Hollywood and Politics: A Long Love Affair
February 8, 2008
“The history of the Hollywood engagement in American politics has been longer, deeper and more varied than most people would ever imagine,” says Steven J. Ross, professor of History in the USC College. His forthcoming book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, will explore these links in detail. He cites several figures as seminal in influencing political discourse during their respective eras:
“British-born Chaplin became the first political American movie star,” Ross says. “And his activities eventually took him from being the best-loved man in the world to a political exile from the United States.” Chaplin’s contribution to public discourse came first in silent movies that depicted the working people as smarter and better than the aristocracy... and later in the overtly anti-fascist The Great Dictator. “Throughout his career he opposed all kinds of authority figures; he was an instinctual radical,” Ross says. “Later, in the 1940s, he began to give public speeches... and that’s when he lost his popularity.” Chaplin was denied reentry to the U.S. from abroad during the McCarthy era, and he lived in exile in Switzerland.
Louis B. Mayer
Mayer created the first beachhead in Hollywood for the Republican Party beginning in the late 1920s. “He turned MGM into a breeding ground for Republicans,” Ross explains. “He helped swing the 1928 convention vote to Herbert Hoover, by brokering a meeting between Hoover and William Randolph Hearst, who was disillusioned with the Democratic candidate Al Smith and threw his support behind Hoover.” As a result, notes Ross, Mayer subsequently became the first Hollywood figure to spend a night in the White House.
Edward G. Robinson
“In the 1930s, when fascism was rising in Europe, very few Americans paid attention,” Ross says. “Even as late as July 1941, 79 percent of Americans said they wanted nothing to do with the war in Europe. But it was Hollywood where the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League became noticed: a group of liberal and left-wing Democrats, Communists, and even a few Republicans who believed that the threat of fascism was so very dangerous to our own well-being.” The charge was led by Robinson, who later became a victim of blacklisting during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. In his memoirs, Robinson said he had known all along that some Communists were part of the anti-fascism effort, but felt that all were needed in the fight against Hitler and other fascists.
George Murphy and Ronald Reagan
In the mid-1960s, political candidates George Murphy (a protégé of Mayer) and Ronald Reagan were treated with derision by the press, notes Ross. “But what the press didn’t know was that these guys had been involved in the political trenches since the late 1940s. Both had served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and both had been traveling around the state and the country, talking to real serious conservatives who wanted to dismantle the New Deal.” In 1964, Murphy defeated Pierre Salinger in an upset to win one of California’s U.S. Senate seats, and in 1966, Reagan won the first of two terms in the governorship of California. “Reagan became the public face of conservatism — and helped make it palatable — and by so doing made the conservative revolution of the 1980s possible,” says Ross.
In 1957, Belafonte was the most popular singer in America — outselling both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra — as well as a rising movie star. “He was a left-wing protégé of Paul Robeson, and he became one of the first African Americans to own his own production company,” Ross notes. “He made two films in 1959, and was so disgusted by racism in Hollywood he quit the movies for 10 years and went to work fundraising for Martin Luther King Jr.” For the next 10 years, Belafonte — one of King’s two closest confidantes — was a major behind-the-scenes leader of the civil rights movement.
As Hollywood’s focus shifted in the 1960s from civil rights to Vietnam, Fonda emerged as a polarizing figure. “What people don’t know about Fonda is that she later [with Tom Hayden] created two important grass roots movements — one trying to bring an end to the war, and the other, the Committee for Economic Democracy, that was trying to reorient the American economy in fundamental ways,” Ross says. Fonda also used her production company to create a series of films that influenced public discourse: Coming Home, The China Syndrome and 9 to 5.
A select few actors have been able to take their strong cinematic persona off the screen to advance their political causes, Ross says. Heston constantly played on his larger-than life characters — such as Moses, Ben-Hur and Michelangelo — to create a public persona capable of influencing votes. First a liberal, he led the Hollywood contingent of the March on Washington in 1963. Later, he became a noted conservative. “By the year 2000, as the head of the National Rifle Association, Heston helped swing enough key votes in places like West Virginia to turn the election to George W. Bush,” says Ross.
Steven J. Ross is chair of the USC Department of History and is an expert on labor and working class history, American social history, and depictions of unions and radicals in American film. He is the author of Workers on the Edge: Work, Leisure and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati, 1788-1890 (1985), Working Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (1998), Movies and American Society (2002) and numerous scholarly articles. He is also a recipient of the Film Scholars Award given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the academic equivalent of an Oscar.