August 29, 2014
Lights, Camera, Activism
Posted on May 10, 2012
“Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics”
In “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” Steven J. Ross details the public lives of 10 Hollywood notables who made significant marks on conservative and liberal political history. He includes celebrities famously associated with politics, such as Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty, but also those less remembered for their political commitment, like George Murphy, Edward G. Robinson and Harry Belafonte. Ross examines the international, domestic and personal circumstances that attracted his subjects to activism, and follows the courses of their various careers.
With five on each side of the partisan gap, they are compared as representative chunks of oppositional politics, and evaluated for their sum effects on the country. Ross stakes the reasonable position that conservative efforts have been more effective in America—with longer staying power—than that of liberals, despite the constant
The volume is filled with engaging stories of fervor, success, determination and disillusionment, and they support his conclusion. But Ross’ thesis, overall, is as mild as the cover image: two directors chairs, one blue and one red, floating on a white background. The graphic conveys a gentle equivalence between right and left, and is an oddly apt reflection of the book’s weakness—an absence of critical context.
Early in the book, Ross raises the subject of Wall Street’s role in financing studios from the start, but leaves a gaping hole regarding the underpinnings of conservative power in Hollywood and Washington via major media outlets. He excludes discussion of the rapid corporate consolidation of media ownership in the latter part of the 20th century. Instead, Ross spends most of the book analyzing the relative talents and psychological effects of his subjects on one another and a susceptible public.
The dawning awareness and development of celebrity’s power to manipulate is important, as are the issues and pressures that initially draw stars to politics. Ross does note the function of big business in funding the conservative agenda, and later underlines the fast-growing effect of television during the ‘60s as Americans became increasingly bowled over by famous people. He goes on to correlate the prohibitive cost of broadcast time to the fact that no third party has been able to gain a serious foothold in the minds of Americans.
But he fails to make the essential connection between the Pac-Man-like corporate acquisitions of media companies that morphed into fewer and fewer large entities, and the right wing’s greater success in harnessing fame, image and content for its purposes of shrinking big government and shielding big business from regulation and taxes.
Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics
By Steven J. Ross
Edenridge Press, 386 pages
Author and professor Ben Bagdikian wrote about this steady power build in relation to the breakdown of reliable journalism in “The Media Monopoly.”
Bagdikian reported that when Reagan was first
Ross’ focus is not media conglomeration. However, there is much more to the right’s level of sway with the public than individual talent and timing. Access to star power, information and opinion is braided to those who control most of the mainstream media delivery systems and bears scrutiny. It’s all connected; mass media is the multitiered conduit to public perception of reality.
Still, Ross’ skill as a researcher and clear writer yields mostly evenhanded and sometimes heart-wrenching tales of the famous, passionate talents on whom he builds his book. His dense tome occasionally suffers from repetition because of overlap in some of the principals’ lives, but the stories remind the reader of how rarely fair and appropriate detail is relayed to the public by vendors of information and filmed stories, especially when it comes to celebrities.
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