TCS Daily

Exit Stage Left... or Right?

By James Pinkerton - June 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: Tonight, TCS Daily hosts an event, in concert with the Media Research Center, to discuss Hollywood's portrayal of capitalism. TCS Daily media critic James Pinkerton along with Michael Medved, Lanny Davis, and Dan Gainor will tackle tinseltown. The following is a preview from Jim Pinkerton.

The title of our discussion is "The Creative Class vs. Capitalism: How Hollywood Portrays Business and Commerce."

From that topic, we can ask three questions: First, do the overt politics of Hollywood lean liberal? Second, does Hollywood and its political agenda have an obvious effect on American politics and culture? Third, and perhaps most importantly, is there a meta-politics to Hollywood, which might not be so liberal -- and might even lean to the right?

Let's take them in order, starting with the easy and obvious question.

First, of course Hollywood lists to the left -- at least on the surface. In their minds, most Hollywood executives think of themselves as "progressives" of one stripe or another; their votes and campaign contributions lean strongly toward the Democratic Party, as detailed by many observers, including the indefatigable Brent Bozell. If they can, they love to make Message Movies, such as the AIDS-themed "Philadelphia". And of course, that film was showered with awards -- although it is worth noting that in the 13 years since, Hollywood hasn't exactly flooded the market with AIDS flicks. Evidently moviemakers figured they'd quit while they were ahead.

Besides, Hollywood is always fickle; the town has moved on, to global warming. Two years ago, we got the global-warming-freezing scare movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," which I wrote about here at TCS. And this year brought Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth", which I also opined upon at TCS.

But yes, Hollywood likes to bash business. Remember that scene in "As Good as It Gets," in which the Helen Hunt character refers to "f__ing HMO bastard pieces of shit"? And recently we had "Fun with Dick and Jane", in which a laid-off couple, helpless victims of corporate machinations, naturally has no choice but to resort to robbery. Much more dark was "The Constant Gardener", which painted the pharmaceutical companies as cartoonish killers.

Indeed, some directors have built their careers by baiting business. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock are undeniably lefty rabble rousers -- they wouldn't even deny it.

OK, case closed on question number one: Hollywood is liberal.

But as the second question, we might ask: If Hollywood is so liberal, how come the country is so conservative? Does the film industry have no effect? Might its heart-on-its-its-ideology even boomerang? The US has voted Republican in seven of the last ten presidential elections; two of those national elections were won by Hollywood's own President Ronald Reagan. And what of two other movie men elected statewide in California, Sen. George Murphy and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?

So maybe Hollywood's plan for liberalizing America isn't working. One possible explanation is backlash: That is, people like being entertained at the movies -- after all, everyone in Tinseltown is rich -- but maybe the folks out in flyover country don't like being propagandized by the movies. Indeed, they build up resentments to such propagandizing.

So, for example, George Clooney is lionized for making two Message Movies: "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Syriana"; and yet the dialectical reaction to Clooneyism is so strong that even show biz itself -- obeying the principle that lucre trumps liberalism -- climbs on the anti-George bandwagon; Comedy Central's "South Park" recently ran a show in which a "smug cloud," representing Clooney, wafts pompously and threateningly over the national landscape.

Other movies, too, seem to contain their own negation. In "American Dreamz," the US president is a dead-ringer for George W. Bush -- if you think that W. is a moron -- but at the same time, "Dreamz" makes just about everyone in the film look bad. Moreover -- and we will come back to this point later on -- it's worth noting that "Dreamz" was inspired by the TV show "American Idol," which is surely the most relentlessly capitalist-individualist program that any Social Darwinist could imagine.

OK, so maybe Bush and the idea of entrepreneurial competition will survive "Dreamz" -- the film was a dud, in any case.

But some will argue that Hollywood subverts the culture through cynicism, relativism, and nihilism. Once again, those culture-minded critics have a point -- up to a point. For some movies, such as those made by Todd Solondz or Neil LaBute, it's clear that these directors display a creepy sensibility that mocks middle class virtues. But while Solondz and LaBute earn critical kudos, does anybody think of them as A-list directors? Do their movies, such as "In the Company of Men" and "Happiness" sell lots of tickets? The answer is no. They play to their niche audience, and one would have to stomp on the First Amendment to keep them from playing to it. Indeed, it's the niche-serving free market that keeps Solondz and LaBute in business, not liberal Hollywood conspirators.

Speaking of conspiracies, let's dig into the political and cultural impact of "A Beautiful Mind". The filmmakers went out of their way to argue that John Nash's equilibrium theory undercut Adam Smith's "invisible hand." That's bias: Nash merely added another layer of complexity on top of Smith. But wait, there's more: In the film, we're offered proof of Nash's crack-up in the form of a fantasy alliance entered into with right-far-right crazies, a mysterious cabal claiming that Joe McCarthy is way too liberal. In fact, the truth is just the opposite: In his crazy phase, Nash joined the World Federalist Society -- which is wacky lefty. Which is to say, "Mind" beautifully inverts the truth to make a right-bashing point.

Let's hope that Adam Smith will survive this onslaught. And as for the ideology of a crackpot, whatever it is, that's probably not getting worked up over, either.

