When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide

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.


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.

The whole uproar over Kazan is probably incomprehensible to today’s Hollywood, where the only unforgivable crime is failure, and people screw their friends every day. But Kazan was a towering cultural figure at the time, our leading stage director who was making his mark on movies. It wasn’t just that; he had come up through the Group Theater and wore the mantle of the struggle for social justice and the fight against fascism. Kazan threw the great moral and artistic authority at his disposal on the side of the witch hunters. Had he jumped the other way, our subsequent history might have been very different. As Danny Glover points out in this issue, “Had it not been for the period of scapegoating and purging of radical forces in the late forties and the early fifties, the whole civil rights movement would have been much more radical.”

But Kazan’s life, for good or ill, does emblematize something that has now become a rarity: a career fully committed to art and politics, with the politics feeding the work. And, in defiance of conventional wisdom, which holds that the two don’t mix, what exceptional work it was. It was his decision to inform that inspired his masterpiece, On the Waterfront.

The following pages contain a disparate mix of articles threaded along the axes of art and politics. The subject is more timely than ever, since, with the emergence of Hollywood as a powerful global entity, it is increasingly entangled in the skein of international politics. On the domestic front, with next year’s Democratic convention to be held in LA and the California primaries moved up to March, right after New Hampshire, Hollywood can be expected to exert more influence than ever on the selection of candidates.

The articles range from a discussion with a handful of prominent film-world activists, to John Horn’s consideration of the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption in studio movies, to Tom Schatz’s attempt to make sense of the current financial crisis in Hollywood. Susie Linfield queries people as various as Sue Coe and Larry Flynt on the movie that to them best captures America. Marc Cooper examines the ways in which the Clinton presidency has both co-opted and demoralized the Hollywood left, while David Corn assesses attempts to invigorate the Hollywood right.

All these pieces return again and again to the theme of money. And even this, at least in Hollywood’s case, can be traced back to the witch hunt of the fifties. “A whole aspect of Hollywood was weeded out,” continues Glover. “Money always had an important place in Hollywood, but it was in that critical period that Hollywood began to change and became a place where money became the main force within that community.” The blacklist created a moral vacuum in Hollywood that allowed materialism to entrench itself as never before. The social upheaval of the sixties and early seventies, along with the example of auteurs abroad, derailed the money train for more than a decade. But now it’s back on track and picking up speed. Maybe Paul Weyrich has a point.

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