I’m out in L.A. doing an Oscar story. Yesterday, I spent some time with the young actor Ryan Gosling, who’s the dark-horse contender for the Best Actor award this year, up against some stiff competition–Forrest Whitaker, Peter O’Toole, Leonardo DiCaprio, etc. (in fact, Gosling’s such a long shot, he’s betting against himself.) Gosling got the nomination for his intense, disturbing portrayal of a crackhead schoolteacher in Half Nelson. He struck me as a very thoughtful, warm guy–not at all the prima donna type. And he seems to be struggling to craft a career that balances the industrial-strength glamour of Hollywood (he made all the girls swoon in the weeper The Notebook) with his own personal ambitions to make smaller, independent, more "difficult" movies. He’s definitely a young actor to watch.
But the talk of the town out here is the dust-up among Hollywood’s big political donors. When mogul and onetime FOB David Geffen called the Clintons liars (Geffen is now backing Senator Barack Obama), it set off fireworks across the country (Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign demanded that Obama cut off all ties to Geffen), and here in L.A. One reason: Hollywood money is a crucial factor for any Democrat who seriously wants to be president. You simply cannot get the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party–and you cannot win the White House as a Democrat–without the money-raising muscle of Hollywood. So the stakes are very high in this early skirmish between Clinton and Obama.
The whole incident demonstrates that fact once again, and it also reminds us how liberal Hollywood is. A conservative Democrat or a Republican is simply not going to find anywhere near as much money out here as a liberal–a "real" liberal. Why is that? Why is Hollywood so liberal?
First off, I’m not taking any political position here. It may be a great thing, it may be not so great, that Hollywood is a bastion of liberalism. Some people like it, some don’t. That’s not what I’m after here. Second, I’m not talking about the actors themselves. Artists in our culture, most of them anyway, have long been on the more progressive side of our politics. Perhaps it has something to do with the kind of work they do, perhaps with the fashions of the artistic community, perhaps because as artists they have a different experience of the world. Dunno.
No, I’m wondering about the moguls. Geffen, Katzenberg, Spielberg, Reiner, Lear, Saban–the big-money moguls are power players in the Democratic Party, and they lean unmistakably left. That has not always been the case in Hollywood. Once upon a time, the men (and they were all men) who ran Hollywood leaned unmistakably right. Louis B. Mayer was chairman of California’s Republican Party for years. Irving Thalberg led the effort to defeat progressive Democrat Upton Sinclair when he ran for California governor in 1934 on a platform of ending poverty in the state. Daryl Zanuck was a staunch Cold Warrior who, like many moguls, helped enforce the notorious blacklisting of actors, writers, directors and others who might have had some association with communism. And Walt Disney was a deeply anti-union, anti-communist social conservative.
So what’s going on today? What happened? I’m wondering if the real reason the big-money players in Hollywood have become so liberal is that it’s good for their business.
Sex sells. Always has, always will. If you put a pretty woman, scantily clad, in front of a pile of radial tires, you will sell more radial tires. There’s probably some algorithm for it. And once Hollywood was able to shake off the shackles of the "Hays code" the opportunities to make more by showing more and doing more in the bedroom on screen were simply irresistible.
The cash Niagara of more explicit, more sexually liberated movies has had a political consequence, it seems to me. Imagine, for a moment: If social conservatives had their way and American culture was remade in the manner they advocate–Hollywood would take a beating. Movies would change–they’d be less sexually suggestive, less "transgressive" of middle-class morality, less likely to champion lifestyles at odds with "traditional values." (They also might be a lot more boring–but that’s beside the point.) And the big moguls would make less money–a lot less. (Artists would certainly and rightly rebel against the constraints on their freedom to imagine and depict the world–but I’m not talking about artists. I’m talking about businessmen and businesswomen.) So: Sex sells. And that shapes Hollywood’s politics.
But I wonder if there’s another factor (and I admit I’m going even farther out on a limb here). Hollywood is now one of the biggest transnational, mega-corporate industries in the world. The interests of the people who make a pile of money from Hollywood movies are intimately bound up with the culture of international business. And that culture increasingly treats nations and their parochial interests as obstacles to progress, to the natural order of The Deal. As Samuel Huntington and others have provocatively suggested, the way "transnational elites" see the world–and see their interests in the world–is often at odds with the way many of their fellow citizens see the world. Here’s how Huntington famously (or infamously) put it:
“America’s business, professional, intellectual, and academic elites… [have] attitudes and behaviors [that] contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification with their country of the American public. . . . They abandon commitment to their nation and their fellow citizens and argue the moral superiority of identifying with humanity at large.”
It’s what some on the left call "community without nation"–the notion that national loyalty and all it entails can be superseded by a broader allegiance to the abstract goals of trade, of human rights, global environmental stewardship, and a more egalitarian distribution of the world’s resources.
I wonder: If American foreign policy, or environmental policy, or even our religious culture "offends" people around the world, does that harm Hollywood’s business interests? And if it does, might the risk to the movie business’s bottom line account for some of the reason Hollywood moguls lean left? Is the Republican Party bad for business out here?
And please let me emphasize: I am trying to provoke a discussion, not take a position here. I may be a liberal; I may be a conservative. No matter here. I’m just trying to "push back" a little.
And I invite you to "push back," too.