Postcards From the Left

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.


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.”

Comrade Reagan

The shift in Hollywood’s political contours since the pressurized times of the Reagan Administration has been tectonic.

When Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin all showed up last December 16 at a rally of close to 1,000 people in front of the Los Angeles Federal Building, it was to oppose Clinton’s impeachment (it took place rather glumly on the same day the President launched his military attack on Iraq). But fifteen years ago, in the salad days of the Reagan regime, Hollywood celebs like Mike Farrell, Edward Asner, Bob Foxworth and Michael Douglas–organized into the Committee of Concern–would draw twice that number for an ideologically more meaty protest against US policy in Central America. In the summer of 1984 TV star Bob Foxworth and his late wife, Elizabeth “Bewitched” Montgomery, set up a huge tent on their Benedict Canyon estate (once owned by director Howard Hawkes) and brought in hundreds of donors and activists to clink drinks with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Ed Asner stood on the steps of the State Department, announced the formation of Medical Aid for El Salvador and presented the first $25,000 relief check for war-ravaged communities there. A few weeks later CBS canceled his show, Lou Grant, but Medical Aid went on to raise several million dollars for the cause. “There was a certain sense of purpose in Hollywood back then,” says Mario Velasquez, a former Washington lobbyist for the Salvadoran FMLN guerrillas who went on to run Medical Aid until its shutdown in the early nineties. “When I would say I had been with the FMLN I could get a meeting with any producer in Hollywood. And they would write out the checks with the feeling they were part of something bigger than themselves.”

Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden nurtured a younger generation of Hollywood activists dubbed the Network and threw them into battle on several fronts–from Central America to toxics. Twentysomething producers and budding actors formed Young Artists United and joined the fray against the political right. Heady times. Much of this work of the liberal left was channeled around and through the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee. Founded in 1984 by Jane Fonda, producer Paula Weinstein, songwriter Marilyn Bergman and a handful of other powerful Hollywood women, the HWPC leaned heavily leftward. Over its thirteen-year history it dispersed $6 million to liberal, feminist, pro-choice, environmental and peace candidates. Along with its companion, the Hollywood Policy Center, the HWPC held forums and seminars, published a regular political alert bulletin and generally served as a network for activist Hollywood. “On the one hand we raised money from Hollywood’s midlevel crowd,” says HWPC’s last executive director, Lara Bergthold. “But we also educated our own people. We gave them a narrative, a cause, a more progressive place to be than just the Democratic Party. But now that’s all gone.”

All gone, says Democratic consultant Carrick, because the Hollywood activists–like much of the rest of liberal America–were more demobilized than energized by the ascension of Clintonism. “In the 1980s, there was an enormous edge in what Hollywood got out of politics. There was the juice of big issues like Nicaragua, abortion, Reagan and Bork. There was real tension not only with the Reagan Administration but also within the Democratic Party. But the Clinton presidency had a great moderating effect. Hollywood hadn’t had a close relationship with the White House since JFK, and all of a sudden in came Clinton. The ideological heat of the eighties evaporated overnight.” So did much of Hollywood’s political organization. The Show Coalition, which specialized in presenting a series of nonpartisan educational teach-ins on issues of the day, receded into the background. The Creative Coalition, founded in 1989 by Ron Silver, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, Christopher Reeve and Stephen Collins and recently chaired by Alec Baldwin (succeeded last year by his brother Billy), became an almost exclusively New York group. After the Hayden-Fonda divorce in 1989, the Network got folded into the HWPC. And Young Artists United seemed to just fade away.

Swept Away

The HWPC and like-minded activists survived into the nineties but found their role changing. Some hearty souls like SAG’s Richard Masur and The Creative Coalition’s Ron Silver threw themselves headlong into the fight for single-payer healthcare. But the Democrats seemed more interested in escalating their money demands. “It’s like they saw us as nothing more than overripe cash cows with triple udders,” says one of the groups’ veteran activists. As disillusionment crept in, there was some internal discussion about disbanding HWPC in 1994. But a consensus was reached to stick it out through Clinton’s re-election. It all finally came undone in September of 1996, when the HWPC, along with the Democratic National Committee, Ron Burkle and David Geffen, co-hosted the Los Angeles Presidential Gala. Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, the Eagles and others performed for an exhilarated President Clinton. A mountainous $4 million was raised in that one sitting–a stunning success. But behind the scenes, the DNC had strong-armed the HWPC into raising ticket prices so that the cheapest seat was $2,500. You had to pony up $25,000 to get into a smaller after-concert dinner with Bill and Hillary.

