The Brief History of Hollywood’s Affair with Politics

ronald-reagan-chimp

Ronald Reagan; Actor, chimp whisperer, and 40th President of the USA.

I’m not here to get political, but I am here to use history as a jumping off point to, well, make a point. Last night, in front of more than 20 million viewers [1], Meryl Streep accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes and, I guess, had something to say about it.

I love you all. You have to forgive me, I have lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year so I have to read.
Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press. Just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said, you and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments of American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.
But who are we and, you know, what is Hollywood, anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey, Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls,  R.I. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio, Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy and Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates?
And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in Lon — no, in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London and is here playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.
They gave me three seconds to say this, so. An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work.
But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart, not because it was good, it was — there’s nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth.
It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege and power and the capacity to fight back. It, it kind of broke my heart when I saw it and I still can’t get it out my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.
Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose. OK, go on with that thing. OK, this brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every outrage.
That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood foreign press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, ’cause we’re going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.
One more thing. Once when I was standing around the set one day, whining about something, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me: “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is. And we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight,
As my, as my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia, said to me once: “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”
Thank you, Foreign Press.

– Meryl Streep, 74th Golden Globes Awards, Jan 8th, 2017.  [2]

But while a significant portion of the population may wish that Hollywood would use its platform for something other than political pandering, I’m here to remind everyone that this isn’t the first provocative speech nor shall it be the last in an industry which has not only campaigned with or spoken in support of, but has also held public office.

When Ronald Reagan, soon to be 40th President of the USA, was nominated to run for governorship of the state of California in 1966, a seat later to be held by another celebrated actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the world was hardly surprised to see a man whose exposure on the big screen led him to become a prominent political figure. In fact, Hollywood had recently seen itself embroiled in politics and targeted during the height of McCarthyism’s “Red Scare” tactics. During this period, members of the Screen Actor’s Guild were barred and blacklisted from performing in or writing for any Hollywood picture after being accused of participating in Communist ideological leanings. Legends such as Dalton Trumbo, famous for penning films Roman Holiday and Spartacus, were among those of the nearly 500 blacklisted from working in Hollywood. Other screen giants like John Wayne, Walt Disney, Ronald Reagan himself, and ironically even Cecil B. DeMille the namesake for the award Meryl Streep used to orate her views on national television, championed the movement to target the film industry for Communist purging as members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

One thing is sure—none of the arts flourishes on censorship and repression. And by this time it should be evident that the American public is capable of doing its own censoring. Certainly, the Thomas Committee is growing more ludicrous daily. The picture of six officers ejecting a writer from the witness stand because he refused to say whether he was a Communist or not is pretty funny, and I think before long we are all going to see how hysterical and foolish we have become.
The film industry is a great industry, with infinite possibilities for good and bad. Its primary purpose is to entertain people. On the side, it can do many other things. It can popularize certain ideals, it can make education palatable. But in the long run, the judge who decides whether what it does is good or bad is the man or woman who attends the movies. In a democratic country I do not think the public will tolerate a removal of its right to decide what it thinks of the ideas and performances of those who make the movie industry work.

-Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady, from her “My Day” column. Oct. 29th 1947. [3]

Faced with the removal of their friends and peers at the height of the blacklistings, many stars like Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, and Katherine Hepburn, among others, worked to fight against what they saw as infringing upon constitutional American rights. They formed the Committee for the First Amendment and, now that everybody had a committee for something or other, went to work. You could say, that in the instance of politics in Hollywood, that politics started it first.

When it wasn’t defending itself from the supposed insurrection of Russia or defending its right to do so, stars have lent their image and influence to other political movements. Frank Sinatra spent most of his life fighting for civil, equal rights which can be summed up by punching out a bartender for refusing to serve his black friend, a fellow musician. [4] I suppose he also participated in the desegregation of hotels and casinos in Mafia run Nevada and played a benefit show for Martin Luther King Jr as well, but who’s counting?

