What Liberal Hollywood? postsMonday February 08, 2016
What Liberal Hollywood? Part 89
John Leguizamo says what I've been saying for years—although, in this USA Today Op-Ed about #OscarSoWhite, etc., he's saying it about the place, while I've been saying it about the product:
For all the talk about “liberal Hollywood,” the film industry is as conservative as any other wealthy institution. If Hollywood were a U.S. state, it would be Alabama. It's more conservative than TV. It's more conservative than Broadway, which was the dinosaur of the media world not too long ago.
Then he talks up the musical, “Hamilton,” in which people of color play the founding fathers, and which has been my absolute obsession these past few weeks. Here's an early version of the opening number. Here's a CBS Morning Report on Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the #OscarSWhite controversy, Spike Lee also referenced “Hamilton,” specifically the song “The Room Where It Happens,” insisting—like Leguizamo and Viola Davis—that it's a matter of opportunity; of getting into the room where it happens.
Worst Movie Critics Ever: The FBI Notes on Anti-American Movies of the 1940s and '50s
Red propaganda. Obviously.
At the end of “J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of Hollywood's Cold War” (recommended), author John Sbardellati includes a glossary of movies that the FBI tagged as suspect. It's a lot of fun. Some highlights:
- “Buck Privates Come Home” (1947), starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello: “One scene portrays a party given for a General, while other scenes reflect an enlisted man on KP duty, making the audience unnecessarily class conscious.”
- “Crossfire” (1947), directed by Edward Dmytryk: “This picture is a good example of placing over-emphasis on the racial problem.”
- Gentlemen's Agreement“ (1947), directed by Elia Kazan; starring Gregory Peck and John Garfield: ”A Police Lieutenant is a party to anti-Semitism and as such is subjected to much criticism.... This was a deliberate effort to discredit law enforcement.“
- ”The Marrying Kind“ (1952), directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; starring Judy Holliday and Aldo Ray: ”The [Counterattack] article reflected that pickets led by Catholic war veterans would protest [Judy Holliday's] appearance in this picture because of her impressive front record which included affiliations with such organizations as the Civil Rights Congress, the Council of African Affairs, the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions and many others.“
- ”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“ (1939), directed by Frank Capra; starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains: ”First Hollywood movie to show tie-up between Congressman and Big Business.“
- ”State of the Union“ (1948), directed by Frank Capra; starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn: ”Seems to be a deep seated dislike for most of the things America is and stands for.“
- ”The Treasure of the Sierra Madre“ (1948), directed by John Huston; starring Humphrey Bogart: ”Walter Huston makes a speech in this picture which ... is practically a direct quotation from Marx's 'Das Kapital.'“
- ”It's a Wonderful Life“ (1947), directed by Frank Capra; starring James Stewart: ”The picture represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers."
Where Michael Medved Went Wrong with ‘Hollywood vs. America’
OK, so I finally got around to reading Michael Medved’s “Hollywood vs. America.” Give me a few decades and I’ll get right on things.
What surprised me? I agreed with him more than I thought I would.
Our minds meet here:
- Movies influence us. In my view, everything affects everything, and movies, with their wide reach, with millions of potential viewers, can influence that much more. So there’s a responsibility there. With great power, etc.
- Movies are excessively violent. Given his conservative credentials, I was pleased that Medved attacks right-wing icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris. He doesn’t give them a pass. Here.
- Too many ‘Kid Knows Best’ features are a drag. Obviously the goal is to flatter one of Hollywood’s key demographics while insulting the people actually paying for the ticket.
Our disagreements cut deeper.
Medved thinks Hollywood movies are generally anti-family, anti-hero, anti-country, anti-religion, pro-obscenity, and with a tendency to glorify ugliness.
I think most Hollywood movies are good-vs.-evil heroic wish-fulfillment fantasies, and so much about the beauty of its stars that for the rest of our lives the rest of us feel like something the cat dragged in.
But our biggest disagreement is who we blame for whatever mess we think Hollywood is in.
Me: Hollywood’s a business, they’re trying to appeal to as many people as possible—to make as much money as possible—and so they come up with these wish-fulfillment fantasies about heroic men and beautiful women because that’s the story we want to see again and again. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.
Medved: It’s the hippies.
Between 1965 and 1969 the values of the entertainment industry changed, and audiences fled from the theaters in horror and disgust.
A little background. In 1966, Jack Valenti, the newly appointed president of the Motion Picture Association of America, officially ended the longstanding Hays Code, which had banned, among other things, nudity, miscegenation, “sex perversion,” and “willful offense to any nation, race or creed”—or at least the white ones. In its place, he instituted a ratings system: initially G, M, R and X; eventually G, PG, PG-13, R, X and NC-17. From then on, characters on movie screens could swear, and take off their clothes. If you pricked them they bled and if you poisoned them they died. Movies could have sympathy for criminals and could ridicule clergy.
