Hollywood and political power: A history of dangerous liaisons

At the 74th Golden Globes Awards, Meryl Streep didn’t reignite the much-discussed culture war between “liberal Hollywood elites” and “Middle America” so much as bring it back to the surface of public discussion. In what was supposed to be an acceptance speech for the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award, the triple Oscar-winning acting queen spent two-thirds of her allotted time denouncing President-Elect Donald Trump’s bullying behaviour, urging her audience to support the press in their duty to hold him accountable and taking classist pot-shots at the violent contact sports so many among his presumed voting base are supposed to enjoy.

The outcome was predictable: the newly-anointed leader of the free world took to Twitter once more to whine about the overrated lying hack who had the audacity to criticize him; conservative pundits did their usual routine of decrying overpaid multimillionaires lecturing the unwashed masses – conveniently forgetting the one they just elected – and liberal bloggers, columnists and journalists all fell over themselves congratulating their idol for taking a brave stance against the incoming forces of darkness.

It’s a familiar routine that would be tiresome by now if it didn’t consistently expose a complicated and frequently toxic system of relationships Hollywood entertains with political power. As the single most powerful instrument for the creation and broadcast of ideas ever conceived by man, the American film industry is a profoundly political institution that has been inextricably linked with power from the dawn of its existence. The so-called gap between America’s supposedly left-wing entertainment community and the more conservative core of its population is by no means a new phenomenon; in fact, the communication strategies devised to overcome it have played an integral role in shaping American society.

According to a universally-accepted truism, mainstream popular culture invariably reflects the dominant ideas, sentiments and attitudes of its time. A study of Hollywood’s history, however, shows the truth to be somewhat more complex. From the institution of the Production Code Administration in 1934 to the current efforts made to broaden gender parity and racial diversity on and off-screen, Hollywood’s continued existence has depended on the ability of its powers-that-be to negotiate with American sociopolitical mores even as they subtly influence their changing trajectories. That initial alternating strategies of submission and subversion eventually gave way to a successful conquest only demonstrates how efficient executives, filmmakers and marketers have been at diluting social liberalism in business values. By the magic of industrial market-based cinema, complex ideas get processed into easily-digestible parcels of emotion for mass consumption.

Such is the model that has made American cinema the most influential power broker in the world. Its maximum efficiency was first fully demonstrated in the Second World War, when Hollywood studios and the Roosevelt Administration pooled their resources to counter Nazi barbarism with the greatest propaganda campaign ever devised. For the duration of the war, allied public opinion was shaped by constant morale-boosters in the form of documentary shorts, animated Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, wartime adventures and prestige dramas. Even before Pearl Harbor, the ideas and themes on which Roosevelt ran were being reflected in a number of films inspired by Great Depression hardships and concerns over the rise of fascism. Some studios even went as far as producing propaganda cartoons in support of the president’s policies, a practice that would raise more than a few eyebrows today.

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After the war, rapports between art and political power went through a dramatic upheaval when the House Un-American Activities Committee turned its merciless gaze towards Hollywood. With the enthusiastic collaboration of studio heads and producers, communists and socialists whose presence had been tolerated before and during the war due to their commitment to opposing Hitler soon found themselves undesirable, as did anyone who leaned a little too far to the left for the Washington establishment’s tastes. America was now in a clear position of western cultural supremacy and John Wayne was its international ambassador. For the next thirty years or so, Hollywood’s most politically outspoken star exported American ideals across the world, undaunted even by the massive social change brought on by the Civil Rights movement and counter-cultural revolution that the American film industry so readily assimilated and repackaged. It is fitting, almost eerily so, that John Wayne’s death in June 1979 would occur just a year and four months before the election of a friend and fellow actor who would apply his mythical embodiment of American exceptionalism to a global political level. It was as if Wayne had only shed off his mortal coil to be reborn in the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s administration; for many Americans, Reagan represented in the White House what Wayne did in movie theatres; a patriotic affirmation of the pioneer spirit, supremely confident in America’s civilizational destiny and unflappably optimistic as to her success. And as evidenced by the rise of action superstars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and a revamped Sylvester Stallone, Hollywood wasted little time in capitalizing on it.

