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Lights, Camera, Activism

Posted on May 10, 2012
Photo by Scott Beale

By Louise Rubacky

(Page 2)

Some readers may recall the destruction of career and wealth that Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson suffered as a result of misrepresentation and fear-mongering about communism, but most likely remember them as the Little Tramp and Little Caesar. And Jane Fonda will go to her grave with a media epitaph about her naive misstep in Hanoi, although the range of her life work included savvy grass-roots organizing and nondidactic movies that brought attention to issues as diverse as sexual harassment and nuclear power, all of which Ross covers.

Fascinating, if less of a pull on the heart, is Ross’ replay of Louis B. Mayer’s role in forging Hollywood’s place in conservative history. L.B.’s executive assistant Ida Koverman is credited with the earliest understanding of the potency in marrying high-wattage glamour with government. Impressed with her political acumen and the long- term value of her experience in campaigns and party politics, Mayer took full advantage of Koverman’s talent as an influential behind-the-scenes operative. She became a pioneer in the machinations of PR, and a forerunner to the David Gergens and Karl Roves of our time. Mayer used her advice to increasing advantage in California and national politics over the years.

Chapters on Reagan and Heston are notable for their more than fair treatment of two liberals gone wild for conservatism, tracing their rightward treks as much as a single chapter on each can manage. Ross takes care to show how the early image-shaping groundwork done by George Murphy for political purposes had a profound effect on Reagan’s future and conservative politics in general. Murphy and Reagan are assessed as middling actors who had a lot to gain by turning to electoral politics; Reagan and Heston are portrayed as slow-to-evolve ideologues.

And although much is made of Heston’s Moses persona, of which he took longtime advantage, how many remember that Heston made a difference at moments of serious consequence during the civil rights movement by working behind the scenes and showing up at crucial protests? Despite being warned by J. Edgar Hoover that violence could break out at the 1963 March on Washington, Heston remained committed, headed a delegation of Hollywood stars and delivered a speech written by James Baldwin. Heston traded on the weight that came with being virtually equated to the religious icon he played in movies, just as he would later in connection to gun rights.

In Heston’s chapter, a striking example of Ross’ missing context leapt out. Ross relays post-2000-election claims made by pundits at the time: that the mix of NRA money and Heston’s Moses rhetoric delivered the pro-gun vote in swing states to Bush, and thus was crucial to him winning the presidency.

Nowhere does he mention the Florida recount and the role of the conservative majority Supreme Court decision. Certainly the NRA spokesman made his mark in 2000, but the omission of surrounding power plays and judicial activism weakens rather than strengthens the argument.

book cover


Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics


By Steven J. Ross


Edenridge Press, 386 pages


Buy the book

The civil rights movement and the Cold War built momentum in overlapping years, but communism was a stronger force in Hollywood history. Not surprisingly, fear of it and its companion redbaiting are ever-present in “Hollywood Left and Right.” The hyper-phobia that swept Washington and the country resulted in harassment, the devastation of careers and a rash of B pictures with hysterical metaphors for communism. Hollywood paid a large and lasting price in the number of talented people who were scarred and scared from political involvement.

But the anti-communism fever spread to liberals and moderates too. And longtime Democrats like Reagan were swayed by its threat, subsequently moving right. Ross takes the time to disconnect Reagan—at least initially—from the unfair ruination of others. Reagan was acutely concerned about the Soviets, but he also worried about unsupported accusations and the suppression of differing political views. Ross points to events involving union bully tactics that finally pushed Reagan out of the liberal camp. His was a slow if steady move right—as was Heston’s—that was sped up by his marriage to Nancy Davis, as well as by his relationships with the powerful and the wealthy as his electoral future brightened.

In Ross’ coverage of a very different man with a very different drive, Harry Belafonte’s essential backstage role in the civil rights movement reads as a compelling and just effort to tie his name more closely to that crossroads in American history. Belafonte gambled with his career for years to serve the cause of his life, and paid for it with the loss of his marriage, opportunity and, eventually, energy for the fight. But during his activist years, he was a shrewd strategist.

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By jimmmmmy, May 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm Link to this comment

Gerrard .I remeber tough guy Bogart sucking up to Estes Kefauver live on TV during those “witch hunt” hearings,before Edward R. Murrow called bull-shit.

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By gerard, May 20, 2012 at 1:16 pm Link to this comment

Postscript:  Don’t forget, McCarthy’s chicanery knocked the political spirit out of Hollywood—what there was of it between the glitz and the gore.

