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Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics [Hardcover]

Steven J. Ross

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Book Description

Aug. 19 2011
In Hollywood Left and Right, Steven J. Ross tells a story that has escaped public attention: the emergence of Hollywood as a vital center of political life and the important role that movie stars have played in shaping the course of American politics. Ever since the film industry relocated to Hollywood early in the twentieth century, it has had an outsized influence on American politics. Through compelling larger-than-life figures in American cinema - Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Edward G. Robinson, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, and Arnold Schwarzenegger - Hollywood Left and Right reveals how the film industry's engagement in politics has been longer, deeper, and more varied than most people would imagine. As shown in alternating chapters, the Left and the Right each gained ascendancy in Tinseltown at different times. From Chaplin, whose movies almost always displayed his leftist convictions, to Schwarzenegger's nearly seamless transition from action blockbusters to the California governor's mansion, Steven J. Ross traces the intersection of Hollywood and political activism from the early twentieth century to the present. Hollywood Left and Right challenges the commonly held belief that Hollywood has always been a bastion of liberalism. The real story, as Ross shows in this passionate and entertaining work, is far more complicated. First, Hollywood has a longer history of conservatism than liberalism.Second, and most surprising, while the Hollywood Left was usually more vocal and visible, the Right had a greater impact on American political life, capturing a senate seat (Murphy), a governorship (Schwarzenegger), and the ultimate achievement, the Presidency (Reagan).

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"A fine book." --The Canadian Jewish News

About the Author

An eminent historian of film, Steven J. Ross is recipient of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Films Scholars Award and author of the prize-winning book, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 3.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Examination of How Hollywood has Influenced American Politics Jan. 13 2012
By Ms Winston - 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.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as balanced as the title implies Aug. 24 2012
By Boojidad - Published on Amazon.com
Generally speaking, my politics lean to the left more than the right. Having said that, I must say my gripe with the book is that the politics of the author are way too clearly to the left. He does present figures from both ends of the political spectrum, and describes both successes and failures each endured. But if the failure has been on the left side, the person involved was always well-intentioned and had the moral/ethical high road, whereas any success of someone on the right was conspiratorial and/or led to richening-of-the-already-rich or a further beat-down of the poor. The research is good and the depth of detail is welcome, but the author should have taken a more hands-off approach on the platforms & beliefs of both sides and just stuck to history.
3.0 out of 5 stars A good book which might have aspired to more May 31 2014
By Dr. Moose - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Very interesting, and written in a clear and ( mostly) engaging manner. I wish the author had addressed the effects, if any, of a political point of view in the stars and in their movies. Has it made any difference on the political landscape of the country? I would also like a discussion on how Hollywood has presented a picture, or pictures, of Americn life and values to the world beyond its' borders.
12 of 24 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Don't Let the Title Fool You--This Book is Pro-Left and Anti-Right Sept. 23 2012
By Mediaman - Published on Amazon.com
This biased, distorted view of "Hollywood" creates a fantasy picture of big, bad right wingers vs. leftists that only want to help the world. The author is so bigoted in his choice of words that even chapter titles reflect his love of the left and attempt to demean the right. He says Ronald Reagan was part of the Hollywood "conservative revolution" (you didn't know there was one, did you?). Charlton Heston brought in the "red tide." Meanwhile Harry Belefonte fought racism and Jane Fonda was a "grassroots builder" (and you thought she was just that spoiled rich left-wing daughter of a liberal star?). And he classifies Arnold Schwarzenegger as conservative, ignoring the fact that the former California governor was mostly Republican in name only.

There's no real balance, though the author will claim he attempted to show both sides by having one chapter about a conservative and another chapter about a liberal. The problem is that Hollywood isn't 50/50, it's almost all liberal and this writer refuses to acknowledge that. But his concluding words reveal his bias: "The Hollywood left's storyline has been one of hope and guilt: hope of what the United States could be and guilt that we are not doing enough to achieve that vision." Meanwhile, he calls Hollywood's few Republicans "simple" and "talking about a nostalgic Golden Age of America that never was."

How wrong he is. Just because conservatives don't share his vision of life doesn't mean it wasn't real. And Hollywood's stars, producers, writers and directors vote over 90% Democrat, so no matter how many pages of end notes he has (over 60!) it doesn't detract from the fact that this writer missed the basic truth: Hollywood is mostly left. And that's what has helped shape America. For him to claim otherwise is a fantasy and misrepresentation.

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