But what is v-e-e-e-ry interesting is a little cover-up conspiracy made by the makers of "Mind": The real John Nash was bisexual (he was also an adulterer, but that's almost beside the point); a homosexual bust in 1954 helped trigger Nash's breakdown. If "Mind" director Ron Howard had really wanted to subvert the moral order, he would have had his handsomely hetero star, Russell Crowe, play gay. After all, a brilliant play, "Enigma," was made about the tragic life of gay math whiz Alan Turing, although, come to think of it, that story never received the big-budget Hollywood treatment, either. But while "A Beautiful Gay Mind" might still have won the Oscar for Best Picture, it's hard to see how such a film would have been box office boffo. So Howard conspired against the truth, in the name of mainstream acceptability -- that's not a pro-liberal conspiracy, that's a pro-conservative conspiracy.

And once again, even on culturally controversial movies, there's the backlash phenomenon: I argued here that while "The DaVinci Code" might have sold a lot of tickets, it will ultimately sell a lot more Christians on traditional Christianity.

So now we come to the third question: Is there a conservative metapolitics of Hollywood that trumps, or even thwarts, the obvious liberal politics? As we have seen, Hollywood loves to wear its heart on its sleeve. But where is Hollywood's true heart? The answer: Its heart is close to its wallet.

Let's consider the biggest films of the past decade: Was there leftism in "Titanic"? OK, there was a little class warfare, but it was all a long time ago; ninety-nine percent of the people who saw the movie thought to themselves, "How sad about Jack Dawson" -- and they never got around to thinking Bolshevik thoughts. And yeah, there was some allegorical Bush-bashing in the last of the "Star Wars" movies, but for the most part, the second trilogy was so bad that nobody old enough to understand the digs was still in the theater to hear them.

And how about the three "Lord of the Rings" movies? They were downright conservative, it seems to me; they were about duty, honor, and country -- no wonder they sold so many tickets. Which is the point: When Hollywood wants to feel good about itself, it releases films about McCarthy-era witchhunting ("Guilty by Suspicion", "The Majestic") or about civil rights ("Ghosts of Mississippi"), even knowing that ticket-buyers aren't much interested. But when Hollywood wants to reward itself, with big bonuses, it makes movies about how hard work helps a young kid overcome the odds, as in the "Harry Potter" and "Spiderman" megafranchises. Or about a man working hard to overcome the odds, as in just about any movie starring Tom Cruise.

But hold a second, as for that last one: Aren't there lots of rumors about Cruise's sexuality? And isn't he an "out" Scientologist?

If Cruise is gay, he's keeping it well hidden -- indeed, he sues everyone who outs him. And Hollywood, for its part, is fine with such behavior; Paramount doesn't want Cruise to be a gay crusader, but rather to play it straight, straight into a fourth installment of "Mission: Impossible." And conservatives, for their part, needn't complain: Aren't gays supposed to stay in the closet? As for Scientology, it is undeniably a fringe religion, but doesn't even an actor have the right to religious freedom? Meanwhile, Cruise is arguably still the biggest star on the planet. That's why Hollywood loves him, image-warts and all, because he delivers bottoms into seats. The free market has ruled in favor of Cruise.

As Neal Gabler has written, Hollywood is about as capitalistic as you can get. The studios get no government subsidies, they ruthlessly outsource outside of Los Angeles, and they are so money-conscious that they fire their top executives every year or so. By this reckoning, the liberalism of their partisan politics is undercut by the illiberalism of their metapolitics.

So let Hollywood make such agitprop-y films as "Silkwood," "A Civil Action," and "Erin Brockovich". Nobody is forced to see such films, and yet they often make money -- liberals have a right to some movies. But message-y films won't make much money, that's for sure. Moreover, as we have seen, Hollywood's in-your-face liberalism has a way of backlashing; what conservative, out there in the Heartland, doesn't benefit from attacking "liberal Hollywood"? As Gabler observes, even those who love movies tend to hate Hollywood.

And those on the right, those looking to do more than bash Hollywood, have proven they can beat the liberal industry at its own game. Mel Gibson overcame enormous Hollywood hostility to make "The Passion of the Christ", but he made it -- and made it big.

Ditto the conservatives behind "Ray," which was a cleaned-up, and profitable, version of the life of Ray Charles -- is there such a thing as conservative p.c.? They then went on to make the megasuccessful "Chronicles of Narnia"; no liberal mogul is going to stand in their way now. If conservative movies continue to make money, there will be more conservative movies -- no ifs, ands, or LaButes.

Indeed, what does it say about America that after all these decades of liberal Hollywood, a consciously Christian film such as "Narnia" cleans up at the box office? Here's what it says: This is a conservative country. It might also tell us that Hollywood builds a bigger backlash than "frontlash." And finally, it might tell us that the form of Hollywood (its proclaimed liberalism) is a lot less consequential than the function of Hollywood (its ingrained hyper-capitalism).

Yes, Hollywood is encrusted with baroque liberalism. But underneath that precious lefty superstructure is a competitive and even conservative substrate.

The bottom line in Hollywood isn't ideology -- it's the bottom line.

James Pinkerton is the TCS media critic.


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