10 Hollywood Icons and Their Political Awakening

A few days ago, I finished Steven J. Ross’s book “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics”, where the writer has profiled the political careers of ten liberal and conservative Hollywood figures. He chose his subjects well, because they differ a lot from each other. Some of them were movement politicians, meaning they preferred to work in favor of various causes rather than try to get elected to an office; others did just that. Some of them gave up their careers for the cause they believed in, others either used their movie careers to advance a political agenda, or waited until their star had diminished until they got into politics.

Since the book is dealing with a visual medium, it’s fun to check out these ten stars and their political engagements with the help of clips.

Charlie Chaplin – In The Great Dictator (1940), perhaps the greatest star in the history of cinema delivers a fiery speech (playing a man who impersonates a Hitler clone) that echoed the political sentiments of the actor, one that spoke out against Hitler and in favor of democracy. What his later critics would seize upon was Chaplin’s call to “do away with national barriers”, which was ridiculously enough labeled as Communist propaganda. As in the case of Warren Beatty decades later, Chaplin’s womanizing was also used as a weapon against him.

Louis B. Mayer – The MGM boss became one of Hollywood’s most powerful figures and the man who brought the Republican Party to Hollywood, helping the GOP establish a base there and often serving as a mentor to young stars who became conservatives under his guidance. The clip shows the staunch right-winger testifying against Communism before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.

Edward G. Robinson – The case of Robinson is tragic, much like that of Chaplin, two huge movie stars whose careers were destroyed by men who profited from keeping a “red scare” alive no matter what. The clip above shows Robinson in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), one of the first films to deal with the threat of Nazi Germany, but Robinson’s fight against authoritarianism was eventually twisted by his enemies into being pro-Communist, leading to devastating HUAC hearings.

George Murphy – Perhaps the least known of the ten Hollywood icons Ross selected, Murphy became famous in the 1930s, often playing the good, decent guy in musicals. After the decline of his career, Murphy (originally a liberal Democrat, but swayed by Mayer and his associates) turned to electoral politics and was elected U.S. Senator in 1964 as a smiling, affable conservative. During his first campaign Murphy benefited from TV networks showing his old movies where he danced with Shirley Temple, which his critics foolishly thought might make him look silly. In fact, those movies only reinforced his charisma. In the clip above, we see him serve as a representative of President Richard Nixon in 1970.

Ronald Reagan – Reagan and Murphy had similar careers to the degree that Ross even lets them share a chapter in his book. Just like Murphy, Reagan often played decent guys, started out as a Democrat and got involved in union work. When his career in movies was over, he also turned to electoral politics and he knew just as well as Murphy how to use his screen persona, and well-chosen soundbites, to win over voters. In the clip above, then-former California Governor Reagan is a guest at The Tonight Show in 1975.

Harry Belafonte – Belafonte was on the verge of becoming maybe the greatest African-American movie star of his times when he chose to devote his life to the civil-rights struggle, essentially giving up that part of his career. He still became a highly sought-after singer and used those talents as his way of collecting money for the cause. In no way was he just a hanger-on; he was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest friends and collaborators. In the 1967 interview above, he talks about racism and the Vietnam War.

Jane Fonda – In the clip above, the actress answers questions about her campaign against the Vietnam War in 1972. Fonda is still a controversial figure because of her years in movement politics. We don’t really have to care about certain veterans’ hatred of her; she has apologized several times for letting herself be used as a tool of propaganda during a visit to North Vietnam earlier that year. What’s more problematic is that her efforts in favor of the antiwar movement damaged it at times because of ignorance and poor judgment. Over the years, however, she has turned into an admirable feminist icon.

Charlton Heston – He started out as yet another liberal who slowly became a conservative, even though he had walked with civil-rights leaders in the 1960s against racism. Years later, however, Heston cared more about other issues, such as protecting the rights of gun-owners against imaginary threats to the Second Amendment. He resisted attempts to get into politics, but allowed himself to be elected president of the National Rifle Association. Every time he raised a weapon and hissed “from my cold dead hands”, the gun nuts he presided over went wild.

Warren Beatty – The liberal equivalent to Heston worked just as hard to get his preferred candidates elected, even harder in fact as Beatty got personally involved in presidential campaigns on an unprecedented level (Gary Hart’s two runs). But just like Heston, Beatty realized that he didn’t care for the challenges of actually governing something. Like Jane Fonda, Beatty had the capacity (and status) to work his politics directly into movies. The most obvious example is Bulworth (1998) where he plays a Democratic senator who finds his inner liberal.

Arnold Schwarzenegger – The kid who grew up in Austria, learned how to hate Socialism and dreamed of becoming a bodybuilder, a movie star and a politician in the United States, would never settle for mere movement politics though. Schwarzenegger’s career is truly remarkable, and as a modern movie star he learned how to turn the entertainment media to his advantage in order to win the governorship of California. The Governator got himself elected twice, partly because of weak Democratic opponents, but also because he understood how to fine-tune his message, as in the 2003 ad above.

Steven Ross’s book is an entertaining read, mostly because of the recap of these stars’ political endeavors and how he describes the difference between them. The final chapter tries to sum it up, but there isn’t much point, besides emphasizing the obvious: It’s good when citizens get involved.

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