Hollywood and Politics

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A Marilyn Monroe mural in Washington, DC.

A Hollywood icon peers down on Connecticut Ave. in Washingon, DC. [Shreyas / Flickr]

Al Gore may have made history by standing on stage to accept his Oscar last night, but he wasn’t the first politician to dip his toes into Hollywood. And it wasn’t the first time members of the Academy paid tribute to Washington.

Watching Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio bask in each other’s reflected glow, we here in our own green room started thinking about a list of other connections between Hollywood and Washington: Hollywood’s original ambassador Ronald Reagan and his political stepson Arnold Schwarzenegger; the blacklisting of writers and actors during the McCarthy era; Barbra Streisand in the Lincoln Bedroom; JFK and Marilyn; Jane Fonda posing on an anti-aircraft gun with the Vietcong.

Tonight we’re asking what exactly does Hollywood mean to America’s political imagination? Why does the specter of liberal Hollywood haunt our political discourse? Why do we assume, culturally, that Hollywood is the domain of the left, even when it’s given us some of our most memorable conservative politicians? Where does the Beltway meet the freeway?

David Thompson

Author, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Ted Johnson

Managing Editor, Variety

Blogger, Wilshire & Washington

Sidney Blumenthal

Former advisor to President Bill Clinton

Regular columnist, Salon

Paul Buhle

Lecturer, American Civilization Department, Brown University

Author, Radical Hollywood: The Untold Story Behind America’s Favorite Movies

Roger L. Simon

Nominated with Paul Mazursky in 1989 for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Enemies, a Love Story”

CEO, Pajamas Media

Blogger, roger l. simon

Extra Credit Reading

Celebs Step Up, Politics Slaps ‘Em Down, ABC News, October 29, 2006: “For years, Hollywood has given a hand to Democrats. Humphrey Bogart stumped for FDR, Harry Belafonte for JFK, and Warren Beatty for George McGovern.”

Bill O’Reilly, Whoopi Goldberg on Holywood Politics, The O’Reilly Factor, February 2, 2007: “O’REILLY: But don’t you feel it’s his responsibility if he or Jane Fonda and the rest and you too are going to take strong policy stands, because people do listen to you… that you know what the heck you’re talking about?

GOLDBERG: When I take a stance on something, all I can talk to you about it how I feel about it and why. And I don’t have to justify it, and you don’t have to listen to it. But it is important for everyone to know that they have an opinion and they have a — have a right to express it.

O’REILLY: But your opinion is a little bit more heard than somebody — than Sally in Charlotte, North Carolina.

GOLDBERG: No different than yours.”

RJ Eskow, Horray for Hollywood!, The Huffington Post, February 21, 2006: “The Republicans certainly didn’t object to “Hollywood celebrities” when they ran Ronald Reagan for Governor and George Murphy for Senator.”

Michael R. Blood, Obama Attracts Celebrities and Cash, Newsvine, February 20, 2007: “The fundraiser underscored the intense competition among the party’s leading 2008 candidates for Hollywood dollars and endorsements.”

David Knowles, Hollywood Squares — Iraq Edition, The Stump, January 29, 2007: “What do actors have to do with politics? Nothing, of course, unless you’re Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Clint Eastwood, Al Franken, Michael J. Fox, Charlton Heston, etc., etc. But flip the question and it’s even easier to understand the connection. What does politics have to do with acting? Plenty.”

Arianna Huffington, 2008: Will Al Gore Be the Anti-Hillary?, The Huffington Post, October 12, 2005: “Lawrence Bender, who after producing ‘Kill Bill’ is now producing what I hear is a killer documentary featuring Gore and his fight to get our country to take action on global warming, told me that the former VP ‘would be a hell of a candidate.'”

kos, Gore, Daily Kos, February 1, 2006: “Say Gore scores an Oscar and Nobel in the same year, he can announce in November and still become THE story in the primaries. It’s not as if he’ll need the full year to get his name recognition up or make the case for his candidacy. He would instantly raise gobs of cash (I’d bet on tens of millions in the first 24 hours) and become the media sensation of the winter. He would instantly make hundreds of millions spent by his primary opponents obsolete. Talent would flock to him, decimating the staffs of his opponents.”


Hollywood is not doing what Hollywood used to do. They know it, and they’re desperately worried. They feel like everyone in the media, that there are so many ways in which their power could be eclipsed, their market taken away. I don’t think Hollywood’s got anything like the confidence, or the identity and security, that you’re offering to it.

David Thomson


Hollywood really does want a star candidate, and they really do look for that kind of charisma. I can’t help but think back to 2004, when you had this field of contenders: you had some excitement behind Howard Dean, but you also had a lot of donors out there saying, God, I really wish that Hillary Clinton would enter the race. Thinking back, she was kind of the dream candidate that they wished would enter the race that year. Obviously things have changed quite a bit since then. But I really do think that they look for that star quality.

Ted Johnson


The other problem with [Clint] Eastwood is he’s too successful. The people who enter politics from Hollwood are people who have sort of reached a dead end one way or another in their careers, or are on the downslide… You know, if you’re looking for a future political figure out of California, out of Hollwood, we need to look at the failing stars.

Sidney Blumenthal


It’s been quite a while… since on general election day, California has been an important scene of the action. People in California are used to the fact that we don’t get very many campaign ads on TV now, because California is a lock, in terms of the general election vote. It isn’t an action state, is it?

David Thomson


It’s very amusing to me to hear Roger Simon echo these old 1940s charges, at the time of the Cold War, that Hollywood writers who are successful, and also were left-wing, were swimming pool communists, as they were called. Because they had houses, they had swimming pools, and what right did they have to script left-wing films.

Paul Buhle


In the past, one of the great curiousities of interviewing survivors of the blacklist, which I pretty systematically did before they died, was that they became supporters of the Popular Front because they believed that only a very different America would admit Jews on an equal basis. That may or may not have been true; from their view in the thirties and forties, it certainly seemed like it; from the Joe McCarthy view of the fifties it certainly seemed like it.

Paul Buhle

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