Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Conservatism and Hollywood

For the second time in a matter of weeks, I perused a film review which noted that there was a right-wing Tea Party angle to the film in question. The first was Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” the other the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Prince of Persia.” Both featured prominent characters who decried taxes and “big government” in the right-wing “populist” vein. Both films have rated mostly negative reviews, befitting their leaden acting and politics. Hollywood has often been accused of being “liberal,” but the fact is that outside a few socially-conscientious filmmakers (such as Stanley Kramer, Sidney Lumet and Michael Moore), the vast majority of filmmaking has no ulterior motive other than entertaining a target audiences. While individuals may be considered “liberal,” they don’t necessarily make “liberal” films. But self-proclaimed Republicans like Bruckheimer do tend to make the big-action films heavy on violence, mayhem and death—which tends to be the kind of thing that movie audiences that tend to be on the conservative side tend to enjoy. Other Hollywood Republicans like Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood try to disprove the notion that being conservative necessarily means living in the pre-civil rights era of racial separation. But, frankly, who are they trying to kid?

Hollywood, in fact, has been conservative for most of its existence. In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that films were a “business,” and not a form of free expression covered by the First Amendment; thus film was deemed subject to “moral” regulation. The Hays Code of 1930, and subsequent revisions to toughen enforcement, pronounced that:

“No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

‘Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

‘Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.”

The “natural” law standard was, of course, a euphemism for banning portrayals of homosexuality or racial “intermixture” and equality. Although there were the occasional suggestive “double-entendres” and other straddling of the lines, filmmakers were generally careful to play by the Code. But conservativism turned to far-right fanaticism as lawmakers in Washington D.C. milked the “Red Menace” scare for all its political worth. Why they did this is hard to fathom, because communist, socialist and anarchist themes were rarely portrayed in film save in negative terms. Yet the paranoia of the times consumed the film industry through the 1950s. While the Hays Code strictures were gradually being skirted in keeping with changes in society, depictions of liberalism that might suggest “social engineering” were still assiduously avoided, although this did not prevent hundreds of actors, writers and directors from being blacklisted for “un-American” activities.

One actor, Lionel Stander (best known for his role in the TV series “Hart to Hart”), was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee after a casual mention by another actor who appeared before the committee; Stander stated in his testimony that he could name who the “un-American” element in the room was:

“I know of a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness without due process of law....a group of ex-Fascists and America-Firsters and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody including Negroes, minority groups and most likely themselves.... These people are engaged in a conspiracy outside all the legal processes to undermine the very fundamental American concepts upon which our entire system of democracy exists… I don't know about the overthrow of the government. This committee has been investigating 15 years so far, and hasn't found one act of violence."

In fact, the committee never did uncover a single such act; it was from first-to-last a blatant fit of paranoia and political grandstanding from the right-wing element. Stander, and many others like him, were not on the “official” blacklist, but a shadow organization within the film industry put them on a secret blacklist that prevented them from working in the U.S. It wasn’t until the early Sixties when the secret right-wing blacklisters were threatened by lawsuits making them legally liable for their discriminatory behavior that the scare ended.

Meanwhile, the Hays Code, still in effect, was finally broken by the approval for widespread release Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker” in 1965, which gained Code approval after a long fight despite the fact it portrayed frontal female nudity. Soon afterward, the Hays Code was scrapped altogether in favor of the current rating system. Not that the new rating system is any less susceptible to right-wing mores; “drug references” and “language” are, absurdly, sufficient to give a film an “R” rating.

Although some politically liberal filmmakers and actors make topical films to make a personal statement; but because these films generally do not make a great deal of money because of their limited audience, they are seldom made. The reality is that conservatism—in the form of appealing to the lowest common-denominator in the viewing psyche—continues to predominate in Hollywood.

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