Tom Shales On TV: Barry Levinson's 'PoliWood'

By Tom Shales
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Told he's had a nothing-if-not-eclectic career, Barry Levinson thinks for half a second and says, "As it turns out, I guess it has been." True. Not everyone could go from playing a deranged bellhop in a Mel Brooks farce to winning an Oscar for directing a sensitive and bittersweet drama about an autistic genius and his brother.

The Oscar was for "Rain Man" (1988), co-starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. Levinson's other films as director include a "Baltimore trilogy" that grew into a quartet: "Diner" (1982), "Tin Men" (1987), "Avalon" (1990) and the less-seen "Liberty Heights" (1999).

Years earlier, he got his start as a comedy writer for Carol Burnett, Tim Conway and other TV stars. Before that, and while a student at American University, he was a floor director at what was then WTOP-TV (now WUSA). "They had a training program back then, and I did everything," he recalls. "I even worked the hand puppets on a kiddie show."

The 67-year-old writer-director's career takes another turn this week with "PoliWood," an earnest and revealing 90-minute documentary he shot at the Democratic and Republican national conventions last year. The film had its TV premiere Monday night on Showtime and will repeat all month.

"PoliWood" should easily sustain one's interest, not incidentally for the glittery parade of political and showbiz stars that keeps up throughout the film. The film's revelations are not blinding, for the most part, and one observation has become a veritable truism: that people who heard the debate between presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy on the radio thought Nixon "won," whereas TV viewers who saw a cool, Cary Grantic young man face a sweaty, bestubbled politician gave the debate to JFK.

But the documentary also deals in many a provocative idea about Democrats, Republicans, show business and the increased polarization of politics.

Levinson made the film at the behest of the Creative Coalition, an arts advocacy group that Levinson says really is bipartisan -- even though a few of the people interviewed in the film repeat the accusation that Hollywood is populated entirely by left-leaning rich folks. One man claims that a political conservative could never become a movie star.

"I thought it was a preposterous statement, but I didn't want to comment on it in the film," Levinson says. "I did not want to feed into this polarization thing at all -- although I could have mentioned [Republicans] Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis and others and ask, 'How did they get to be stars?' In Hollywood, the studios are owned and run by Republican corporations, but people want to buy into that liberal elite idea.

"It's really annoying to me that this image doesn't go away. The so-called Hollywood elite came to California from all over the country, from small towns in many different states. And they come because they all want to succeed via the American dream."

In the film and while chatting, Levinson blames the news media at least in part for perpetuating polarization; every TV news producer prefers combative conversations to anything thoughtful and reasoned, he says. "The feeling is that it makes these conversations more 'energetic.' When they book people for political talk shows, they want somebody who has a strong, black-and-white view of things, not someone who can see both sides of an issue."

Television is a character in "PoliWood," which opens with a scene from Levinson's "Avalon" in which a Baltimore family of the 1950s takes possession of its first television set. And it takes possession of them.

The movie looks at the cult of celebrity and the fact that politicians and movie stars now seem to be on the same plane; the National Enquirer is almost as likely to feature political scandal as to splash Hollywood gossip all over its pages. "Everyone is a celebrity now because everyone is on television," Levinson says. "We can't tell those who are qualified to speak on a serious subject from those who aren't."

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