Is Clooney Right About Hollywood's Social Agenda?

Is proud liberal George Clooney on the winning side of history? When accepting his Oscar for best supporting actor, the Kentucky native took on the critics who say Hollywood is out of touch with America.

"We're the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered," the 44-year-old star told the audience. "And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. This academy -- this group of people -- gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch."

But does Hollywood take the lead on social issues, and do its movies change American society? Scholars who study the industry express doubts.

While McDaniel received an Oscar for her role as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind," the impact on civil rights was minimal, said Rick Jewell, a film professor at the University of Southern California.

It "did nothing for segregation or for the plight of African-Americans," he said. "She was rewarded for playing a stereotypical role." Regarding AIDS, Jewel was also skeptical of Clooney's claim. The most serious film on AIDS was 1993's "Philadelphia," he said, "which was well into the crisis."

Jewell said this year's best picture Oscar winner, "Crash," seemed "retro" to him. "It took on issues that have been pretty well dealt with by the media for 30 years."

Jewell believed that "Capote" -- not "Brokeback Mountain" -- was the most challenging film this year, because though both movies centered on gay protagonists, "Capote" also dealt with "important ambiguities in the world of media and reporting."

Culture watchers continue to debate whether Hollywood is out in front or out of touch on the issue of gay rights, but in the past the industry has clearly been ahead of the curve at times.

Hollywood Takes a (Safe) Stand

Jewell pointed to the 1939 film "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" about an investigation into a Nazi espionage ring in the United States. Executives across Hollywood told Warner Bros. not to release the film, Jewell said. The studio did anyway, and World War II broke out within months.

Hollywood may be ahead of its audience, UCLA film historian Howard Suber said, "but only by about 12 minutes."

"Is there anything in 'Crash' that would shock people on race relations? Not in the world as I know it," he said.

Suber said the history of Hollywood and race is better defined by the 1947 film "Gentleman's Agreement" in which Gregory Peck portrays a character who pretends to be Jewish.

"Hollywood was always sensitive about the portrayal of Jews onscreen," said Suber. He argues "Gentleman's Agreement" deliberately put "the most WASPish actor they could find" in the role of Philip Schuyler Green.

In 1967, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" took on racial attitudes as a white girl brought her black boyfriend home. "It was savagely attacked at the time," said Suber, but before long it "it didn't seem daring at all."

UCLA film professor Jonathan Kuntz put the issue in terms of two Hollywoods. One, he said, is made up of mainly liberal artists who have always been outspoken on social issues. The other is the business-minded side that has traditionally shied away from controversy because executives believed it could only hurt the box office.

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