We’ve got a hell of a way to go in this racial situation. As long as most white men think of a Negro as a Negro first and a man second, we’re in trouble. I don’t know why we can’t grow up. It took us long enough to get past the stage where we were calling all Italians “wops” and “dagos”, but if we don’t stop this “n*****” thing, we just won’t be around much longer.

-Frank Sinatra [5]

frank_sinatra_and_ronald_reagan

Frank Sinatra receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1985.

When Marlon Brando won his much deserved Best Actor Oscar award at the 45th Annual Academy Awards in 1973 for his role in “The Godfather”, he famously turned his acceptance speech into a less subtle political statement than Meryl Streep did. Instead of blubbering on stage and thanking a bunch of technical folks in film that the audience has never heard of as one is want to do in these situations, Brando sent instead Native American actress Sacheen Littlefinger to un-accept the award on his behalf in protest of the industry’s portrayal of Native Americans on-screen. [6] This was only the tip of Brando’s involvement in politics, however, which also included support for the state of Israel, advocacy for African American civil rights, and trying to save the world from hunger by funding scientific research into aqua farming tilapia, of all things. [7]

marlon-brando-best-actor

Sacheen Littlefinger comes prepared on the stage of the 45th Annual Academy Awards to shake things up a bit. [8]

And though films have typically been created to entertain (and make many large bags of money) it’d be negligible to ignore their impact on war efforts during World War II when “going to the movies” was both a motivating patriotic experience and a reminder to the audience of who the reel (sorry, not sorry) enemy was. Assisting the U.S. Government by way of both educational and animated films portraying Axis forces in demeaning ways, Walt Disney of…er, Disney fame, produced over 124 hours worth of animated films which included instructional videos for soldiers all the way to Donald Duck destroying an entire Japanese airbase all by himself. [9]

rare_disney_production_art_world_war_ii_duck

Hollywood and “not” politics…

 

So despite what your political beliefs may be, it’s hard to call for a separation between Hollywood and politics when both institutions have a symbiotic, influential relationship with one another. Hollywood stars become political advocates and voices for unpopular movements or, sometimes, find themselves targeted by them. Stars join political campaigns or are welcomed by and requested by politicians looking for national support. The government calls on favors during times of war, and, sometimes, seats in governorship, and again, even the presidency with the recent election of a reality TV star into the highest office of the country. Whether or not you agree with Meryl Streep’s speech, she’s following a long tradition in Hollywood to utilize its platform and influence to insight or defend its audience from “the bad guys”.

Besides, I’d suspect Dame Meryl Streep, frankly, doesn’t give a damn.

 

Fact Check it, yo!

[1] Variety Staff (2017 Jan. 9th). TV Ratings: Golden Globe Viewership Grows From Previous Two Years. Retrieved from: http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/tv-ratings-golden-globe-ratings-rise-1201955828/

[2] Streep, M. (2017, Jan. 8th). 74th Golden Globes Awards Cecil B. DeMille award acceptance speech. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-golden-globes-2017-live-watch-all-of-meryl-streep-s-1483932724-htmlstory.html

[3] Roosevelt, R. (1947, Oct. 29th). My Day. Retrieved from: https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1947&_f=md000796

[4] Summers, A. & Swan, R. (2010). Sinatra: The Life. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=R5SddF7R6x4C

[5] Kelley, K. (1986). His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=EnbzfyWuuL0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=racial%20situation&f=false

[6] Brando, M. (1973, Mar. 30th) That Unfinished Oscar Speech. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/movies/bestpictures/godfather-ar3.html

[7] Mizruchi, S. (2014) Brando’s Smile: His Life, Thought, and Work. Retrieved from: https://books.google.com/books?id=fLBbAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=brando%27s+smile&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiV39LPn7bRAhUG_4MKHT7cDmoQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=brando%27s%20smile&f=false

[8] Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Academy Award acceptance. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QUacU0I4yU

[9] “Disney’s Troupe Goes to War”. Times. 15 November 1942. p. 20-21. Retrieved from: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9B0CE5D7163DE03ABC4D52DFB7678389659EDE&legacy=true

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