It wasn’t until the Bush Jr. years that the political rift between America’s entertainment community and its popular conservative core became truly apparent, with celebrity protests, liberal anti-war films whose general toothlessness I previously addressed here and a growing disinterest in using the arts to examine American cultural fractures and trends with any degree of unprejudiced openness. The corporate appropriation of nominally liberal themes and values – anti-racism, feminism, tolerance, diversity, equality and so on – was beginning to take hold of Western culture, a process that would yield a great deal of societal progress at the cost of ignoring the socioeconomic factors behind our cultural divides. In that respect, the election of President Barack Obama was, like Reagan’s before him, a culminating point; the triumph of a kind of glamorous liberalism unseen since the days of JFK, one that could not have happened without the influence of pop culture. And like Reagan, Obama masterfully used that pop culture to spread his message, with star-studded White House parties, celebrity talk show appearances and more Presidential Medals of Freedom awarded to actors and musicians since the days of the Gipper himself. The two men even share the distinction of being the only sitting presidents to appear at an Academy Awards ceremony, albeit via pre-recorded videos; a distinction the Obama administration would top with Michelle Obama’s appearance at the 85th Academy Awards to announce Argo’s victory at Best Picture and Vice-President Joe Biden’s much more serious introduction of Lady Gaga’s Oscar-nominated anthem against sexual assault at the 88th Academy Awards.

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All this goes to show that deference to power has generally been the norm in Hollywood for the very simple reason that Hollywood is power. The ideas upheld by their films and the people behind them dominate the media landscape because they differ very little from America’s other established institutions, and their continued existence depends on their ability to sell their audiences comforting illusions about their lives and feelings. That’s why so few mainstream Hollywood films of the Bush-era probed institutions of power or governing mentalities in a truly challenging manner, instead choosing to congratulate a pre-acquired coastal audience for their moral righteousness. Even films, like the Jason Bourne series, that did purport to question the US military-industrial complex operated on the same “punch and shoot your way to freedom” logic that runs it. Meanwhile, war propaganda continues to this day in the form of sci-fi action films made in collaboration with the Department of Defense, with little comment from mainstream critics or film professionals.

Film stars may no longer be enough to guarantee a film’s commercial success but they continue to prosper because they provide us with something we all want: flattery. Whether it’s in the characters they play or the personas they display on TV and on the red carpet, movie stars sell us idealized visions of ourselves. Through them, we imagine ourselves to be more beautiful, brave, smart, strong and happy than we really are, and so we demand that they flatter our beliefs in life as they do in film – or at the very least, that they not threaten them in any way. To breach that unspoken contract would be potentially risky for business after all, especially in events like the Oscars or the Golden Globes whose worldwide appeal demand a kind of enforced civil jollity. Hence the shocked gasps heard in 1973 when Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf in protest of Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Native Americans, or the boos that greeted Vanessa Redgrave’s criticism of “Zionist hoodlums” when accepting her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1978, to say nothing of Michael Moore’s denunciation of President Bush and the Iraq War when accepting the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2003.

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Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes differs from these shocking breaks from convention on two counts: one, she pointedly refused to name Trump, thus casting her message of empathy and responsibility in politically neutered terms. Two, her gratuitous jabs at football and mixed martial arts as well as her ludicrous suggestion that Hollywood was among “the most vilified segments in American society”, in flagrant contradiction to the last lines of her speech, confirmed a persistent refusal among successful liberals to examine their own social and political privilege. Admirable though the contents of her sermon may have been, they were still being preached to a rich and, with a few exceptions, ideologically homogenous choir.

It will be interesting to see how the Trump presidency will affect the American film industry’s relationship to political power in the next four, possibly eight years. Will we see the same empty posturing that dominated the Bush Jr. years? Or will we finally witness the combination of resistance and genuine soul-searching we so desperately need? Given his well-established Hollywood connections, Donald Trump may prove as adept at using pop culture to spread his ideology as Obama and Reagan before him, which makes the job of culture critics and media decoders all the more vital. Whether audiences and creators realise it or not, most of the messages and values that propelled Trump to the White House are already deeply-embedded within the mass media we enjoy.

Hollywood’s position as one of the world’s foremost institutions of power does not cancel out the ability of any of its films, actors, writers or directors to stimulate our minds and expose us to new ways of thinking society and power. What makes such outcomes so rare, however, is the governing principle of self-flattery on which Hollywood has always operated and which we are so willing to indulge in – in our filmgoing habits as well as our voting habits. Whatever happens, it is essential for us to maintain a healthily skeptical attitude towards industrial cinema, without losing any faith in its participants’ capacity to foster thoughtful discourse.

  • Harry Jamshidian

    Thomas that’s one of the best posts I’ve read on VH. Hollywood and its fucked up relationship with the elite political class is a fascinating subject. The Americans make nazis look like amateurs when it comes to mastering propaganda.