When those in my modest circle of acquaintances learned that I was editing a Hollywood issue of The Nation, they found it either risible or irritating. In both instances, the reaction was something like, Et tu, Victor? Joining the celebrity parade? Looking for a little patina of stardust to spruce up those gray pages? But generally, after the laughter ebbed and the eyes settled back into their sockets, they acknowledged the logic. At a time when the financial clout of the conglomerates that own the studios has become enormous–entertainment having become America’s second-leading export–you don’t have to swallow the argument of Neal Gabler’s recent book, Life the Movie, which holds that entertainment values have become the cultural version of mad cow disease, honeycombing the American brain with gaping holes called Titanic, Armageddon, Godzilla and so on, to recognize the importance of Hollywood and the celebrity culture it has spawned not only to the life of this country but to the world.
Once upon a time, Hollywood and Washington, entertainment and politics, were separate spheres, each happily spinning in its own universe. But beginning at least in the thirties, Hollywood has exercised a powerful gravitational tug over Washington. The HUAC investigations of the late forties and early fifties drove them apart, but John F. Kennedy drew them together again, and by the eighties, the two cities were conflated. The Reagan presidency was a watershed of sorts, overcoming the last vestiges of resistance to the involvement of entertainment figures in politics and raising to a fine art such familiar Hollywood phenomena as spin control, focus groups, TV spots, photo ops and the like. And of course the close relationship between our current President and Hollywood power brokers has been amply documented. Throughout the recent scandal, rare was the pundit who failed to reach for the Hollywood metaphor to explain the latest news from Washington. Clinton’s ratings were rising because Monicagate was a soap opera and the twists and turns of the plot were getting more dramatic. The impeachment failed because of low Nielsens. When Clinton bombed the aspirin factory in the Sudan, it was once again a film, Wag the Dog, that no less of a moviegoer than Trent Lott evoked.
So if politics has become no more than a mere epiphenomenon of entertainment, a shadow play of a shadow play, why not go to the source? It makes eminent sense for a journal of politics to examine the relation between Hollywood and Washington on the occasion of the penultimate Oscar ceremony of this century. From this vantage point, the past year has been notable for four apparently unrelated events: Warren Beatty’s startling film, Bulworth; the Motion Picture Academy’s controversial decision to award its Lifetime Achievement Award to Elia Kazan; the untimely death of the great director Stanley Kubrick; and Paul Weyrich’s post-impeachment temper tantrum, in which he suggested that all right-minded people could do worse than drop out of mainstream–read, Hollywood–culture and seek solace in the Bible, presumably the Book of Job.
Bulworth is a feature-length gloss on the truism “money talks,” dramatizing the proposition that Mammon–in its corporate incarnation–has corrupted both the electoral process in this country and the movies, making campaigns impossible for principled candidates, and likewise making it difficult to produce movies that address, in any authentic way, how we live now. It is a theme raised repeatedly in this issue, as Beatty, Alec Baldwin, Norman Lear and other politically active Hollywood people name campaign reform the issue, lest the electoral system atrophy altogether.
Beatty’s first screen role, the role that made him a star, was Bud Stamper in Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, a critique of the fifties legacy of sexual repression, released in 1961. Splendor in the Grass was Kazan’s last good movie. By the time the picture came out, he was nine years past the event that altered his life forever, namely, informing on his friends and colleagues before HUAC. Many of the people who had been blacklisted were gradually making their way back into the industry, as courageous liberals, namely Otto Preminger, who produced Exodus, and Edward Lewis and Kirk Douglas, who produced Spartacus, allowed Dalton Trumbo to write under his own name. (Spartacus, of course, was Kubrick’s first hit, but it should be said that Kubrick, whose later picture Dr. Strangelove did more to harm the reputation of the US military than HUAC ever imagined its blacklistees to have done, tried to claim writing credit for himself when it seemed that Trumbo would not be allowed to get his own name on the screen. It was not Kubrick’s finest moment.) Trumbo discusses the witch hunt in a 1957 letter to Murray Kempton published in this issue, written on the occasion of Kempton’s contemptuous dismissal of the blacklistees in an uncharacteristically obtuse essay included in his cold war-inflected volume, Part of Our Time–an essay that Kempton himself later repudiated.