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Hollywood: friction in the fiction factory

This article is over 16 years, 8 months old
The last few years have seen a number of radical US films, author Ben Dickenson asks whether Hollywood is turning left
Issue 1981

Some critics are suggesting that Hollywood movies have made a turn to the left. Take Good Night, And Good Luck, George Clooney’s superb newsroom drama set in the 1950s that explores the tensions caused by McCarthyism.

It won’t feature in the top ten box office films of next year, but it received outstanding critical praise when it premiered at the London Film Festival in November.

Then there’s The Constant Gardener, shot with a vibrant visual style, depicting unscrupulous corporate activity in Africa. The Constant Gardener is an adaptation of a John Le Carré novel, inspired by the murder of Nigerian anti-Shell dissenter Ken Saro Wiwa.

Perhaps Jarhead, a brutal tale of desert conflict due on our screens in January, will add a contemporary flavour of war to this list.

What about Hot Stuff, also due out next year, directed by Philip Noyce who made Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American? Hot Stuff purports to re-examine the term “terrorist”, by looking at a South African anti-apartheid bomber.

So, is this a serious trend?

There has been a sustained political progression in US cinema, but it’s much longer than the last few months and it’s not all been one way traffic.

Hollywood radical Tim Robbins ­suggests that writers should try not to “mislead people into believing Hollywood is some radical town”.

To take one example, Jarhead might be a bloody indictment of war, but when Jamie Foxx’s sergeant proclaims, “I love America… I love my job” it’s a statement of patriotic vitriol that’s never fully challenged. There are intense contradictions at work here.

In 1969 an exceptional cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, produced a searing indictment of capitalism. In Medium Cool, Wexler used footage of police clashing with anti-Vietnam war protesters at the 1968 Democratic Party convention.

He juxtaposed this repression to the film’s key characters quietly discussing the role of the artist in society. Wexler was consumed with the political ferment of his era, shooting the action at the convention himself after he joined the protest. Yet from the mid-1970s to the 1990s Wexler found opportunities to make such intensely political films limited. So, when he describes present day Hollywood as a place where “those political messages of my youth are getting a platform”, he means it.

The kind of films Wexler alludes to are predominantly documentaries. Picture a US flag, a skyscraper, a ­WalMart store, a group of school ­children singing. A narration begins, “Everything’s bigger in America.”

This is Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me. During the film he exposes his body to 30 days of nothing but McDonald’s meals, and exposes the viewer to the profit hungry practices of the fast food industry.

The film has made Spurlock a familiar face. Super Size Me was made on a shoestring budget, through a series of co-financing deals. Spurlock took the finished documentary to the largest showcase for independently produced cinema in the world, the Sundance Film Festival. There Samuel Goldwyn Jnr, one of Hollywood’s oldest businessmen with a track record in the film industry’s biggest corporations, bought the distribution rights to the film.

You could draw parallels between Super Size Me and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Control Room—about the Al Jazeera television station—or the films of Michael Moore.

Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was produced and distributed by Miramax, a subsidiary wholly owned by the Walt Disney company. Although Moore was largely left alone to make his own film, and despite some press hype declaring their independence before Fahrenheit’s release, Miramax never acted outside Disney’s wishes.

Miramax’s founders, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, claimed to be in constant ­battle with Disney executives. But they had confirmed the schedule for Fahrenheit’s distribution months in advance. What was in this for Disney?

The promise that Fahrenheit would make a $100 million, which it did in a matter of weeks. These examples betray one of the key myths about Hollywood.

So often Hollywood is presented as a small town of glamorous stars, a closed community of talent. However, Hollywood the business entity is floated on Wall Street, invested in sweatshop labour, franchised in video stores, in games companies, and almost every TV station. Even Al Jazeera has been owned by AOL Time Warner, which also owns 15 music companies, over 150 publishing outlets, half of the US’s access to the internet, and some 40 television companies, among them HBO which makes Six Feet Under and The Sopranos.

AOL Time Warner dominates the ­global media industry, alongside News Corporation, Disney, MGM, Sony, Viacom and Vivendi. In 2003 Peter Bart, the editor of Variety magazine, estimated the collective wealth of these corporations to be $3 trillion.

That’s 6 percent of the global economy. Hollywood companies control the distribution channels for cinema worldwide. The reality of work for most people on film sets is poor pay for excessive hours. Last year Haskell Wexler made a film about a movie technician who died, driving home after a 31-hour shift.

This multinational, multi-platform media industry buys the labour that underpins film-making from working people, and on occasions it feels their discontent.

In 1999 and 2001, technical workers threatened walkouts. In 2001 actors and screenwriters were also involved, leading to the sight of burly key grips, who carry cables on set, on picket lines with a wizened Quincy, aka former trade union official Jack Klugman.

Actor Ed Asner was also involved. Ed can currently be seen as Father Christmas on a special edition DVD of Elf. His long history of protest and his avowed anti-Bush stance led to a bizarre press conference in 2003, where a Republican parent said her children would “never see a Communist Santa”.

Ed replied, “Santa does wear a red suit and redistributes the toy wealth of the world.” That confident rebuttal is a barometer for the current political temperature in Hollywood. During the 1980s Ed was sacked from hit television show Lou Grant, after leading a protest against Ronald Reagan’s support for right wing military forces in El Salvador. The Salvadorian civil war lasted 12 years and cost 75,000 lives.

Ed was a key figure in a rash of anti-Reagan Hollywood coalitions. Michael Douglas and Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of Bewitched, set up the Committee for Concern. Ron Silver, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin and Christopher Reeve founded the Creative Coalition.

The Hollywood Women’s Political Committee was typical of these associations, set up by Jane Fonda and producer Paula Weinstein to provide “a more ­progressive place to be”.

These initiatives largely failed to break beyond Hollywood. Only one protest caught the general political mood—when 750,000 people marched for nuclear disarmament in 1984, with M*A*S*H’s leading man Mike Farrell at the protest’s head.

When Ed Asner led a small protest on to the steps of the US state department in 1984, it became known among news editors as “Ed’s El Salvador thing”. CBS, which produced Lou Grant, threatened Ed’s job and he didn’t have the support to save it.

“You provide your pebble and roll it down the hill,” he reflects, “in the hope of attracting more pebbles, of not having to cave under, or be accused of being a screaming radical who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Joining up with an avalanche was beyond Hollywood activists in the 1980s, and they retreated to wait for a saviour.

Journalist Joe Klein hailed Bill Clinton’s election as US president in 1992 as ‘the arrival of a great new leader who would leave the world a better place”. Hollywood progressives—the term for everyone from liberals to radicals—largely felt the same. Here was a man with charisma to match film stars, who organised Hollywood dinner events and celebrity galas.

He talked of revolutionising health care, “humanitarian intervention” and of bringing together nations in mutual inter dependency. Longtime Hollywood liberals like Warren Beatty and Barbara Streisand were immediately convinced.

By 1999 those hopes for Clinton’s presidency had dissolved to despair for liberals like Beatty. Clinton’s support for globalisation, his failure to address urban poverty and his bombing of Iraq in 1998 all played a much bigger political role in Hollywood than his marital infidelity.

Clinton was primarily a facilitator for the media business. The 1996 Telecommunications Act deregulated the media industry, giving corporate Hollywood a monopoly of cinema ownership and cable television.

At the World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks Clinton negotiated first rights for US companies in Latin American broadcasting. He gave himself “fast track” approval on trade deals for media corporations and he removed overseas production tariffs, allowing greater “outsourcing” of film-making to Canada, Mexico and Eastern Europe.

His reward was a guaranteed $8 million from every fundraising trip to Hollywood.

Warren Beatty was devastated. In 1999 he made Bulworth, seeking to reflect “the unseen underbelly of our country”. The film features a liberal politician in crisis, reduced to a corporate lackey.

Beatty’s script summed up the political mood on the Hollywood left—“the Democratic Party’s got some shit to pay”. Beatty could not bring himself to break with the Democrats, but others have, inspired by the movement that emerged on the streets of Seattle in November 1999.

Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover of Lethal Weapon fame, Sean Penn and other notable Hollywood personalities attended those protests against the WTO. They were inspired by the collectivism they saw, by the dynamic challenge made to capitalism.

They continued to be inspired by protests in Melbourne, Prague and Genoa. Penn refused to talk about his film The Pledge at its July 2001 premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, instead calling for a “revolution” that would justify “brave young people putting their lives on the line”, like murdered student Carlo Giuliani had in Genoa that month.

Films emerged that reflected this spirit. Some raised fundamental questions like Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, which presents a picture of poverty and collective action, and a scathing portrait of the US capitalist class of the mid-20th century.

