Last week one of the strangest stories to go viral in the first hours after riot police cleared Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park was the fact that dozens of celebrities were tweeting about the raid. Tweets from Alec Baldwin, John Cusack, Chuck D, Russell Simmons and Michael Moore were re-circulated in at least 8,000 news stories, blogs and other tweets. Journalists reported that the celebrity tweets were full of concern and outrage, as in this tweet from Mark Ruffalo “People in Liberty Park were pepper sprayed. Police beat women. Press pushed out so they could not witness the crackdown. Dehumanizing 99%#Ows.”
At virtually the same moment Time magazine mounted a slide show on its website of the five most “colorful” celebrity critics of Occupy Wall Street. At the top of the list was Frank Miller, author/illustrator of 300, Sin City and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns who called the protestors “a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.” Also in the top five were Ben Stein, long time Republican-identified star of the game show Win Ben Stein’s Money and All Clear eye solution commercials, The View talk show host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, hyperbolic pundit Glenn Beck, and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.
Though this recent news coverage of celebrity involvement in politics is almost parodically superficial, political celebrity is hardly the latest fad. Activism by actors is as old as Hollywood itself . As Steven J. Ross argues in his new book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (2011), the power of Hollywood celebrities to effect real political change dates back to the first red scare in US history, when J. Edgar Hoover ordered FBI agents in to investigate left-leaning stars. In 1922 FBI agents reported back to Hoover that “numerous movie stars” were taking “an active part in the Red movement in this country.” These actors, the agents reported, were “hatching a plan to circulate ‘Communist propaganda…via the movies.’”
If The New York Times is right (and I hope it is) and Occupy Wall Street represents the legitimate beginnings of the third progressive movement in modern American politics, then Ross’s book is a timely reminder that we should treat celebrities’ involvement in politics seriously. With Hollywood Left and Right, Ross has produced a thoroughly researched, extremely readable, and fascinating account of Hollywood stars, on the left as well as the right, who have used their money, influence, and star power, as well as their considerable organizing and leadership talents to create, sustain, and shape American political movements.
Ross has spent much of his career finding the connections between popular films, film stars, and working class and left politics. His seminal Working Class Hollywood offered the counter-intuitive thesis that working class politics could be found in early silent films, and in this book Ross argued that unions were among the most enthusiastic early adopters of film technology for their cause.
With Hollywood Left and Right, Ross gives us ten engaging biographies of some of the most prominent and political Hollywood stars and moguls, from studio head Louis B. Mayer to Charlie Chaplin, Edward G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, George Murphy, Warren Beatty, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
For readers like myself who did not grow up in the 1950s and 1960s, the biographies of Ronald Reagan and Jane Fonda are especially surprising. In the Jane Fonda chapter Ross explains how Fonda’s momentary lapse in judgment during a trip to Vietnam labeled her forever as Hanoi Jane, but Ross also shows why her long, committed political career should be seen in greater detail and complexity. Fonda was an important foot soldier as well as a leader and strategist for the New Left—an activist more committed to stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors than to becoming a high profile emblem of the cause. Likewise the stereotype of Reagan as an “actor turned politician” does little justice to Reagan’s long, sometimes contradictory, but surprisingly intellectual and well-thought-out transition from the silver screen to the presidency.
But what about Hollwood and the working class? What can Ross’s history of political celebrities tell us about this fragile and fascinating relationship? Ross shows at least three ways that political celebrities have connected to the working class over the last century:1) many political celebrities came from working-class backgrounds and/or had working class sympathies from a young age; 2) many political celebrities have played working-class characters; 3) many political celebrities, both left and right, have understood that their audiences were mostly working-class and have used the populist rhetoric of “ordinary Americans” to explain their political actions.
Of the Hollywood luminaries that Ross profiles, Louis B. Mayer, Charlie Chaplin, and Edward G. Robinson had the most hard-scrabble childhoods. Mayer, born Lazar Meir in the Ukraine, migrated to Canada in the early 1900s,where his father became a junk dealer. For London-born Chaplin, after his parents divorced he was “plunged into the harsh underbelly of Victorian London.” It was there, according to Ross, that the humiliation Chaplin suffered at the hands of condescending reformers and do-gooders was even worse than being cold and hungry. Edward G. Robinson was a Romanian immigrant whose parents sent their sons to America one by one, as they could afford to, after Robinson’s brother Jack was killed in Romania by an anti-Semitic mob. Robinson later attended PS 20 in New York City, living with his family in a “cramped Broome Street tenement flat.” And even stars like Reagan and Warren Beatty, who grew up in relatively middle-class homes, both suffered from having alcoholic fathers. Low down suffering, it seems, lurks in the biography of many a political Hollywood star.
Ross also writes about the way these political stars played working-class characters on the big screen. Ross explains how Chaplin created working-class characters, like The Tramp, who was not content with his station in life, and who even engaged in political struggle, however hilariously. Robinson played lowbrow gangsters throughout the 1930s, and he knew that the gangster motif appealed to working-class viewers who envied the gangster’s material success but who also judged the route the gangster used to achieve it. Belafonte, who also had a difficult immigrant childhood, played a labor leader in the film Island in the Sun (1957). Warren Beatty, who resisted many calls to enter politics as a candidate in his own right, played the radical John Reed, in the epic film Reds. Jane Fonda memorably played Gertie Nevels, the luckless working-class Appalachian mother in The Dollmakers (1984).
Finally, Ross writes about the way that Hollywood’s more political stars understood the classed nature of the film industry’s mass audience, and how some used populist rhetoric to describe their own political choices. Mayer, despite his conservative politics, or, perhaps because of them, understood that the movie industry was built on the “nickels of the working class.” Reagan and George Murphy, from the years they spent appealing to viewers at the box office as “B” movie stars, understood how to craft a message that would appeal to working-class Americans, even if the policies they campaigned for ultimately hurt those same people. “Americans really are conservatives,” Reagan argued on the campaign trail in the 1960s. “They pay their bills, they don’t run big debts.” Echoing this populist note, Arnold Schwarzenegger “warned Democratic and Republican politicians tos ‘do your job for the people and do it well, otherwise you’re hasta la vista, baby.’” Likewise Jane Fonda’s China Syndrome is about the way ordinary people rise up against a large corporation, demanding answers as well as change.
The most important lesson of Ross’s book is that when Hollywood stars become political, their rhetoric, and their activism, should be taken seriously. Though Ross certainly leans to the left himself, he admires the sincerity and the skill with which even right-leaning Hollywood politicos have operated. “They worked as hard at their politics as they did at their screen careers,” Ross argues. The “United States would be a far better place,” Ross, concludes, if each of us was willing to work as hard as these emblematic Hollywood luminaries.
But another, more subtle lesson of Hollywood Left and Right is that political movie stars have often understood that the working class—the 60+% of Americans who do most of the difficult and underappreciated work in our country—must be recognized for the productivity and consumer power they possess. From the ranks of the working class, and, especially, from the ranks of working-class immigrants, we have been given some of our biggest entertainers and stars. Their understanding of poverty, suffering, and solidarity can serve as inspiration to the rest of us, whatever our backgrounds.
Kathy M. Newman