A review of Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, by Steven J. Ross
Steven Ross's account of politics in the motion picture industry, Hollywood Left and Right, is eye-opening—but not very believable. Apparently, Ronald Reagan, a staunch liberal Democrat in 1940s Hollywood, became a Republican simply because George Murphy, the song-and-dance film star who served with Reagan on the board of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), talked him into it. We learn that the House Committee on Un-American Activities was a witch-hunt that ruined many lives, including that of movie star Edward G. Robinson. Ross, a respected film historian, informs us the only reason Warren Beatty never ran for president is that he didn't want to abandon his acting career.
The facts tell a different story. Even the main thrust of Ross's book—that movie stars have had a major effect on American politics—is highly doubtful. The author cites Charlie Chaplin, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as figures of great political significance. Each did express controversial views that guaranteed press coverage, but show business is especially susceptible to mistaking the vivid for the important. Yes, Schwarzenegger served as California's governor for seven years—but to what effect?
The movie star who did mold national politics and world events was Reagan, but Ross doesn't understand how he got there. As a young leading man at Warner Bros. from the late 1930s until the early 1950s, the only thing that mattered more to Reagan than his film career was liberalism. Galvanized by Franklin Roosevelt's domestic program and wartime leadership, Reagan was a potent advocate for the Roosevelt-Truman agenda. Later, he coupled this anti-fascist message with anti-Communist content, a change that was spurred by battles with Stalinists who were trying to take over the film industry.
As an officer of SAG, Reagan worked strenuously in Hollywood to protect the labor movement from Moscow-directed insurgents. He later found common cause with liberals such as Walter Reuther, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., when they founded Americans for Democratic Action as a bulwark against similar insidious forces in the Democratic Party. Reagan told colleagues that the reason the GOP began to appeal to him was because it wasn't tormented over repudiating Communists. He also regarded Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who had been Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, as a hero. Reagan certainly counted George Murphy as an ally in SAG, but Murphy is a nearly undetectable presence in the voluminous primary source material kept by the union and by Reagan confidants. Murphy, elected as a Republican to the U.S. Senate from California in 1964 despite Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, had little if anything to do with Reagan's final break with the Democrats in 1962, the year Reagan formally switched parties.
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Ross's account of congressional investigations of Communists in the motion picture industry is also problematic. His chief argument is that right-wing anti-Semites in Congress railroaded vocal liberals such as Edward G. Robinson (a Jewish immigrant from Rumania) into a "Kafkaesque world" that forced them to kneel before anti-Communist tribunals. According to Ross, Robinson suffered "rituals of rehabilitation through humiliation" in which he had to atone for associating with other Hollywood liberals. Robinson's own story challenges this scenario. In the 1950s, the liberal star of Little Caesar, Double Indemnity, and Key Largo gave the public a sordid chronicle detailing how Reds had threatened and exploited him.
They poisoned the relations between people in this community for many years. They slandered their enemies with innuendo and half-truths, never honestly revealing themselves for what they were; they have taken "trust" out of our lives and in this way they have damaged the fabric of our country. In every way my deepest feelings of sympathy, of charity, of idealism have been used by the communists for their own ends; ends far different than I intended. There is no way for me to adequately express my resentment at this betrayal of good causes and good people.
Ross doesn't feature these statements in his book. Once prominent in news accounts and magazine stories, they are now forgotten, relegated to microfilm collections in a handful of libraries.
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Recent events, such as Warren Beatty's 1999 speech at the Beverly Hilton, are more accessible. Ross reports that "1,000 guests and a frenzied media mob" waited for Beatty to announce whether he would run for the presidency. Warren Beatty might have had a fighting chance to become president…of SAG. But not of the United States. Beatty was an industry star, far more popular among studio executives than with audiences. (Now 76, he is effectively retired. His last film was 2001's Town & Country, a financial disaster.)
Ross contends that Beatty was hopeful the American people would fall in love with the liberal characters in his movies because he cast good-looking actors in those parts. "Republicans and independents would go to see Reds not because they were interested in John Reed or Communism but because they were drawn to Warren Beatty and his bevy of stars," writes Ross. The financial losses on Reds, released by Paramount in 1981, were massive. Not only did Republicans and independents stay home, so did liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists, and practically every other political persuasion in existence. Instead voters reelected Reagan—the most anti-Communist president in American history—in a landslide three years later.
"[L]eaving the movie industry for the political arena would have entailed a greater sacrifice for Beatty than the other stars," writes Ross. Reagan, he asserts, never "approached Beatty's level of stardom." Again, the facts run counter to this claim. Reagan was on the A-list at Warner Bros. His films made money for studios. While Beatty had some genuine hits as well-Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde, and Heaven Can Wait—most of the others bombed.
Reagan was unique in Hollywood. No less a critic than Barack Obama now admits that Reagan changed the trajectory of American politics more than any politician since FDR. Were it not for the Communists in Hollywood in the 1940s, there likely wouldn't have been a President Reagan in the 1980s. That's a fascinating story about politics and the movie business, but Steven Ross missed it.