To Medved, that’s where everything went wrong. In 1966, Hollywood opened Pandora’s Box, filth came out, and most of us turned away. He writes:
While individual examples of the countercultural trend might achieve respectable box office returns (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967; Easy Rider, 1969; Midnight Cowboy, 1969; M*A*S*H, 1970), the general distaste for the industry’s emphasis on sex and violence provoked an unprecedented flight of the mass audience.
My thought while reading: Except there wasn’t an unprecedented flight of the mass audience.
According to Medved, there was:
In 1967, the first year in which Hollywood found itself finally free to appeal to the public without the “paralyzing” restrictions of the old Production Code, American pictures drew an average weekly audience of only 17.8 million—compared to the weekly average of 38 million who had gone to the theaters just one year before!
Wow, I didn’t know that. Hollywood lost more than half its audience in a single year? And did nothing about it?
So where did Medved get those numbers? From the footnotes:
All figures on weekly movie attendance from the Motion Picture Association of America (research by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey), cited in Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, by Cobbett Steinberg, Vintage Books, 1978, pp. 370–71.
Steinberg’s book does in fact give us those 38/17.8 numbers. In my updated 1982 version, they’re on page 46. But are they correct?
First, let’s admit it’s tough to get accurate box office data on almost anything before 1980. It’s all a little sketchy and the numbers never quite match.
That said, almost everything I’ve ever read on the history of box office disagrees with Medved/Steinberg. Here, for example, is a graph from George Lucas's Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success:
This is the agreed-upon history. From the late ‘40s to the mid-‘60s, fewer and fewer people went to the movies because of the following factors:
- The advent of TV (the big one)
- The 1948 federally mandated breakup of Hollywood’s production/distribution monopoly, causing the studios to sell its theaters and cut back on production
I.e., 3) meant traveling further when you left the house, 2) meant fewer film options once you left the house, and 1) meant “Why leave the house? Milton Berle’s on!”
(Another factor, less commented upon, is HUAC’s anti-communist assault upon Hollywood, which tainted the Hollywood/movie brand. For many Americans, the question became: Why spend time and money to see something created by pinkos and fellow travelers? The great irony is that HUAC’s search for communists damaged a successful capitalist enterprise that 99.99% of the time promoted American values around the world.)
Another graph, from Michelle Pautz of Elon University in North Carolina, in her paper, “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930 -2000,” suggests that attendance actually began to level off around the time Valenti and Hollywood got rid of the outdated Production Code:
Movies survived the TV era by giving people what they couldn’t get on TV. In the 1950s, this meant Cinemascope and Technicolor and epics. In the mid-to-late ‘60s, it meant sex, violence and adult themes. This was the lifeline the movies used until Hollywood hit upon the summer blockbuster concept in the mid-1970s.
But it’s not just the above graphs that disagree with Steinberg. So does Steinberg.
During my online research, I came across a 2006 discussion on a message board devoted to arts and faith, in which one user quotes Medved’s 38/17.8 numbers, another challenges him, and the first essentially offers a mea culpa—linking to a LA City Beat article that refutes Medved’s numbers. Sadly, LA City Beat is no more, the links are broken, and I can’t find the original article or even its author’s name. (Let me know if you know who this is.) But the message board user did quote from the article:
...had [Medved] turned one leaf backward [in Steinberg’s book] to look at page 368, he would have seen the chart saying that the average 1966 ticket price was $1.094, and the average 1967 price $1.198. Had he turned one leaf forward, to page 373, he would have discovered that annual U.S. box-office receipts for 1966 were $1.119 billion; for 1967, $1.128 billion.
If anyone can tell me how ticket prices can go up roughly 10 percent, box-office receipts can go up a little under 1 percent, and attendance drop by nearly 53 percent … well, please drop me a line.
Let’s do that math, shall we? If you take Steinberg’s annual box office receipts and divide by Steinberg’s annual ticket price, then divide by the 52 weeks in the year, you get the following average weekly attendance for 1966 and 1967:
U.S. Box Office
Est. annual att.
Est. wkly att.
Not exactly 38/17.8.
So Steinberg doesn’t even agree with himself. In fact, he’s culling information from many different sources. But it’s only the average weekly attendance number, on which Medved based so much, and which comes from a study by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, that includes a proviso from Steinberg:
These figures are only estimates of the average weekly number of American moviegoers. Industry statistics can never be exact here.
I searched to see if any book and/or movie critics at the time that “Hollywood vs. America” had been published had called out Medved on his suspect data. Nada.
I checked to see if Medved has since offered a mea culpa on his suspect data. Bupkis.
