Hollywood’s star shines on DC

Steven Ross’s engrossing book about the interplay between movie stars, politics and America’s celebrity culture definitely lives up to its title.

Focusing his tome, “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” on 10 of the movie industry’s larger-than-life figures from the early 1900s to the present, he makes a convincing case that Hollywood has largely written, and continues to write, the script for modern American politics.

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With Charlie Chaplin, the legendary “Little Tramp” of the silent-film era, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilder who transformed from Terminator into Governator, serving as bookends, Ross’s subjects demonstrate Hollywood’s pervasive influence on the electoral process.

In between, he offers revealing profiles of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, tough-guy actor Edward G. Robinson, actor-politicians George Murphy and Ronald Reagan, and film idols Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston and Warren Beatty.

“Whatever their ideological differences, all 10 believed that movie stars had a right and an obligation as citizens to participate in the national political life,” Ross writes. “Yet the ways in which they did so was influenced by the changing structure of the movie industry and by the changing nature of local and national politics.”

Ross, a film historian who teaches at the University of Southern California, calls Chaplin “arguably the greatest star in the history of Hollywood and the first star whose political views were listened to by a wide swath of Americans. He made comedy an important vehicle of social and political commentary.”

But Chaplin’s outspoken political views — he promoted Soviet-American friendship and called himself “pro-Communist” — and his scandalous sex life “turned the public against him [and] revealed that a star’s fame and box office could be undermined by political pronouncements deemed too radical. He had once been the most beloved man in the world, but he opened his mouth and lost his fans.”

Schwarzenegger, who left office in 2010 after seven years, was widely perceived as a failed governor (the book was published before Schwarzenegger admitted to fathering a child with his housekeeper).

“In the end, his story highlights the critical difference between a celebrity who knows how to win an election and a politician who knows how to work within the system,” Ross writes. “As Barack Obama showed in 2008 and John Kennedy before him, politicians who become celebrities have a better chance of governing effectively than celebrities who become president.”

Ross’s other subjects are equally interesting.

Mayer, MGM’s iron-fisted boss, was “a big sentimental lug and the meanest son of a bitch in Hollywood,” who produced movies “that laid out the kind of optimistic ‘American’ values that future conservative leaders used to reassure an often-anxious nation.”

Robinson was the quintessential movie tough guy and liberal-left activist who was hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee as a Communist sympathizer and had his career destroyed.

“The cost of the era’s right-wing activism needs to be measured not just in terms of the damage it did to individuals, but in the way it reshaped American politics by halting the emergence of Hollywood as a progressive force in national life,” Ross asserts.

George Murphy, elected to the Senate from California in 1964 despite Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win over Barry Goldwater, and Reagan, who upset Democratic Gov. Pat Brown two years later before winning the presidency in 1980, “paved the way for a conservative revolution that challenged the New Deal state … and signaled a new American attitude toward celebrity,” Ross writes.

Belafonte “was the rarest of Hollywood stars: a committed radical,” while Beatty, Hollywood’s most famous bachelor before he met Annette Bening, advised Democratic presidential candidates George McGovern and Gary Hart while making hit movies “that alerted citizens to the dangers of government deception, hypocritical politicians and rampant political corruption.”

As for Fonda and Heston: “During the last three decades of the 20th century, no two stars attracted more venomous responses to their politics than Jane Fonda and Charlton Heston. While Fonda was the most hated Hollywood leftist of the 1970s and 1980s, Heston was the most reviled conservative star of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Ross concludes by predicting that “with new forms of entertainment, new sources of news, and a new digital age to deliver them, we are on the threshold of a new political landscape in which movie stars and celebrities will have even more influence and politicians will have to become entertainers if they wish to reach a broader electorate. As Reagan once quipped, ‘I don’t know how anybody can be in politics without being an actor.’”