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Lights, Camera, Activism
Posted on May 10, 2012
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.
Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics
By Steven J. Ross
Edenridge Press, 386 pages
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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