To be sure, Medved gets other things wrong, too. He goes on for pages about a 1990 Christian movie, “China Cry,” claiming it earned twice what Box Office Mojo says it grossed ($10 million vs. $4.2 million). He attacks B movies of the 1980s that aren’t worth a second thought, and ascribes shabby, countercultural motives behind Martin Scorsese’s desire to make “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He thinks R.E.M.’s song “Losing My Religion” is anti-religion and “The Simpsons” isn’t funny.
But this is the big one. He believes that the movie business, which has given us John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Rambo, Arnold and Bruce Willis, puts left-wing ideology before money. It’s right there in that 38/17.8 number: the number that other numbers, not to mention logic, not to mention its original source, tells us is wrong.
Hollywood released films like these and and “audiences fled from the theaters in horror and disgust,” says Medved. According to Steinberg, “The Graduate” was the No. 2 box-office hit of the 1960s, while the other two are in the top 20.
Creating 'Liberal Hollywood' in Five Simple Steps
Here are the first five searches for the phrase “liberal Hollywood” on the New York Times site, as sorted by oldest:
- Jan. 28, 1975: “He is also consulting with Warren Beatty and other liberal Hollywood stars who backed Senator George McGovern for the 1972 nomination.” — from Christopher Lydon's straightforward “Special to the Times” piece on Henry “Scoop” Jackson considering a run for president in 1976.
- Oct. 7, 1990: “He has won wide admiration among Jews for his staunch support for Israel and has earned credits in traditionally liberal Hollywood circles for backing the motion picture industry in its regulatory battle with the television networks over syndication of reruns.” — from Robert Reinhold's straightforward “Special to the Times” piece on California gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson steering a course for the political center.
- Oct. 26, 1990: “Citing contributions to Mr. Waite from Al Pacino and other movie figures, Mr. McCandless said that Mr. Waite is part of the 'liberal Hollywood crowd'...” — from Robert Reinhold's “Special to the Times” piece on conservative U.S. Rep. Al McCandless' poliltical battle with actor Ralph Waite, who played Pa Walton on “The Waltons” in the 1970s.
- Sept. 17, 1991: “'[Bob] Kerrey's the one in the liberal Hollywood community,' said one influential public relations executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'He's spent a lot of time out here. Frankly, he's young, he's attractive, he's a war hero, he slept with a movie star and he's got a good hair cut.'” — from Bernard Weinraub's piece on Hollywood's love of gossip, including, but not limited to, the 1992 presidential election.
- June 25, 1992: “Perotmania seems to be hitting liberal Hollywood, at least somewhat.” — from Bernard Weinraub's gossip column on budgets and the '92 campaign.
Over time, the compound modifier becomes its own phrase. Then it's off to the races.
Where Ann Hornaday is Right About Elliot Rodger and Hollywood
First, Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday is right: movies matter, and we are influenced by them in incalculable ways, and the violence and sexism that is threaded throughout Hollywood history can’t be doing us much good.
At the same time, laying the crimes of Elliot Rodger at poor Judd Apatow’s feet is itself a kind of crime.
Second, Ann Hornaday is still right: the movie industry is sexist, in that it’s dominated by men who are interested in greenlighting stories about men, which leaves 50% of the population leading only 15% of our stories. That creates imbalance. That’s creates marginalization. That creates a sense of privilege.
At the same time, even if half the execs in Hollywood were women, greenlighting stories starring women, these stories would most likely be wish-fulfillment fantasy. Maybe less violent but still wish-fulfillment fantasy: a spirited woman, say, choosing between two handsome men against a backdrop of historic tragedy. With bows and arrows. Or witchcraft. Or cooking. Or …
Because what’s missing in Hornaday’s column about the movie culture Hollywood creates is the true culprit, the man behind the curtain: us, the moviegoers.
Hollywood is a business, a very risk-averse business, and it spends most of its time trying to create what they think we will like. And they do this by looking at what we’ve liked in the recent past. Then they re-do that. Hey, here it is again. This thing you liked. Happy happy.
Which is why we get this story again: a lone man using violence to achieve justice. And why we get this story again: I love you and you love me … but not for 70 minutes yet. And this story: a spirited woman (or girl) choosing between two men (or a vampire and werewolf) against a backdrop of historic tragedy (or high school on the Olympic peninsula).
That’s worth mentioning. The fault lies less with our stars than in ourselves.
New Yorker staff writer John Cassidy is right, too: Blame the gun laws for all the people who died because of Elliot Rodger's crime.
You could actually combine Cassidy’s and Hornaday’s columns and get something worth positing as a question: to what extent can we blame our gun laws on Hollywood’s 100-year glorification of the gun?
A discussion like that might even make my day.
Go ahead ...