Worse, just a few weeks before the dinner, Clinton shocked the HWPC core by signing the welfare repeal bill. “At the beginning of ’96 we agreed with Geffen and [supermarket magnate] Ron Burkle to hold this gala. But after our name was on everything it was clear we had lost control to the DNC,” says former HWPC chief Bergthold. “We had simply lost influence because we were being outspent. Then, when Clinton signed welfare reform, that was the last nail. We withdrew in every sense except in name.”

Some seven months after the gala, the HWPC took the dramatic step of disbanding. Its demise has left a vacuum. SAG’s Masur says, “That sort of one-stop center for what’s going on hasn’t been replaced.” But Bergthold has no laments. “We did the right thing in disbanding,” she says. “We just couldn’t continue to go on raising money for a process we could no longer believe in.”

Tom Hayden, now a California state senator, remembers his experience of bringing together the Network in the eighties as a “catalytic” effort. “The Network served as a transition into politics for many Hollywood people,” says Hayden. “But it was hard to herd a pack of Hollywood celebrities through the thicket of candidates coming in to take their money. After it collapsed, people went on working on their own issues. Now they have their own personal political advisers.” The level of activism today might be, as Hayden contends, as high as in the eighties, but it is also more diffuse, more individualized. Different celebrities manage different issues. Last year, for example, director Rob Reiner mounted the successful campaign to pass California’s antitobacco Proposition 10 (though its supposedly progressive nature is mitigated by its regressive tax on poor people). Richard Dreyfuss concentrates much of his work on issues affecting inner-city youth. Holly Hunter and Morgan Fairchild–along with many others–are active in the pro-choice movement. Alfre Woodard, Denzel Washington and Blair Underwood support Artists for a New South Africa, which grew out of the antiapartheid movement. And Norman Lear has given millions–about $5 million last year–to Democratic causes and to civil rights, media (including investments in The Nation), democracy and lesbian and gay causes. People For the American Way, the group he founded in 1980 and helps fund, fights on First Amendment and separation-of-church-and-state issues–though this last year it found itself sidetracked into an expensive media campaign defending President Clinton against impeachment.

South Africa or South Central?

The Hollywood of 1999 endures the same political downsizing as the rest of America. “Hollywood is at its best when it is relating to a progressive left political force that’s already out there,” says Marge Tabankin. “It prefers to jump on a train that’s in motion. But there’s no train to jump on. What do you sign on to?” So in these times of narrow national debate, what passes for political activism today in Hollywood is often indistinguishable from mainstream charity work. Few dare to take on any controversy.

“What’s called the Hollywood left ran from the medical marijuana campaign like it was the plague,” says political consultant Bill Zimmerman, who managed California’s successful Prop 215 campaign. “I have never encountered such celebrity resistance to a single issue since the early days of Vietnam.” And while many of the Third World causes that still resonate in Hollywood have an intrinsic legitimacy, they demand little political courage when they are not linked directly to US policy. Nobody risks ostracism for supporting Tibet. “I pretty much founded the Human Rights Watch chapter out here in the early nineties,” says Stanley Sheinbaum. “Now all of a sudden it’s a big deal. We had a big dinner and out came [Seagram magnate Edgar] Bronfman, [former studio head Sidney] Sheinberg and Lear, and each gave $25,000. That’s great, really. But it hardly risks McCarthyism.”

There is, however, a faint silver lining in this political shift. More attention is being paid now to local organizing projects rather than to grand, often abstract and distant international causes. And at least one LA-based group, the Liberty Hill Foundation, is trying to funnel celebrity energy and cash into hard-core issues of economic justice–that is, into class-based politics.

“Most rich people don’t make any connection between their own wealth and their immediate environment,” says producer Sarah Pillsbury, who, along with three others with inheritances, founded Liberty Hill in the mid-seventies. “But it is particularly true with the Hollywood rich. They don’t recognize any relationship between their wealth and the city of Los Angeles. They don’t ever say LA’s been very, very good to me and I have some sort of responsibility. That’s why it’s often easier to raise money around the Taliban women than it is around victims of welfare reform.”

