About this blog: With the annual Oscars pageant upon us,
conservative politicians, particularly those on the
campaign trail, will likely take time out for their traditional bashing of Hollywood as a hotbed of leftist activism. While it is true some Hollywood stars promote liberal causes, Steven J. Ross, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, has found another story in Tinseltown. In his book “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” published by Oxford University Press, Ross charts the politics that takes root on the set and discovers that conservatism has had a longer history in Hollywood than liberalism and that right-leaning movie stars have had a bigger impact on American political life than their more-vocal leftist counterparts. Here, Ross outlines five reasons Hollywood isn’t a bastion of liberalism.
1. Hollywood’s conservative origins: Republicans, not Democrats, established the first political beachhead in Hollywood. During the late 1920s, Louis B. Mayer turned MGM into a publicity wing of the GOP and a training ground for future conservative activists such as George Murphy, Robert Montgomery, and Robert Taylor. Ruling over Hollywood’s most powerful studio from 1924 to 1951, Mayer (who also headed the California GOP in 1932) taught Republicans how to use film, radio, and movie stars to sell candidates and ideas to a mass public well before Hollywood liberals entered the political fray.
2. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals: Although liberals and radicals dominated Hollywood politics during the 1930s and early 1940s, the Hollywood right brought a halt to their power in the postwar era. Founded in February 1944, the Motion Picture Alliance sought to combat the “growing impression that this industry is made up of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crack-pots.” Led by MGM’s conservative diehards and prominent figures such as John Wayne, Walt Disney and Hedda Hopper, the group invited the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to Los Angeles to investigate alleged communist infiltration of Hollywood. MPA members also aided HUAC’s anti-Red crusade by serving as “friendly witnesses” during the committee’s hearings in May 1947.
3. Hollywood right trumps the Hollywood left: Although the Hollywood left has been more numerous and visible over the years, the Hollywood right — led by Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, and Charlton Heston — has had a greater impact on American political life. All four men helped lay the groundwork for the conservative revolution of the 1980s, a revolution that challenged the most important liberal achievement of the 20th century, the welfare state created under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ironically, Murphy, Reagan and Heston began their political lives as ardent New Deal liberals. Murphy converted to the conservative cause in the late 1930s, Reagan in the early 1950s, and Heston during the 1972 presidential election campaign. It is hard to think of any major star who moved from the right to the left.
4. Arnold Schwarzenegger and celebrity politics: Republicans and Democrats have used movie stars to bolster the fortunes of party candidates throughout the 20th century. But Schwarzenegger showed his liberal counterparts how celebrity could be leveraged to win high office without the benefit of a precise ideological message. The Austrian-born immigrant understood that seemingly lightweight entertainment venues such as Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight offered new ways of engaging and mobilizing voters, especially those who usually stayed away from the polls. During his successful gubernatorial run in 2003, he shunned traditional news outlets and placed entertainment shows at the center of his campaign.
5. Friends of Abe: The most important source of underground political activism in Hollywood today comes from the right and not the left. Organized by actor Gary Sinise and featuring members such as Pat Boone and Kelsey Grammer, Friends of Abe (named after the president) is a group of 600 actors, writers, and producers who meet in restaurants and private homes to discuss supporting candidates and promoting film and television projects that offer conservative views of traditional American values. They operate out of the limelight because of fears that liberal industry leaders would blacklist outspoken conservatives.
Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston