In the US in the 1950s thousands of actors, film-makers, writers and technicians had their lives and livelihoods destroyed by an anti-Communist witchhunt. In an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, many of those accused of Communist sympathies named their friends in order to avoid being blacklisted themselves. The studios willingly joined the frenzy, passing on the names of longstanding staff who then had to face the inquisition. Hollywood’s cooperation with the show trials has been a shame from which it has tried to make amends on many occasions. ‘The Majestic’ is its latest attempt.
Jim Carrey stars as the non-political screenwriter Peter Appleton who is ordered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as a suspected Communist. He is immediately sacked from his job and finds that former friends will now have nothing to do with him. In his despair he takes to the bottle, and while drunk sets off on a journey in his car. Predictably, this leads to a terrible accident and Carrey is washed up on a beach without any memory of who he is. He is carried to the nearby town of Lawson where he is mistaken for Luke Trimble, who had enlisted to fight in the Second World War but had never returned from the battlefield.
Lawson is a town that is licking its wounds–every shop window carries pictures of the other sons who never came home from the war. Carrey’s miraculous return is a chance for the town to heal and he quickly becomes the focus of attention. Luke’s father is the owner of a cinema (The Majestic) that has been disused since the war when ‘folks gave up on laughing’. Carrey sets about reopening the cinema with the help of the entire local community, while re-establishing Luke’s relationship with his fiancé. The sentimentality is laid on thick and small town life is glorified. During the 1950s US society was being turned upside down by the struggle for black civil rights, but the battles seem to have bypassed Lawson. The cinema’s usher is the film’s only black character–he lives in a squalid basement under the cinema and yet is treated with dignity and respect by everyone.
The opening of the cinema starts a process whereby Carrey’s memory starts to return, just as the FBI, who have been searching for the missing ‘Hollywood commie’, find their man. Carrey faces the HUAC and has to choose between naming names to get himself off the hook, or standing up for what he knows is right, even if that means going to jail. The Majestic is unequivocally on the side of the victims of the blacklist but nevertheless fails in a number of respects. The witchhunts are presented as the product of the irrational prejudice of various Congressmen acting against the wishes of the majority–the question of why the liberal establishment failed to stand up to them is never asked. ‘The Majestic’ presents the studio bosses as supportive of those accused, yet it is impossible to understand how the blacklist operated without recognising the creation of an anti-Communist, mass hysteria. In this, Hollywood duly played its part.
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