With support from celebrities like Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Alfre Woodard, and with an extensive Hollywood mailing list, Liberty Hill donates about $1 million in grants to frontline grassroots activist groups: from the Korean Immigrant Workers Association to the Bus Riders Union, welfare rights organizations and groups that fight environmental racism. “These economic issues are the toughest for Hollywood,” says Liberty Hill executive director Torie Osborn. “Contrary to public perception, Hollywood has not been a consistent philanthropic source. A cash machine for Democrats? Yes. But if you compare Hollywood as a funding base to New York as a funding base, Hollywood comes off as notoriously stingy. Very volatile. Very cause oriented. Very related to passing fad. We’re trying to create a culture of giving–giving for change.”

‘Good Ole Mister Grant’

Along with Liberty Hill, there is an authentic Hollywood left that functions beyond the parameters of narrow electoral politics. It’s a remarkably stable group, virtually unchanged through the eighties and nineties. Stable, perhaps, because it is so small. Mike Farrell, who in the eighties helped perform field surgery on a wounded Salvadoran guerrilla commander, today shoulders the wildly unpopular and unrewarding cause of opposition to the death penalty. Martin Sheen is a loyal foot soldier on issues of US involvement in Latin America and has long defended the rights of farm workers, and he continues to get arrested when necessary–even when there are no news cameras around. David Clennon–who played the sinister capitalist slime “Miles” in the thirtysomething TV series–is a rock-solid militant in labor causes. When called upon he starred in a guerrilla theater protest staged inside local government offices to press, successfully, for a living-wage ordinance–and during Operation Desert Storm, a publicist helped him get on radio and TV to denounce the war.

Oscar-winning cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler, who maintains a presence in every significant radical battle, is currently filming a documentary on the Bus Riders Union. SAG’s Richard Masur is working on campaign finance reform, among a dozen other causes. Director John Sayles doesn’t have much of an activist profile, but he does something that virtually no one else in Hollywood does: He makes left-wing movies. So does Oliver Stone, sometimes. Ed Begley Jr. is an environmental bulldog. And Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins can regularly be counted on for unpopular causes: They’re both active against the death penalty and are adamant about a more flexible immigration policy. Since the mid-eighties Sarandon has been the public face of Madre, an international women’s rights group forged in the heat of the Central American wars. (Disclosure: Robbins sits on the board of The Nation Institute.)

Then there’s Ed Asner. No one else in Hollywood even comes close to equaling his record of activism and courage. For his work as the chief spokesman for Medical Aid for El Salvador, Reaganites loudly accused him of being a collaborator with the leftist guerrillas the United States was trying to crush. CBS canceled his Lou Grant series after two large corporate advertisers–Vidal Sassoon and Kimberly Clarke–withdrew their sponsorship for fear of being associated with him.

Nearly twenty years later, he’s still hurting from that experience. “What kind of lead can Hollywood take?” he asks with a certain exasperation during an interview in his North Hollywood office. “You know, you only need one blacklist per century to teach everyone to pull in their horns. I tell you, when I came out on El Salvador, I never thought it was going to be so controversial. But I paid for it. And so did those close to me.”

Asner is clearly distressed by the current political debate–but not deterred. His political calendar still brims. He sits on the board of the Office of the Americas advocacy group, he still works with Central American refugee groups, he joins Mike Farrell in protesting capital punishment, and he recently returned from a trip to Cuba with Muhammad Ali as part of a vast medical relief project. He–along with David Clennon–has endorsed this year’s anti-Kazan protest at the Oscars. And Asner recently donated his time to narrate a video documentary highly critical of a DreamWorks development project that, environmentalists argue, will be ruinous to LA’s last remaining wetlands at Ballona Creek [see J. William Gibson, “Hollywood Sprawl,” March 1].

I ask Asner if he’s not a bit concerned that taking on DreamWorks powerhouses Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen might not be the wisest career decision. Asner leans back in his chair, runs his beefy hands over his face and then back over his pate. “It’s true. I have to watch my every move,” he says with visible anguish. “I just thought…um,” he says verbally stumbling around for the answer.

And then he says without even the slightest hint of drama and in a rather self-effacing, almost embarrassed tone: “I just thought. I just think the earth is important. Even a little piece of it.”

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