Hollywood & politics

As voters wrestle with which direction the country should take, the industry's political landscape continues to shift.

Late last summer, as campaigns intensified in the run-up to next week's midterm elections, a familiar refrain began to ring out across the talk-radio airwaves and in fiercely partisan attack ads. Republican candidates and like-minded pundits, ever eager to paint their Democratic foes as woefully out of touch with the values of middle America, employed a well-worn, galvanizing epithet that has been a particularly effective campaign weapon for years: "Hollywood Liberal."

Take the heated race in Montana between Republican incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns and his upstart Democratic challenger Jon Tester. Born and raised in Montana, Tester has based a surprisingly successful campaign on his long-standing roots in the community as a second-generation wheat farmer. By any measure, he is the very antithesis of Hollywood. Nevertheless, in July, he was the target of ads in which he found himself being aligned with "Hollywood elites."

Around the same time, the GOP's official Web site made this bit of political hay after Rosie O'Donnell infamously stated that "radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam": "Cut-And-Run Defeatocrats Across the Country Take Their Cues From Hollywood Friends and Advisors," the headline declared.

For politicos, this kind of name-calling is part and parcel of the inevitable gamesmanship that goes on in the weeks before the polls open. But to a number of Hollywood observers, the oft-used tactic of aligning Democrats with Hollywood liberalism isn't holding water like it used to.

"In the last midterm elections, what the Republicans were doing was, anytime anybody like Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin, any of those people gave money to a candidate, right away they were 'in the pocket of Hollywood liberals,'" says Nikki Finke, whose column in LA Weekly and blog at DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com provide an unflinching, insider's look at how Hollywood intersects with politics. "It's an attempt to portray Democratic candidates who receive Hollywood money as completely out of step with the locals in terms of values."

While there is little debate about Hollywood's left-of-center tradition, for several weeks over the summer, Tinseltown's political landscape appeared to be shifting decidedly to the right. But since the nexus of entertainment and politics is rarely discussed in any context other than its supposed militant liberalism, the notion that Hollywood could be anything other than the lefty epicenter of the world didn't get much play.

Recently, however, in addition to the controversy surrounding ABC's docudrama miniseries "The Path to 9/11," the heated election season has given rise -- particularly in the blogosphere -- to an increasing amount of chatter concerning the possibility that, to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, Hollywood's liberal tradition isn't just a lie: It's more powerful -- it's a myth.

In September, for instance, high-profile liberals such as David Geffen, Haim Saban and Steven Spielberg broke ranks to put their hefty support behind Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign.

About a month earlier, Oliver Stone, one of the most outspoken liberal voices in Hollywood for almost two decades, stunned fans and critics with Paramount's "World Trade Center," a retelling of the events of Sept. 11 that eschewed polemics in favor of a street-level realism featuring unabashed displays of patriotism one would never expect from the man who made 1994's "Natural Born Killers." Even in his press tour for "WTC," Stone, who has never been shy about voicing his disdain for the policies of the current Bush administration, appeared to consciously avoid making any overtly political statements (he would eventually unleash his scathing assessment of President George W. Bush during his European press junket, however).

Then, there was last month's announcement that Fox was opening a faith-based production shingle, FoxFaith. That came hot on the heels of the Walt Disney Co.'s July declaration that it would be reshuffling in order to focus more on family entertainment. Both announcements were applauded by Christian conservative leaders.

"Liberal Hollywood is a complete myth," says Steven Ross, chair of the history department at USC and author of the forthcoming book "Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics." "Hollywood was liberal, but the myth is that it's only liberal."

Ross, who believes conservative politics have been part of the industry since "Hollywood became Hollywood" in the early 1920s, makes a distinction between what he calls "visual politics" -- the predominantly left-leaning content that made its way onto the big screen via like-minded filmmakers -- and the more institutionalized "electoral politics" that originated in the boardroom.

"Visual politics was practiced by people like Charlie Chaplin, who didn't really want to get involved in groups but preferred to put politics directly on the screen," he says. "Electoral politics was really pioneered by Louis B. Mayer, who was the first one to solidify a relationship between Hollywood and one party. Before Mayer, the studios wouldn't support any politician that didn't support them. Mayer brought the Republican party into Hollywood and Hollywood to the Republican party."

The idea that Hollywood has a conservative tradition that has shadowed its high-profile liberalism for decades is rarely, if ever, examined, but the role celebrities play in defining Hollywood's political identity is reinforced on an almost daily basis. Indeed, anytime Streisand or George Clooney express their views on current events -- which, these days, is often -- they place a very recognizable liberal face on Hollywood that the opposition is quick to seize upon and exploit.

