Postcards From the Left
As the limos and their glitterati cargo pull up to the Oscars ceremony this year, they may have to share a bit of screen time with a band of angry picketers. At press time, plans to protest the granting of an honorary Academy Award to director Elia Kazan, a man shunned for decades after he named names during the great Hollywood witch hunt of the fifties, had already attracted media attention. To many, the sight of the protesters will only reconfirm notions that Tinseltown functions as the nerve center of a vast left-wing conspiracy. But the Kazan protests are more like a hiccup from the past, when the left--even a Marxist left--had a palpable presence in Hollywood. The core group organizing the protest is largely made up of aging survivors of the McCarthyite blacklist. Their protest is noble, but it has little to do with the political heart of today's Hollywood.
"One of the great myths is that this town is a powerhouse of left-leaning Hollywood types ready at a moment's notice to start the revolution," says Richard Masur, the activist president of the Screen Actors Guild. "Fact is, it's only a small group of people willing to stand up on either side for their agendas. If anything, the left-of-center folks often get more activated as they try to counter the weight of Hollywood decision-makers, who are more often right of center." The Kazan controversy might stir the gossip pot for a week or two, but the political scrambling in Hollywood this season is hardly going to be over such lofty notions of loyalty, collaboration, blacklists and betrayal. Says legendary left-liberal rainmaker Stanley K. Sheinbaum, "I can sum up for you in one word what Hollywood politics means today: money."
Sheinbaum, the septuagenarian son-in-law of studio mogul Harry Warner, is talking to me over coffee the day after he and producer Norman Lear held a private meeting with visiting Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. "He was thinking about running for President," says Sheinbaum, "so he thought he'd cover his left flank by meeting with us." That meeting, of course, was right after a series of other Hollywood meetings scheduled by presidential candidate John McCain: a lunch with Barry Diller and a dinner with Disney chief Michael Eisner. And it was right before Diller and Eisner had a meet 'n' greet with presidential hopeful Bill Bradley. While all that was happening, Al Gore was conducting round-robins with the DreamWorks holy trinity of Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen. DreamWorks' spokesperson Andy Spahn--who used to grumble to friends about Jerry Brown being a "corporate Democrat"--is now positioning himself as the de facto point man in the coming Gore crusade for Hollywood cash. Sheinbaum, himself no novice at levitating political dough, grumbles: "This next year is going to be about everyone trying to outdo the next guy...about DreamWorks giving hundred-thousand-dollar dinners one after another. It's not very interesting." Maybe not to Sheinbaum, who stirs to a good ideological fight. But the candidates are very interested.
Because Hollywood is increasingly dominated by a few superrich titans, it's not so much the "hard money"--the legal maximum $1,000-per-head contributions to candidates--that's alluring to politicians. "Wall Street and the trial lawyers' lobby are both much better sources of hard money than Hollywood," says Los Angeles Democratic campaign consultant Bill Carrick. "It's that soft money that brings 'em all here." Soft money refers to the unlimited contributions that are given to a party or a cause, not directly to a candidate. "Hollywood is a tremendous source of soft money," says Carrick. "Eight million dollars or more now per cycle." And two-thirds goes to Democrats.
White House Sleepover
There was a time--ironically, up until the Clinton era--when progressive Hollywood could actually make its weight felt in an election year. But that voice--which achieved a certain effectiveness as an opposition during the Reagan/Bush era--has been drowned out by the roar of Big Money during the last six years of Democratic reign. "If you were someone back ten years ago who could bundle together fifteen or twenty individual thousand-dollar contributions, you were really in the first tier in Hollywood politics," says William Bradley, a Sacramento-based adviser to numerous Democratic presidential campaigns. "You would even have the right, sort of, to interrogate a presidential candidate. But now when a candidate comes to Hollywood he hardly has to pass the muster of Norman Lear's salon or win the approval of the activist liberals. Now, it's much more a matter of getting to a superstar who in turn gets you to the moguls. The first tier now are the guys who can bundle hundred-thousand-dollar contributions. And the old activist first tier has dropped down to third."
The individual liberal artists and producers who always gave a thousand or two to their favorite candidates are still giving. But the torrent of soft money has washed away their influence. The price tag to be a significant player has skyrocketed even beyond the reach of a working, mid-ranked Hollywood actor. "We used to be able to take those contributions from working Hollywood and package them with a progressive agenda," says Marge Tabankin, former executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee. Disenchanted with the money fever, HWPC disbanded two years ago. "Now the money is still being given, but it's in a political vacuum."
If the big guns--the Geffens and Eisners--have any agenda, it has more to do with business than ideology. Geffen, for example, has concentrated his efforts this political season on working with other mega-entrepreneurs to bring the 2000 Democratic National Convention to Los Angeles. The relationship between Hollywood and Washington is that of two mutually admiring elites. Celebrities collecting other celebrities. At the same time, corporate Hollywood does expect and receive legislative favors from the political forces it finances. Last year Disney called in its political chits and secured Congressional approval of copyright law changes beneficial to studio interests. Time Warner, Seagram (which owns Universal Studios) and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (which owns Fox) all conducted successful lobbying efforts on targeted legislation. But as far as the vast majority of issues are concerned, it's not like David Geffen, Barry Diller and Jeffrey Katzenberg are shaping the presidential platforms of Al Gore and Bill Bradley.
"These guys get into it for the buzz," says one Hollywood star's longtime political-issues adviser. Sheinbaum, who befriended Bill Clinton a decade ago and hosted the Arkansas governor at his Brentwood home, shrugs off the notion that any serious agenda is being negotiated by Hollywood funders. "Their interest isn't ideological. They just want to be invited to Camp David. They want to sleep in the White House. Just like I did."