Conservatives’ Hollywood Complex
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, March 5, 2006
Conservatives have gerrymandered their way to a virtual lock-down of American government and culture. They control all branches of the federal government, most state legislatures and governorships. The overwhelming majority of newspapers are right-of-center bland, and Hollywood, for all its vaunted liberalism, is still essentially the place Louis B. Mayer created—a venal money machine whose producers are about as principled as a pound of cardamom. But it irritates conservatives to no end when, despite the cultural muck and political imbecility of the nation as a whole, a few voices manage to buck the trend and score a counterpoint or two. This year’s Oscars are a case in point, fleeting and feeble though it may be. All five movies nominated for Best Picture—“Munich,” “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and Good Night, and Good Luck”—are “message” movies, the kind of message conservatives would rather not hear: The world isn’t black and white, but those who see it that way are doing plenty of harm to those who don’t live life that way. Since liberal messages are treated like a disease in 21 st century America, the five movies triggered mobs of white-cell media hysteria through the right’s official organs: The eternal news parody known as Fox, its various cable clones formerly known as the liberal media, OpEd pages and con-lad mags like the Weekly Standard and National Review. Paying attention to the debate gives it more credence than it deserves, but unfortunately it’s through these peripheral debates that presumptions about larger, more critical issues take shape: The bloke who might have watched the Academy Awards with a marginally objective mind and thought that “Brokeback Mountain” may be a movie worth taking the missuz to next Friday after all will have had his mind’s aperture ambushed and closed long before by blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and Scarborough Creepy (the guy with the program about America’s alleged “Heartland”) screeching about the movie being “outside the mainstream.” Similarly dressed up bigotries are the formulaic way of the right us-versus-them vision of America.
The Feb. 27 cover story of National Review, by Mark Steyn, devotes 2,500 words to bashing Hollywood’s barely liberal tilt and in the process trots out all the usual arguments: Hollywood is only posing liberal, George Clooney’s “bravery” is thirty years too late, “hardly anybody has seen these films,” and so on. (It’s true that the five movies haven’t generated as much of an audience as the more inane fare out there, but for the record: the five have sold a combined $230 million in tickets at last count, or about 36 million tickets domestically. “Hardly anybody” hardly qualifies as “fact,” in Steyn’s wording. By his reasoning National Review’s circulation of 150,000 places it somewhere in the vicinity of the asteroid belt for “mainstream” relevance.) He considers it “a bit condescending to get a lifelong woman” to play the role of a transsexual in “Transamerica,” as if, suddenly, National Review were a quota-loving watchdog for minority rights, and dismissing entirely the notion of actors acting their part (I couldn’t give a crap if Spike Lee had chosen a Chinese woman to play Malcolm X as long as she could pull off the performance; Spike Lee, of course, like NR, thinks only blacks should direct movies about blacks—or did, at the time of “X”’s filming). And Steyn thinks these “controversies”—the McCarthy era, Palestinian terrorism at the Munich Olympics, gay-bashing—are “controversies that are settled,” making Hollywood’s stand a past-due affair. Settled. Ah. So the gay-bashing operatives of the Republican Party’s placing bans on same-sex unions on the election ballots in eleven states in 2004, thus ensuring the largest bigotry inspired turnout since the South’s insurrection over civil rights, was just a vague dream—or are we mixing our mainstreams here? Steyn goes on to blame cinematographers, too, for that shot in “The Constant Gardner” that shows Ralph Fiennes diminished by the enormity of the huge pharmaceutical company’s headquarters. “Oh, come off it,” he writes. “ ‘The Constant Gardner’ is distributed by Universal Pictures. Don’t they have a big office?” I see. Next time you see dead bodies in Baghdad just ask yourself: Don’t American cities have murderers? Same kind of idiotic reductionism. But so it goes with Hollywood’s conservative critics.
I haven’t even mentioned the favorite line of attack, for which George Clooney is taking the biggest hit this year—the one that claims Hollywood stars have no business taking political stands, as if stardom somehow is an automatic exclusion from citizenship. Are journalists more qualified to take those stands? Are priests? Are—for that matter—politicians, the (by definition) most principle-challenged specie in the bunch? And those are the same critics who see Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the gold, silver and bronze of Republican service. But they know a good capitalizing opportunity when they see it. It wasn’t Bush or extremists or Davos or some conceptual image about Martin Luther King or freedom and capitalism (all featured subjects in the Feb. 27 issue) or any other matters that aren’t, in Steyn’s words, “a retreat to the periphery in the way that Hollywood ‘seriousness’ is.” No, the cover is emblazoned with vanity itself—NR’s vanity, that is, as it attempts to ride the newsstand coattails of George Clooney.