restricted access Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics by Steven J. Ross (review)
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Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics
Steven J. Ross, Oxford University Press, 2013. 500 pages, $21.95 paper.

A common assumption in American politics is that the nation’s film capital is the bastion of liberalism, but in Hollywood Left and Right, Steven J. Ross, Professor of History at the University of Southern California, challenges this conventional wisdom. Basing his conclusions upon detailed archival research into the political and film careers of ten Hollywood activists, Ross argues that while a majority in the film community may identify with liberal causes, conservatives have enjoyed far more success when it comes to electoral politics. To depict the liberal legacy in Hollywood Ross has selected Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty, while the conservative wing of the film community is represented by Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Charlton Heston, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, of course, Ronald Reagan. The result is a remarkably well balanced and written book that challenges popular assumptions about the role of the film industry in American life and politics.

Ross cites Charlie Chaplin as the first political movie star, noting that his sympathy for radical causes originated in his own impoverished background. Chaplin was often critical of capitalism in his films and public comments, but Ross asserts that he was certainly never a communist. Yet, Chaplin’s influence began to wane, according to Ross, when The Great Dictator (1940) seemed to call for intervention in Europe ahead of public opinion. Ross concludes that in the post-World War II period Chaplin’s films, such as Monsieur Verdoux (1947), failed at the box office and were viewed as little more than left-wing propaganda. The Red Scare and sex scandals with younger women led to Chaplin’s exile from Hollywood. The communist issue also derailed Edward G. Robinson’s film career. Ross describes Robinson as a liberal in the 1930s and 1940s, who was interested in issue-oriented politics such as antifascism, support for European Jews, and aid to America’s Russian allies during the Second World War. But the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused Robinson of being a Communist, and he was blacklisted by the film industry. A humiliated Robinson confessed to being duped by Communists disguising their activities through Popular Front organizations. The aging actor, however, was unable to resurrect his career. Ross writes, “Robinson’s story reveals how a diverse array of conservatives brought a temporary halt to the emergence of Hollywood as a powerful progressive force in American politics” (91).

In the wake of the HUAC hearings, blacklisting, and fate of the Hollywood Ten, conservatism dominated Hollywood in the 1950s, but issues such as the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War brought renewed activism by the left during the turbulent 1960s. Ross describes Harry Belafonte and Jane Fonda as representative of what the author terms as movement politics. Influenced by Paul Robeson, Belafonte used his film and singing career to promote the cause of racial equality. Eventually despairing of Hollywood’s efforts to move beyond racial stereotypes, Belafonte abandoned film and committed to the Civil Rights Movement as a coalition builder, fundraiser, and confidant to Martin Luther King Jr. Ross concludes that Belafonte “wound up devoting his life to doing something he often found burdensome, but felt compelled to do” (187). While some discount Jane Fonda’s political commitment, Ross insists that the actress made important contributions to the antiwar movement and the struggle for economic democracy through her political activism. Ross observes that Fonda was naïve to pose for a photograph atop a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, but her journey to Hanoi did put pressure on the Nixon administration to cease bombing the North Vietnamese dike system. Fonda is also credited, along [End Page 57] with husband Tom Hayden, with forming the Campaign for Economic Democracy, championing feminism, and producing popular political films such as Coming Home (1978) and The China Syndrome (1979), which proved activism did not have to destroy one’s career in cinema. Nevertheless, Ross notes that Fonda antagonized many conservatives who refuse to forgive the actress for her antiwar activities.

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