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By jimmmmmy, May 14, 2012 at 10:39 am Link to this comment

Vector as a vietnam vet I’ve arrived at the same conclusion as you. Ms Fonda was right and courageous. A great American patriot. The vistas created by the carpet bombings were suppressed.

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By jimmmmmy, May 14, 2012 at 10:32 am Link to this comment

The definitive book on Hollywood is a book of that name by Gore Vidal .It’s historical fiction but has many facts about the start of the movie business and it effects on government starting around the 1920s these effects are still in play today.

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By vector56, May 13, 2012 at 5:20 am Link to this comment

The Movie “Battle Ship” is nothing more than a promotional recruiting piece of propaganda for the US Navy.

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By Jack W. Scott, May 12, 2012 at 5:08 pm Link to this comment

Thank you for the good article, this book begins to indicate the true scope of the problem of authority in America and the world.  “mass media is the multitiered conduit to public perception of reality.” is right on, Americans have their reality created, defined, and determined by their television experience. Most people think that if anything were wrong, television would tell them!  Oh, wrongo, publico, things have gone horribly wrong and television is NOT telling us!  Some scientists say that, due to ocean acidification, the oceans will die “in our lifetime”!  But, while it’s selling coal and oil and natural gas, does TV ever mention that it’s CO2 that’s doing this?  Nope.  Does TV ever even once show Solar Panels? Nada!  So, while the bloodthirsty audience grips their seats, waiting for the next exciting episode, the planet’s seas are dying, and when they go, that’s about it for us!  The fact is that Hollywood-Burbank is the ruler of this world, and while they get plenty of money for their cheap propaganda, their real purpose is Evil, pure and simple.  At the very beginning of their show-business career, they are all required to “sell their soul” to demonstrate their “dedication” to their art and craft.  And we can see the result in the character and content of their product.  I’m glad the political left is finally taking up on this obvious, ubiquitous element in our society, the omnipresent influence of the movies and television.

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By John Poole, May 12, 2012 at 11:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I would have thought Clooney may have gone for a third party possibility backing.
He’s probably prepping for a senator or governor shot as a democrat once he tires
of films. Still it is disappointing. He values seem to be in the right place.

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By John Poole, May 12, 2012 at 5:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

for bim: I’ve felt Clooney was very engaged with notable cultural concerns of our
time so it is baffling why he would back Obama. I was hoping his type would
finally break rank and push for a third party. I don’t expect someone like Streisand
and her ilk to “get it” (we need a radical departure from politics as usual) but
Clooney seemed different. I guess he can spin as good as Obama in deceiving my

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By gerard, May 11, 2012 at 1:11 pm Link to this comment

Hollywood helped to create the fantasy world that was and still is “America”—whatever that illusory dreamworld is: The biggest most irresponsible nation in the presentday world; the lover of creativity and invention—especially A-bombs and drones; the “Christian” soldiers that kill more old men, women and children than any other nation on earth and are still so scared that they aren’t “taking anything off the table” (even “nukes”) and breathe down the necks of their own people. A mere 1% of its wealthiest citizens harbor retrograde delusions of grandeur, concentrating the wealth of the world in the hands of a couple dozen megathieves in New York City operating a handful of industries that are literally eating the world alive.  Well, there’s no end to the “asymmetries” once you get started. “And the Oscar goes to .....?”

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By Bernardo, May 11, 2012 at 8:36 am Link to this comment

Last night Clooney and friends (150 of them) donated 15 million to Obama.  Would you say that all of them are part of the 1% corporate ruling class?

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By vector56, May 11, 2012 at 5:27 am Link to this comment

Also, When Jane Fonda went to Vietnam she and her film crew recorded on film what “Carpet Bombing looks like from the ground. The bombed out schools and hospitals; the corpses of Women and children dumped is mass graves for public health. None of this seemed to have made it to the Corporate Media; but they gave unlimited air-time to Fonda sitting in the anti-aircraft gun turret.

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By vector56, May 11, 2012 at 5:20 am Link to this comment

Obama and the Democrats repeatedly hold up Ronald Reagan nostalgically as what a reasonable Republican should look like. I would also guess that most Democrats would have no problem having their picture taken with Charlton Heston.

Jane Fonda on the other hand usually causes most Democrats to run for the hills! The very thought of her sitting in the “Gook” anti-aircraft gun; laughing and carrying on with the enemy as if they were just as human as we are? Personally, I think Fonda had more “balls”  and integrity than “The Gipper” and “Movie Moses” combined! Bottom line is that the Vietnamese did not attack us; therefore they were not our enemies. As a matter of fact they were “victims”  and Jane Fonda had the guts to point that out.

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