Tue. May 29
Where Are the Conservatives in Hollywood?
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the relationship between conservatism and pop culture.
Conservatives and Republicans didn’t always have a challenge getting ahead in Hollywood–they were Hollywood during its golden era, including Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Frank Capra. All of these men understood pop culture and connecting with a mass audience intimately. But beginning in the late 1960s, they began to find themselves on the outside looking in.
When the late Andrew Breitbart was interviewed by Peter Robinson on the long-running series Uncommon Knowledge back in 2009, the subject of Hollywood and conservatism quickly came up. Andrew had cowritten Hollywood Interrupted in 2004 before launching full-steam into his role as a new media muckraker. He gave a brief history to Robinson about how easily the legendary Hollywood of the 1930s through the 1950s was absorbed by the New Left of the 1960s.
While George McGovern lost in 1972, Breitbart said to Robinson, “Hollywood was taken over by the left and they have never relinquished it. And in fact I would argue that the right has abrogated its place in Hollywood because they were told that you are not wanted here anymore and they never fought for it. So I don’t know who I have more contempt for, the left for its totalitarian behavior of those that disagree with them or the right the conservative movement just for allowing it to happen and not to fight back.”
But prior to the late 1960s, in order to get their scripts passed by the Hays Office (which, also fell during this period, and arguably not at all coincidentally), Hollywood screenwriters of a hard left or liberal persuasion had to bury their themes deep into the subtext of a movie. In a way, this actually benefitted many productions, by allowing them to viewed on multiple levels. The original Manchurian Candidate is a liberal indictment of the McCarthy era–but it also holds up as a taut, standalone Hitchcock-style thriller. The Hustler is a liberal indictment of blacklisting–but it’s also one of the greatest sports-themed movies ever made. Dr. Strangelove condemns the U.S. Air Force and the entire bipartisan American defense apparatus put in place after World War II to fight the Cold War. It’s also funny as hell.
Today, both sides in the culture war have forgotten those lessons. The anti-Iraq War movies of the late Bush era were notorious bombs at the box office. Why? Their creators were more interested in agitprop than entertainment. And on the other side of the aisle, when David Zucker directed and cowrote An American Carol in 2008, the laugh-a-minute humor that dominated his earlier films such as Airplane and The Naked Gun took second place to overt jingoism.
There were powerful themes that drove the American films of Hollywood’s golden era, whether it was one man fighting against the odds to save his homestead in the American westerns, or the dissipated men and women of the film noir era, fallen because they’ve abandoned God and morality. But these messages were subordinated to hard-hitting action and intense drama.
The best television still seems to understand this concept, whether it’s the pro–War on Terror themes of NCIS, or even the fart jokes that keep the audience laughing on South Park, while its writers sneak in libertarian themes on a regular basis. If conservative film and TV makers want to make headway recapturing the ground that, as Andrew Breitbart told Peter Robinson, their predecessors abandoned without much of a fight in the late ‘60s and early 1970s (or steal a little of Hollywood’s lunch via YouTube, Roku, and other alternative means of distribution), they’ll have to put entertaining ahead of teaching. But the result will be a win-win for their audiences, their careers, and eventually, maybe even the country.