to think of Hollywood as a liberal bastion, it has had a series of prominent conservative champions, who on balance have been more successful than liberals in actually realizing their political goals. To that extent, at least, the book has a revisionist air.

Ross does a lot of things well. Each of his chapters offer skillfully limned portraits (Murphy and Reagan, whose careers coincided and interests overlapped, are treated as a pair). In some cases their stories are familiar, but Ross is able to season them with an eye for relevant, sometimes first-hand, observations. He managed to get on interviews with many of his principals, among them reclusive subjects like Beatty, as well as their associates like George McGovern and Gary Hart.

Ross is also a deft analyst. He weaves in close readings of particular films, contextualizing them in their immediate sociopolitical environments. There's very good stuff, for example, on the complexities of anticommunism and Hollywood unions at mid-century and its impact on the careers of Robinson and Reagan. He's also able to stitch together his subjects by periodically comparing and contrasting them with each other, allowing their nuances to come into focus.

Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of Hollywood Left and Right are the varied ways stars have actually exploited their star power. Some, like Chaplin and Fonda, formed their political consciousness only after they became celebrities, and channeled that celebrity into potent fundraising machines. Others, like Belafonte and Schwartzenegger, had already formed their convictions before entering show business and then applied their personal skills to political activism. Still others, like Reagan and Heston, underwent political transformations (which always seem to go from left to right). Murphy, Reagan, and Schwartzenegger, of course, eventually won elective office. Yet many of these people -- Fonda in particular -- had a surprisingly durable impact in their behind-the-scenes organizations. These and other permutations give the book a kaleidoscopic quality.

At the end of this study, Ross poses the necessary question of whether it's all that healthy for the democratic process to have such outsized figures exercising their influence on the body politic. He notes the reasons why the answer might actually be no, but makes the important point that many of these stars serve an important purpose in mobilizing otherwise indifferent segments of the electorate. In a perfect Hollywood world, such people might be undesirable. But in the sometimes benighted political world in which we live, we may need the stars to see.