The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection, by Ronald Brownstein, New York: Pantheon Books, 437 pages, $24.95
Actor Alec Baldwin told a movie fan magazine that he is so disgusted with America that he sometimes lies awake at night dreaming of joining a neo-terrorist group like the Irish Republican Army or Black Panther Party to "blow up some chemical plant." He also calls President George Bush "a CIA mass murderer."
Director Oliver Stone told a serious Hollywood film publication that the only way to turn the country around is for America to get bloodied in another war. "I think America has to bleed," he told an interviewer for American Film. "I think the corpses have to pile up. I think American boys have to die again. Let the mothers weep and mourn." He also suggested to a Los Angeles Times reporter that President Bush should shoot himself because "his soul is dead."
Actress Jane Fonda praised communism before audiences in the early 1970s, posed for pictures on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun, and later accused returning U.S. POWs of lying when they recounted incidents of torture and abuse at the hands of their captors.
Wild and irresponsible political statements and actions by Hollywood celebrities are nothing new. Since at least the late 1930s, when the Communist Party began to dominate the politics of the motion picture industry, it has been common to find movie stars, writers, and directors out in left field, so to speak. But why? What is it about Hollywood that causes it to embrace the politics of the lunatic fringe? Ronald Brownstein offers a thoughtful explanation for the history of irresponsible radicalism in the entertainment industry in The Power and the Glitter.
"Some of the forces that led the Hollywood activists toward that fringe had been present in the film industry since its first brush with politics and remain important today," writes Brownstein. "Accustomed to relying more on emotion than analysis, artists tend to take purist positions on political and social matters. The film community's leftist activists constantly find politicians, who deal in the world of the possible, insufficiently liberal. Partly that is because Hollywood figures, like most activists, have the luxury of criticizing without the responsibility of actually making decisions. But the political extremism of the film industry activists also reflects the unique pressures of working in a creative medium that is above all a business. Compelled to compromise constantly in the making of films, Hollywood figures tend to veer toward the other extreme and become purists in politics, as a sort of psychic compensation; people in the industry have always looked to politics as an arena that allows them to demonstrate that they really have deep convictions about something, even if their artistic choices don't display them."
Insights like that make Brownstein's book a standout among the many previously published studies of Hollywood politics. Never before has one work so accurately and systematically exposed the fraud, deceit, hypocrisy, and, most of all, shallowness of the long list of celebrity activists, from Dalton Trumbo and Lillian Hellman to Martin Sheen and Daphne Zuniga.
Brownstein, a national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, bares the roots of today's strange brand of activism and assesses the need of the movie community to be taken seriously. "Living in a world of fantasy, paid extravagantly, and typically unsure exactly why they have been chosen above all contenders for such fabulous awards, movie stars often feel bewildered by and unworthy of the enormous reverence they generate," he writes.
The book begins with a look at the politics of the moguls, dissecting the little-known relationship among Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst, and President Herbert Hoover. It moves from there to perhaps the most accurate, unbiased account to date of Communist Party activity in Hollywood leading up to the blacklist era.
While citing estimates that Hollywood's party membership never rose above about 300 (mostly writers), Brownstein says that "the Communists' intensity gave them influence well beyond their ranks."
"Because the Communist Party discovered Hollywood before the Democratic Party, put more effort into organizing it, and had a message that appealed to Hollywood's sense of the dramatic, the Communists and their allies on the far left were too numerous, energetic and integral to the political community to ignore," the author writes. "In the mid-1930s the Communists were so entrenched that it was not possible to develop independent, non-Communist liberal institutions in the film community."
Anyone conducting serious research into this period of history would come to the same conclusion. But there has been an enormous amount of misinformation published that minimizes the clout of the party and the fact that the U.S. Communists were little more than tools of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
As evidence, Brownstein dutifully recounts the overnight transformation of Hollywood's antifascist coalitions into isolationist peace groups following the signing of the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact in 1939. "Politicians more sophisticated than the Hollywood liberals made the same mistake [forming united fronts with Communists] during the 1930s, but few had more difficulty extricating themselves once the alliance turned sour," Brownstein writes.
Brownstein does miss some important subtleties in his retracing of the Hollywood 10 case. In 1947, the nine writers and one director, all at least one-time party members, were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify about Communist activities in Hollywood. All were jailed for contempt of Congress when they refused to discuss their party membership. The author suggests that the group ruled out pleading the Fifth Amendment or acknowledging party membership because both strategies would have resulted in professional suicide.
But there is one more little-known but important reason the group couldn't take either action collectively. John Howard Lawson, the commissar of the Hollywood Communists and one of the 10, had previously testified before a California legislative investigative committee that he wasn't a party member. Any contradictory testimony before the House committee would, of course, have resulted in a perjury charge, since the congressional probers had proof of his membership.
Brownstein is occasionally too soft on the Hollywood Communists, who first instituted the blacklisting practice as a means of placing party members in strategic areas of the movie business. He suggests, for instance, that "the price paid by the Hollywood Communists greatly exceeded their sins; they were punished for treason when they were guilty only of misplaced belief."
Not quite right. In fact, a serious analysis of the work habits of the key players in the debate indicates that those who suffered most in the wake of the committee hearings were the friendly, anticommunist witnesses—many of whom never worked another day in Hollywood.
However, Brownstein hits far more often than he misses in both his reporting and his conclusions. He writes, for instance, that "the elimination of the Communist Party ultimately strengthened the left in Hollywood—not only by steering it back toward the political mainstream where it could have the most impact, but by branding the right with responsibility for the purge's mean-spirited personal vindictiveness. The inquisition would be a victory from which Hollywood conservatives never quite recovered."
The Hollywood left learned 25 years later that its real clout came from its ability to use celebrity to raise tremendous amounts of money and publicity. Stunned in 1980 by the election of one of its own as president, Hollywood set out to undermine Ronald Reagan and everything for which he stood. "
Though he emboldened Republicans and encouraged political activity on both sides, Reagan's lasting impact was to reinvigorate the Hollywood left after the torpor of the Carter administration," writes Brownstein. "In their eagerness to combat Reagan…the Hollywood liberals launched a wave of organization building more vigorous than anything seen since the 1940s, when Reagan himself trooped to meetings of the Hollywood Democratic Committee."
Brownstein details the formation of Norman Lear's People for the American Way and dozens of other groups that sprang up in response to the Reagan political agenda. Sadly, he doesn't deal at all with the way people like Lear exert the bulk of their influence—through the content of their programing. Shows like "All in the Family" and "Maude" may ultimately do much more to alter the nation's political and cultural climate than all of Hollywood's lobbying and fund-raising groups put together. But perhaps that is another book for another time.
Occasionally, Brownstein is too charitable in assessing today's Hollywood activists. He portrays Robert Redford as thoughtful, cautious, responsible, and politically astute. Perhaps the author is unaware of Redford's fascination with and support for Fidel Castro and other Latin American dictators.
For years, Redford, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and others in Hollywood have been underwriting Castro's International Film School in Havana with cash, equipment, and personal appearances. The report in The New Republic last year exposing the school as nothing more than a propaganda arm of Castro's police state must have eluded Brownstein's attention.
But, on balance, The Power and the Glitter goes further than any book to date in advancing the debate on the proper role of celebrities and image makers in the political process.
Joseph Farah is editor of the Sacramento Union and founder of Between the Lines, a biweekly publication covering the politics of the news media and the entertainment industry.