But if activist celebs do represent a wider liberal agenda in Hollywood, how did a politically charged miniseries written and directed by conservatives find its way to ABC's primetime programming schedule, especially at a time when the current administration was itself highlighting national security failures during former President Bill Clinton's administration? For some, "Path" was proof that, at the very least, Hollywood's political waters are far murkier than advertised. For conservatives who have long viewed the entertainment sector as virtually impenetrable, "Path" was a rallying cry.

"I think 'The Path to 9/11' is a sign of things to come," says Jason Apuzzo, co-director of the Hollywood-based Liberty Film Festival (running Nov. 10-12), which he helped found in July 2004 in an effort to "challenge Hollywood's liberal establishment." "There is a thriving subculture of filmmakers right now who don't conform to left-wing groupthink. Some of these people work within the system, some work outside, but regardless, there are too many of them to be held down forever."

"The 9/11 docudrama is an aberration," adds James Hirsen, author of "Hollywood Nation: Left Coast Lies, Old Media Spin and the New Media Revolution." "These things happen every now and then. I think ('Path') is a case of a guy (screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh) who feels as though his point of view (about Sept. 11) is not represented -- meaning the whole picture."

The idea of a more-level political playing field within the entertainment sector is, Hinton believes, currently driving conservatives to accomplish in Hollywood what many say the right wing has already accomplished in the news media, where DrudgeReport.com and Fox News attempt to balance out a perceived liberal bias in mainstream outlets such as CNN and the New York Times.

"Conservatives felt that the mainstream media was not reporting stories that they wanted to hear about," Hinton says. "Similarly, in certain types of entertainment media, there is an alternative point of view that Hollywood decision-makers and infrastructure tend to ignore because they are not a part of it."

Apuzzo, a graduate of USC film school, agrees that while Hollywood might not collectively deny conservatives a place at the table, it does have subtle ways of marginalizing voices from the right. "The most effective way to get rid of somebody or their ideas in Hollywood is not to persecute them but to ignore them to death," he says. "That's why there's no explicit blacklist against conservatives or conservative ideas in the industry. There doesn't need to be. If somebody doesn't conform to the prevailing liberal viewpoint -- even if they're a talented filmmaker -- it's easier to just hire somebody else. That's how the town remains ideologically a closed shop."

"I don't think there is a conscious bias against conservatives or republicans in Hollywood," counters Bud Yorkin, the veteran producer-director who, along with Norman Lear, helped change the face of television with "All in the Family" and who recently decided to endorse Schwarzenegger in his bid for re-election. "Look, if a guy like me can support Arnold, how liberal is Hollywood?"

Given the fact that the creators of "Path" have strong ties within the industry -- Nowrasteh was one of the writers on TNT's miniseries "Into the West" and has been tapped to write a feature about Osama bin Laden -- are conservatives truly marginalized, or, as some in the blogosphere have suggested, are they finally beginning to break down long-standing barriers in an organized and concerted effort to change Hollywood from within?

Apuzzo says that if there is going to be a place for more conservatives in Hollywood, it will come about from the "outside in," even likening them to the maverick filmmakers who stormed the Hollywood castle in the 1970s. "Personally, I think the most interesting developments are happening outside the system," he declares. "It's like the '70s all over again -- except this time, conservatives are the outsiders challenging the system."

To that end, it is perhaps not surprising that last year, Nowrasteh participated in a Liberty Film Fest panel called "Rebels With a Cause: How Conservatives Can Lead Hollywood's Next Paradigm Shift."

For Ross, the emergence of new conservative voices in the industry is simply an outgrowth of the fact that the power of Washington, D.C. still trumps Hollywood.

"It's not surprising that one of the networks would put out a conservatively oriented film," he says. "It's the same as studios like Warner Bros. in the '30s putting out films that supported the (Franklin D.) Roosevelt administration. The idea of politically engaged productions is not new -- it's just that now, it's Republican instead of Democrat."

Finke, however, notes that there is an inherent contradiction in conservatives attempting to swing Hollywood's political pendulum to the right.

"What's interesting here is that it's OK for the right wing ... to state openly that they want to influence Hollywood from their political perspective," she says. "But, it's not OK if the left wing wants to do that?"

Finke adds that in the aftermath of "Path," it will be interesting to see whether controversy-shy studios executives give the greenlight to politically charged material.

"They are really going to be faced with a dilemma in the future because they really are going to have to examine the bona fides of the people they give projects to. ... I don't think any network would give (liberal documentarian) Robert Greenwald a 9/11 docudrama, but on the other hand, why would you give it to his counterpart on the right?"