By Rosalie Higson
HOLLYWOOD has always had two faces, but which is its best side? In his latest book Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics, US historian and professor Steve Ross analyses the connections between movies, media image, celebrity and political power.
"The most interesting thing that came out of the research was that even though the Hollywood Right was so small it's had a tremendous influence on mainstream politics, for all the whining that comes from Hollywood conservatives," says Ross. "They're just off base. They don't even know their own history."
Ross lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of Southern California. He has written three other books about Hollywood history, and the merging of entertainment and politics.
"You see all these actors speaking out on various causes, and
I began thinking, well, there hasn't really been much written about taking movie stars and their politics seriously, not just making fun of them - there's been a lot of that.
"So I started reading and discovered a history of movie-star activism that most people didn't know because they never expected Hollywood to be anything other than a lightweight institution," he says.
Ross is speaking in the boardroom of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, where he was a recent visiting professor.
During his research for Hollywood Left and Right Ross found two things that defied conventional wisdom. First, conservatives had a longer history in Hollywood than liberals, beginning with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who developed a relationship with the Republican Party in the late 1920s, effectively turning MGM studios into a publicity wing.
Previously producers had been more self-interested, donating to any candidate who pledged to fight censorship and federal control over the industry. But Mayer was a man with a mission, and conservatism and family values had real meaning for him. This was reflected in the films made by his studio, typified by the homespun and widely popular Andy Hardy series.
Ross's second surprise was that even though leftist supporters in Hollywood have been more numerous and visible over the past century - the town was vilified as a den of communist sympathisers in the 40s and 50s, a haven for sexual libertines and anti-war activists during the Vietnam War era, and is presently home to lefty radicals such as Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins - the Hollywood Right has had a much greater impact on American political life.
"Everyone says 'How can that be true?' My answer is that if you look at major changes in American politics there were two what I would call foundational moments in the 20th century.
"The first was the creation of an American welfare state in the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The second began in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan's election, and the attempt to dismantle the welfare state. It's a movie star who made that possible: conservatives had been talking about that for a long time," Ross says. "In the 1960s people didn't listen to [presidential hopeful] Barry Goldwater but when Reagan preached that message, they listened."
When Reagan ran for governor in California in 1966 he was mocked by the press as a B movie actor but, in fact, he had been politically active for more than 20 years. From the mid-50s to 1966 he worked at perfecting what his inner circle called "The Speech".
"It was the same speech," says Ross. "He was the Rachmaninov of speech, with dozens of variations on the same themes of creeping socialism, inefficient government, dangers of communism," says Ross.
"But crucially, Reagan [with his friend and fellow actor George Murphy] brought his skills as an entertainer to bear: he traded on his good-guy, amiable image from his film roles, and he knew how to speak to an audience, and he understood that voters were no different to movie audiences, that you had to appeal to their emotion not their brain."
Ross tells the story of 21st-century US politics through the stories of nine movie stars and one producer. They are Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Murphy and Reagan, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He begins with Chaplin, whose immense popularity allowed him to have total control over his work, using what Ross calls visual politics.
"From his early films on, [politically] they're not Left or Right, they're anti-authoritarian. And if you take down people in power that's Left, although it could also be Right. Once he tried to make overtly political films his career was over, starting with The Great Dictator."
Then there's what Ross calls movement politics, whereby Belafonte, Reagan and Fonda were trying to reshape the nation.
"These were very smart and very shrewd people," he says. "In this case, to merge their politics and films, they had to found their own production companies and be willing to take the chance that they could lose a fortune."
African-American actor and singer Belafonte was so disgusted with the lack of progressive race relations on screen that in 1957 he founded his own production company and made two films, The World, the Flesh and the Devil and Odds against Tomorrow.
"He wanted to play against character and not just be the black man. He was interested in how you could change race roles in film," says Ross.
Anti-war activist Fonda was more overtly political; her production company was named IPC Films after the Indochinese Peace Campaign she and her husband, Tom Hayden, had supported.
"She wanted to bring to the screen issues of political importance that she was lobbying for off-screen," says Ross. "At the same time, she understood that if these films were not entertaining, no one would watch them. She did Coming Home, dealing with the plight of Vietnam veterans, Nine to Five, working women and their problems, The China Syndrome, very appropriate today, about a potential nuclear meltdown."
Beatty also started his own production company and made Bonny and Clyde ("A kind of metaphor at the time for violence in Vietnam," says Ross), Reds and Bulworth, about a politician who sells his soul.
There is a progression from the visual politics of Chaplin to the electoral politics of Mayer to the issue-oriented politics of contemporary actors such as Angelina Jolie. "It's the most common form of activism," says Ross. "You pick an issue, because if you are a big star you don't have much time."
Image politics is where an actor morphs into their media image. "When you do certain kinds of roles over and over again you build up a kind of gravitas. For instance, Charlton Heston becomes Moses. John Wayne and James Stewart had it too," he says.
Heston was so identified with his film roles (which he described as three presidents, three geniuses and three Biblical heroes) that both Democrats and Republicans pursued him at different times. "If any of those people had run for office they would have been elected," Ross says.
"George Clooney comes closest today to having that kind of gravitas that people take him seriously. And while Reagan didn't have that gravitas, he was the good guy, always the best friend. And definitely part of Hollywood's Christian conservative wing, not part of the Jewish liberal wing, playing to middle America."
Last on the list is Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder, actor and two-term Republican governor of California. "He's much savvier than people give him credit for. He's a bright and very focused man," says Ross. "He laid out his life plan in the 1970s: I want to be famous, a movie star, I want to marry someone from a big political family and be a frequent guest at the White House, and I want to hold a high public office."
He's ticked off everything on his list, and now the governator is going back to film. That's a real Hollywood ending.
Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics will be published by Oxford University Press in September.