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In the mid-1930s, Vittorio Mussolini, the second son of Benito Mussolini — aka Il Duce, aka Italy’s fascist dictator, aka the buffoonish megalomaniac who’d held his country in thrall since 1922 — became enamored of the film business, just like the spawn of so many other strongmen, past and present.
Leaving behind his career as a pilot who’d fought in Italy’s Ethiopian campaign (war was “the most beautiful and complete of all sports,” he maintained), he began to dabble as a critic, then tried his hand as an assistant director before overseeing the opening of Rome’s great Cinecitta studio. Suddenly he was hot. He had access to money and movie stars, and Hollywood came calling.
A fan of Laurel and Hardy, Mussolini quickly befriended the comedians’ mentor, Hal Roach, who signed a co-production deal with the Italian princeling and invited him to America, where Roach told reporters: “He’s going into the picture business and I’m going in with him.”
On a warm Los Angeles evening in September 1937, according to Thomas Doherty’s deeply researched Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, the Roaches toasted Vittorio at their home, celebrating his 21st birthday and their own 21st wedding anniversary as a Hawaiian orchestra serenaded them, while Mussolini Junior schmoozed with the likes of Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy and Fred Astaire.
It was only later, when word spread and an incensed press, along with Hollywood’s burgeoning anti-Nazi group, took aim at the partygoers, that the production pact came to an end. Roach went “incommunicado at his home,” reported Variety, “nursing Public Headache No. 1,” while young Mussolini made a beeline for the nearest airport, flying out of L.A. under the pseudonym W.J. Willis.
Such was Hollywood then, two years before Germany set the world on its ear. And such, I’m afraid, is Hollywood now.
Even as a few lonely voices cry out in protest, too many members of the establishment turn a blind eye to the bad guys. Rather than embrace good, Hollywood seems satisfied with a far safer principle, the one formerly espoused by Google: “Don’t be evil.”
But you end up being evil if you don’t do good.
The Polo Lounge in the Sultan of Brunei’s Beverly Hills Hotel is proof of this — it’s full of hobnobbing industry-ites, almost oblivious to the fact that the hotel was boycotted five years ago because of its owner’s extravagant homophobia — his declaration of Sharia law and its call for gays and adulterers to be stoned.
Movies continue to shoot in Hungary, which has become so scarily authoritarian that it’s just inches away from becoming a police state — still a nominal democracy, maybe, but one that counts as such, in the words of The New York Times, only “as long as one widens one’s definition of what democracy is.”
And producers keep chasing funds that come either directly or indirectly from Saudi Arabia, as if they’ve forgotten that its de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, was the man who had a Washington Post columnist murdered and dismembered.
In an unpleasant case of deja vu, bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, followed young Mussolini’s example last year when he attended an intimate dinner at the home of no less an eminence than Rupert Murdoch, joined by the likes of Disney’s Bob Iger, Fox’s Stacey Snider and Dwayne Johnson. Now, I’m as curious as the next person to meet the international rich and powerful, but did nobody do due diligence?
Their excuse, of course, was the dinner happened before news broke in October about the death of Jamal Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul hoping to get documents he needed in order to marry his fiancee, then never left. But I’m still waiting for a collective mea culpa, a sigh of “Sorry,” a declaration that every man who ate, drank and made merry at Chez Murdoch will refuse to have anything to do with the prince and his ilk from now on.
Only a handful of Hollywood pooh-bahs had the decency to sever ties at once, following Khashoggi’s death, among them the leaders of Endeavor, who pulled out of a planned $400 million deal with the Saudi government. Have their peers announced the same, that they won’t do business with him, either?
What’s challenging for Hollywood is that its economy is intimately linked with dozens of countries that aren’t full-on dictatorships but are hardly models of democracy. Which leaves it in a quandary: Should it break loose from countries that inhabit a gray zone, even if they’re on the dark end of the spectrum? Or should it hang in there, praying things won’t get too bad and maybe even improve?
That’s precisely the dilemma Hollywood is facing in Atlanta, with industry leaders voicing comforting platitudes without cutting the cord. Only, with countries like Saudi Arabia, things are much, much worse than in Georgia — critics vanish into prisons, women have their rights abused, and sometimes, as we saw, opponents are even assassinated. Hollywood can’t defend itself by saying it wants to keep the locals employed, the compelling argument it uses to justify shooting in the Peach State.
”Compared to Hungary and Saudi Arabia,” a veteran publicist wrote me last week, after I’d urged a boycott of Georgia, “Atlanta is a pipsqueak.”
So should we remove ourselves from Hungary, Saudi Arabia, maybe even China, and every other state that doesn’t support basic human rights? I wish I had the answer. Everything seems simpler when we look back on the past, when the reality of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy seems so clear, when we can see the end of the dark tunnel into which they were just entering.
But there’s a lot Hollywood can and should be doing now.
First, call on the Motion Picture Association of America to establish a human rights division that can give studio heads genuine information on what’s going on. Second, convene a summit to draw up industry guidelines regarding what’s right and wrong. Third, refuse to edit films to suit local political and sexual requirements. Fourth, insist on transparency: have an internal ombudsman explain to staffers and outsiders the rationale behind each interaction with a dictator.
Doing this will allow Hollywood to hold its head high, to say action was taken before it was too late, before its image and people’s lives were devastated, without apologies or excuses.
Back in 1937, Roach had to eat humble pie. “I went over [to the Italian film industry] on the wrong premise, and got in by mistake,” he mumbled, according to Doherty. The consequences were minimal — the loss of some $12,000, chicken feed to a mogul, then as now. As Doherty notes, “He got off cheap.” Next time, Hollywood might not be so lucky.
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