Is Hollywood, long a liberal town, becoming more of a conservative town? People here have been asking this for years, but it kind of begs the question. More than anything, Hollywood is a deeply hypocritical town–a place where, as conservative screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd has long maintained, “the liberalism stops at the studio gates.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in how management treats workers.
I remember once going out to get the paper from the driveway at around 7 A.M. and seeing my then tenant, a TV writer’s assistant, driving slowly up the street. “Well, I just worked a 23-hour day,” she said blearily, as she got out of the car. Several years ago, an assistant cameraman named Brent Herschman fell asleep at the wheel and was killed after working a 19-hour day on the film Pleasantville. The cast and crew organized “Brent’s Rule,” a drive to cap Hollywood workdays at 12 hours.
One assistant director’s wife involved in this campaign thought that well-known liberal producer Rob Reiner, who’d recently begun his early-childhood education campaign, might be a likely supporter. “I wrote him saying that all the parenting classes in the world don’t do any good if a parent isn’t there,” she told me. “No response.”
Hollywood’s famous liberalism is less a carefully considered political point of view than a vague policy of cultural feel-goodism. A disapproving phrase you get called a lot here if you’re conservative is “mean-spirited.” Maybe that’s because actors typically want to find the nice side of even villainous characters. As screenwriter William Goldman pointed out in his classic guide to the movie biz, Adventures In the Screen Trade, few prospects horrify a star more than the possibility of being seen as “an unsympathetic son of a bitch.”
But conservatives have been establishing more of a presence in Hollywood. Lionel Chetwynd began the Wednesday Morning Club (now run by David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture) the morning after Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election. The Liberty Film Festival, which began last year, will hold its second annual weekend of conservative films in West Hollywood this October. And last month saw the first meeting of the newly organized Hollywood Forum (they don’t have a website up yet, but can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, with four veteran speakers from the Hollywood scene: On the right, Chetwynd, whose latest historical drama was last year’s Ike: Countdown to D-Day, and Burt Prelutsky, who used to write for the TV series M.A.S.H.; on the left, former M.A.S.H. head writer Larry Gelbart, who also wrote Tootsie. The politics of Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart are apparently somewhere in the middle.
“There has grown in the right a sense of victimhood,” Chetwynd began, “and I thoroughly believe that is self-destructive. At the end of the day, a career in Hollywood has got to be constructed on tenacity and hard work.” Still, Chetwynd added, “there were people who would not hire me because I was conservative.”
“I’m a convert to the right, so my politics have never affected my employment,” said Prelutsky. “I was pretty much over the hill by the time I became a conservative. When I hit 50, I basically became unemployable, except for that gig with Diagnosis: Murder that lasted a couple of years.”
“I started out as a quiet conservative and still am,” said Bart. “I never flip-flopped like my friend Burt. I very proudly 40 years ago voted for Barry Goldwater. But those of us who voted for Goldwater and Reagan should be embarrassed by the Taliban conservatives who’ve taken over the party.”
“I don’t think anyone, right or left, has been blackballed,” added Bart. “I think that’s a little Chetwyndian paranoia there.”
“There were no official lists [blackballing conservatives,]” said Larry Gelbart, “but those lists are back, and encouraged by this administration to make liberals synonymous with demons.” Gelbart added: “We are not, as freelance artists, allowed to express ourselves. We work for Murdoch, G.E., Sony. They’re not interested in educating, informing, or enlightening audiences.”
Unfortunately, the Hollywood Forum was not very conducive to audience questions–a situation that will have to improve if this group hopes to last. But my friend Leah, an actress, did manage to ask one about why Hollywood is so sympathetic to Castro.
Peter Bart brushed this off. “All those Hollywood types who talk with Castro, all they do is talk about f***ing movies,” he said. “They go to Cuba because it’s the only place you can get old DeSotos.”
“Name one pro-Castro movie that’s come out of Hollywood,” Gelbart demanded.
“Comandante!” Leah snapped back, referring to Oliver Stone’s recent paean to Castro.
“OK, that’s one…” Gelbart said.
“Motorcycle Diaries!” Leah immediately added. Gelbart was beginning to look exasperated at that point, so she shut up. “But there’s also Havana,” she whispered to me, “by Robert Redford, another lyrical poem to Castro.”
I can remember a time when a working actress hoping to remain working might not have been so outspoken about her anti-leftist views, and I suppose this exchange could indicate that conservatives are not as ostracized here as they once were. Chetwynd seemed to think so.
“Things are getting better,” he said. “It used to be that terrorists in movies and TV shows all had to be neo-Nazis. This year on 24, not only are there Middle Eastern terrorists, the second enemy are the Chinese.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.