Monday, May 9, 2011


ELEANOR HALL: Now to an unusual take on the role of Hollywood in US politics.

The University of California professor of history, Steven Ross, is challenging the view that Hollywood is a hotbed of liberal radicalism.

Professor Ross, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier research on the film industry, has written a new book called Hollywood Left and Right.

He is in Australia at the moment as a guest of the United States Studies Centre, and he joined me in the studio this morning to explain why he argues that Hollywood is far more conservative than its reputation would suggest.

STEVEN ROSS: Well, if you take a look at the long history of Hollywood, there are two things that come out that are really quite striking.

The first is, in fact conservatives have a longer history in Hollywood than liberals and the difference is the Hollywood Left, as I argue in this book, has been far more visible and numerous - no question about it - but if you're taking a look at political power, who really has shaped the very nature of American government, of American state, of what the obligations are? It's been the Hollywood right.

ELEANOR HALL: Well, Ronald Reagan would of course be the most powerful of the movie star politicians - not only governor of California but then president - but are you saying that the conservatism in the movie industry was more pervasive?

STEVEN ROSS: Oh, it's far more pervasive than people think. In fact Americans associate the red scare with senator McCarthy but the people who invited the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) Committee in to Hollywood during the 1940s were the conservatives who really came out the MGM studio.

It was Louis B. Mayer who brought Hollywood to the Republican Party and the Republican Party to Hollywood.

ELEANOR HALL: So why is there this discrepancy? Why is it always assumed by political organisers, for example, in campaigns even as recently as the last presidential campaign, that Hollywood stars will support Democrats?

STEVEN ROSS: Well, Hollywood stars generally do support Democrats and they will come in on elections from time to time. The Hollywood Right has focused on winning political power and they've been far fewer in numbers but far more influential.

ELEANOR HALL: You mentioned Louis Mayer there. Did conservatism coincide with the rise of the studio system?

STEVEN ROSS: I would say the studio system coincided with the rise of conservatism. It was really during and after World War One that Hollywood became Hollywood - that is, where you've got eight studios by the 1920s that were controlling 90 to 95 per cent of all the movies made and shown in America.

Before Mayer, studios were contributing to Democrats, Republicans or Socialists - anyone who would oppose censorship and oppose federal control over the industry. And Mayer said ‘This is ridiculous. We can actually have much more influence’.

And he did it both for personal reasons - to move up in the Republican Party, which he did - but also, his studio was able to write the State Department and ambassadors directly. He could use his friends in Washington to ease any production problems abroad.

The main studio that would rival Louis B. Mayer was the Warner Brothers, trying to be the counter balance. But the difference is that Mayer was very much entrenched in the party. He was the first studio to do what we call today in America the 'dirty tricks campaign'.

ELEANOR HALL: Yes, that's a very interesting one. Tell us about that 1934 dirty tricks campaign, which is very early, isn't it?

STEVEN ROSS: Yes it is. I mean Mayer understood the power of visual images in the media in politics and what he did was, this was an election where Upton Sinclair, a Socialist turned Democrat, was running for governor of California.

Mayer got so scared he sent out one of their reporters to “create” these newsreels.

ELEANOR HALL: Fake newsreels?

STEVEN ROSS: Fake newsreels. They would interview supporters but they were all staged, they were actors. And then he would have scenes of tramps coming into California.

At the time, people said that those newsreels threw the election because they were really saying ‘If Sinclair is elected, we're going to have a Communist state in California’.

ELEANOR HALL: So how big a part has Hollywood played in shaping US politics?

STEVEN ROSS: Hollywood has played a role in many different ways. People like Harry Belafonte and James Fonda, Warren Beatty; they are putting out movies that offer really progressive visions.

The problem is that these aren't huge political impacts in the way George Murphy and Ronald Reagan practised what I call 'movement politics.' They were focused on changing the very nature of our government. And one the things I argue, they are not ideological brains behind the conservative movement, but what they do- what Reagan and Murphy did was to put a friendly face on conservatism.

ELEANOR HALL: So is the influence of Hollywood increasing or decreasing now in an age when everyone can be celebrity?

STEVEN ROSS: Everyone can be a celebrity but not everyone gets listened to. So I think you can look at the 2008 election and I would argue that the most powerful celebrity in America was Oprah Winfrey, that Oprah Winfrey undoubtedly helped Barack Obama get the nomination and in getting the nomination, helped him get the presidency.

ELEANOR HALL: So what's your judgement in the end, is this degree of influence from Hollywood good or bad for US democracy?

STEVEN ROSS: Well, I think it cuts both ways. It's good in the sense that movie stars like Oprah and Arnold have both increased voter turnout, so to that extent it's positive. On the other hand, there's very much a danger when a celebrity is driving all this and not offering serious content.

That people were voting for Arnold without- in the polls I was reading were showing most of them didn't vote for him because they knew what his plan was, they voted for him because he was saying "Hasta la vista" to politicians who don't, you know, do their job, and calling legislators "girly men".

And so people then vote because they think that the image of the celebrity is going to translate into the kind of politician he or she will be. And that is dangerous for democracy, that is where demagogues come off. So, you know, how do you balance it out? It's both good and it's bad and it really depends on citizens being vigilant.

ELEANOR HALL: And it's a fascinating area of study. Steven Ross, thanks very much for joining us.

STEVEN ROSS: Thank you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A longer version of this interview can be found on The World Today website.

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