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- Published on Amazon.com
(Kindle edition) I purchased the Steven Ross book after hearing the author speak on C-Span 3 (Book TV) in December 2011. The premise of his book fascinated me -- the author took ten figures from Hollywood (five on the right, five on the left) and explored how each one influenced American politics from the earliest days (Charlie Chaplin) to the present (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The House Committee on Un-American Activities also plays a supporting role in this book, as in the late 1940's it began its infamous investigation of possible Communists in Hollywood, and how left-leaning celebrites might influence public opinion to support what they saw as radical causes.
The author starts with Chaplin, whom he characterizes as the first political movie star. The British-born actor's childhood was one of almost unbelievable poverty, something out of Charles Dickens, and it heavily influenced Chaplin's thinking and his movies (from his Little Tramp figure to his lampooning of Hitler). As early as the 1920's, J. Edgar Hoover saw Chaplin's movies as propaganda to influence Americans toward "the cause of labor movements and the revolution." As the author points out, Chaplin's films are less about Communism but more toward mocking authority figures in society, especially employers, the police, judges, and the rich. Ross explores how Chaplin's personal life (his preference for underage girls as romantic partners) help sink his movie career and caused him to leave America for good in the 1950's. At one time, Chaplin was so popular that there were those who thought he could have become president of the United States had he wanted a career in politics.
Ross then goes on to look at the influence on the right of such movie masters as Louis B. Meyer (who was the leader of the conservative movement among movie moguls), George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Schwarzenegger, as well as those on the left, Edward G. Robinson, Henry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty. I found the chapters on Robinson and Heston particularly fascinating, as they were the saddest stories. Robinson was not a Communist by any stretch of the imagination but he was a member of many left-leaning organzations. It is hard for many of us to understand today how unpopular in many quarters it was for people to be anti-Nazi in the 1930's, and there were even stars such as Mary Pickford who had definite pro-fascist leanings. Robinson was, as Ross stated, part of the liberal center, and as such he earned the wrath of the House Committee in the years following the end of World War II. His career shrank to almost nothing in the 1950's and '60's. Heston started out as a Civil Rights supporter who picketed for integrated lunch counters and participated in the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, but in his later years became a conservative who gave inflamatory speeches as the president of the National Rifle Association. His friends and the public noticed that as he grew older he ceased being, at least in public, a civil and tolerant figure. His deliberate assumption of the role of Moses (from his greatest acting triumph, The Ten Commandments)when speaking about gun control is looked at in depth by Ross.
Ross also takes an in-depth look at the the age of celebrity in politics by examining the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who improbably won the role of a lifetime for him -- governor of California. Schwarzenegger had had an interest in politics since his boyhood days in Austria and he educated himself upon his arrival in the states about American political issues. His movies were a combination of action oriented thrillers with a subtle political message to movies trying to show a softer, gentler side. When he ran for governor, he deliberately avoided the traditional political TV circuit of Meet the Press, C-Span, and Face the Nation, and appeared almost exclusively on entertainment programs, particularly late night TV such as Letterman. Ross points out that for Arnold winning was fairly easy but governing was hard. The book was published prior to the sexual scandal that ended his marriage to Maria Shriver shortly after he left office. This chapter is almost a guide book for a celebrity to use who wishes to avoid having to answer the harder questions about governance.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Hollywood and politics. In each chapter, as he looks at the history of the actor or studio head, Ross attempts (successfully in my opinion)to show how each one influenced American culture and politics by their actions and their films. The author's thoughtful Epilogue takes a look at the 2008 presidential campaign, which he sees as an exercise in celebrity politics, particularly in how Oprah's endorsement of candidate Obama made a significant difference among people who rarely vote AND were viewers of Oprah's afternoon TV show. I agree with Ross in that celebrity politics is a mixed blessing in our culture -- on the one hand it has the potential to be frivolous (do we really care what the Dixie Chicks think of George W. Bush, for example), but on the other hand it can have the result of engaging members of the public who might otherwise spend an election year avoiding serious discussions to actually look at political issues. At the end, Ross makes a statement with which I fully argee: "[celebrities] fit the Founding Fathers' model of citizen - statement in that they had a vision of the world they wanted to see and they were willing to work to usher in that change....If every citizen behaved like them, the United States would be a far better place." And I might add that Ross has made this case effectively throughout the book with his examples and analyses.
A note on the Kindle edition: I always feel short-changed when Kindle users do not get the cover of the book but rather just the title page. I do not know who makes these decisions, but I am one who wants the cover! There were minimal typos and the photographs generally were clear and sharp.