Robbins persuaded Disney executive Joe Roth to pay for the film, arguing that it wouldn’t cost a lot to make and that it was an opportunity to market something to a politicised audience. Robbins manipulated Hollywood’s profit motive to create a cinematic space.

This was broadly speaking the same space occupied by Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, Good Night, And Good Luck and the excellent Sunshine State, Silver City and Dogville. This is a limited space, compared to that occupied by blockbusters of the Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter mould—with the exception of Fahrenheit, which had unprecedented success.

Of course not every film entering this space is drawn from a radical source. Erin Brockovich depicts a major corporation brought to its knees by the determination of a legal clerk.

Unlike Cradle Will Rock, there’s little sense of collective struggle—but there is a clear anti-corporate thread. John Q, Any Given Sunday, AntiTrust, The Insider, I Heart Huckabees and The Constant Gardener are in the same bracket. They are liberal films, replacing Warren Beatty’s failed Bulworth with a renewed heroic individual.

The Quiet American is perhaps a bridge between contemporary radical and liberal US movies. Released months before the Iraq war it involves a journalist, Fowler, based in Indochina, later Vietnam, who discovers that his US friend Pyle is a CIA agent.

Following a horrific explosion caused by Pyle, Fowler is approached by local man Hinh who says, “Sooner or later, Mr Fowler, one has to take sides, if one is to remain human.”

This sense of an individual playing their part in wider social situations was prominent in Hollywood during the 2003 Iraq war. The anti-war ferment seemed to push everyone from politics-shy David Duchovny to outspoken Martin Sheen into “taking sides”. But, as with the contradictions of contemporary liberal and radical movies, the ideology of the ­Hollywood left appeared confused.

Artists United For A Win Without War began life at a celebrity teach-in in 2002. There was no invite for the likes of Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn, and instead of taking a position of outright opposition to war, Artists United officially supported “the use of reasonable force”. Artists United affiliates were less equivocal.

Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon told a New York protest in 2003, “our opposition to war should be our opposition to Halliburton”. Martin Sheen called for the removal of the “dogs of war” from government.

Sean Penn visited Baghdad and said war was unjustifiable, and Danny Glover marched with the anti-imperialist coalition Answer. Unfortunately, despite the actions of this tougher political minority, an uneasy ideological confusion continued to the presidential election of 2004.

Here a parallel emerges between the US situation and the Make Poverty ­History (MPH) protests in Britain. Artists United is affiliated to Move On.

Move On, like MPH, is a large non-partisan coalition that avoids confrontational direct action. During the 2004 US elections Move On promoted a campaign focussed on registering to vote and criticising George Bush.

Richard Linklater, Woody Harrelson and Rob Reiner produced eyecatching TV adverts.

Activists organised showings of Fahrenheit 9/11 and anti-Bush ­rallies outside of Move On’s control.

As with MPH, and its last minute hijack by Bob Geldof’s Live 8, celebrities were at the front of Move On’s action, and the political edge of the campaign was softened.

In 2000 Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover had supported anti-globalisation Green candidate Ralph Nader. In 2004 Move On, by doing policy deals with the Democrats, gave tacit support to John Kerry.

Kerry supported the Iraq war, and believes in the logic of the market. Consequently all activists, celebrity or otherwise, appeared to back Kerry when in reality a significant minority would have welcomed a more radical alternative.

How these contradictions will play themselves out is uncertain. Despite Bush’s victory, the mood of opposition among Hollywood’s politicised ­talent has not dwindled. Our movement of protest has not evaporated. As long as it remains, so will the ferment in Hollywood.

This summer Sean Penn reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on the Iranian elections, writing, “When people here say ‘death to American power’, I understand where they’re coming from.”

He made a further statement on screen, playing the lead in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Director Niels Mueller wanted to focus on what he considered the important social issues of the day—corrupt presidents, terrorism, poverty, corporate power, racism and war.

Penn took the film on as a pet project, securing a finance and distribution deal. It is set in an era where a Republican government and its war are hugely unpopular. It features an ordinary man driven to dramatic action by social forces—a victim of his class situation.

Perhaps the crucial speech in the film neatly summarises how the social movements of our era have influenced a number of people in Hollywood. It’s a speech of resistance against the business and governmental leaders who control our planet. “Who are these men that keep us waiting at their feet? I will not go quietly.”

Ben Dickenson’s book Hollywood’s New Radicalism—Globalisation, War and the Movies is published by I B Tauris, priced £14.99. The book will be launched at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, at 6.30pm, Thursday 15 December. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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