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date: 28 May 2020

Hollywood Politics

Summary and Keywords

Hollywood has always been political. Since its early days, it has intersected with national, state, and local politics. As a new entertainment industry attempting to gain a footing in a society of which it sat firmly on the outskirts, the Jewish industry leaders worked hard to advance the merits of their industry to a Christian political establishment. At the local and state level, film producers faced threats of censorship and potential regulation of more democratic spaces they provided for immigrants and working class patrons in theaters. As Hollywood gained economic and cultural influence, the political establishment took note, attempting to shape silver screen productions and deploy Hollywood’s publicity innovations for its own purposes. Over the course of the 20th century, industry leaders forged political connections with politicians from both parties to promote their economic interests, and politically motivated actors, directors, writers, and producers across the ideological spectrum used their entertainment skills to advance ideas and messages on and off the silver screen. At times this collaboration generated enthusiasm for its ability to bring new citizens into the electoral process. At other times, however, it created intense criticism and fears abounded that entertainment would undermine the democratic process with a focus on style over substance. As Hollywood personalities entered the political realm—for personal, professional, and political gain—the industry slowly reshaped American political life, bringing entertainment, glamor, and emotion to the political process and transforming how Americans communicate with their elected officials and, indeed, how they view their political leaders.

Keywords: Hollywood, politics, entertainment, motion picture industry, celebrity, the American presidency, American political media

In middle of the 1996 presidential campaign, Jack Valenti, the former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson and then chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, noted the similarities between the two fields his career had straddled. “We are bearing witness to the Democratic/Republican tribute to and imitation of Hollywood’s mesmerizing attraction to audiences,” he noted.1 He observed how both celebrities and politicians required a shared skill set to succeed: “They both rely on scripts, a production set, cameras and lights.” But he also observed that the goals of the entertainer and the politician are inherently the same. “They both deal in illusions whose machinations are oftentimes unseen by and unknown to the public.”

In 1996, Valenti called these similarities between Hollywood and Washington, DC a fact that has “long been in the closet.” However, he was simply the latest in a string of political observers to note the connection between the two industries that was forged over the course of the 20th century. Hollywood’s ability to command the attention and loyalty of the broader public has made the entertainment industry a political entity from the beginning. And yet, while Valenti observed that entertainers and politicians “shared the same DNA,” the similarities between the two were not a natural development. Rather they were a product of Hollywood’s political mobilization over the course of the 20th century, which forced politicians to reckon with, and eventually emulate, the cultural power of a controversial entertainment industry. Hollywood’s involvement in politics during the 20th century ultimately reshaped the place of the motion picture in American life, the role of the actor in the public sphere, and the very nature of political power.2

The Politics of the Silver Screen in the Early Motion Picture Industry

Movies arrived on the American scene as a technological innovation in 1896. Over the next decade, they became an incredibly popular leisure product, but the motion picture industry itself lacked centralization and a strong economic structure of production, distribution, and exhibition. The motion picture frequently appeared during vaudeville acts or in dingy urban nickel theaters attended by raucous audiences of immigrants and poor working families.3 In fact, the popularity of motion pictures, and their ability to arouse the interest, passion, and excitement of urban audiences, made silent films a political tool for socialist and labor union organizations to recruit laborers into organizations such as the American Federation of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the Western Federation of Miners.4

This politicization of early motion pictures by the radical Left, combined with middle-class reformers’ concerns over the content on the silver screen as well as the democratic and egalitarian space of theaters, ultimately resulted in the enactment of censorship laws to regulate both the silver screen and the rules of the theaters themselves. Chicago passed the first film censorship law in 1907 amid concerns that silent films threatened to undermine Victorian values, which emphasized a strict and dispassionate social hierarchy, with new ideals of sexuality, emotion, and consumption.5 Battles over censorship soon arose in places such as New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Progressive reformers such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union attempted to “mother the movies,” by censoring film content and regulating the behavior of theater audiences in the name of “protecting children” from the influence of new immigrant cultures and what they saw as “unsavory” role models on the screen.6

The popularity of the motion pictures, especially among working-class and immigrant audiences, made them a political minefield in the early 20th century, with both progressive reformers and socialist organizers attempting to assert control over how this new industry would develop. But it was the insight and mobilization of immigrants themselves that transformed the motion picture from an urban amusement into an international industry known as “Hollywood.” Jewish immigrants such as Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, and William Fox wielded their talents and abilities to connect to audiences and sell stories.7 These pioneers of the industry saw the economic possibilities of moving productions to California, where they found low taxes and a hospitable environment. As the industry grew on the west coast, these entrepreneurs kept one eye on programming, and the other eye on politics, since both influenced box office profits.

As Mayer, Zukor, and Fox established studios in Southern California, they soon learned that their economic success depended on cultivating the trust, interest, and most importantly the patronage, of the public. This meant constant management of their stars’ public images and negotiation with local, state, and national politicians for the distribution and exhibition of their product. In 1921, scandalous stories about Hollywood parties became public, making it clear how silent film stars flouted the laws of Prohibition. That summer, a three-day “gin party” over Labor Day weekend hosted by comedian and silent film star Fatty Arbuckle ended in the death of Virginia Rappe. Sensational coverage of the story in the media and a costly trial derailed Arbuckle’s career, even though a jury acquitted him of manslaughter charges in April 1922. The negative publicity fueled reformers’ efforts to exert control over the entertainment medium, which was growing in popularity every year, helping them to introduce state censorship laws.8 During the controversy, the studio executives moved into action, and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) hired the Republican Postmaster General, Will H. Hays, to revamp the industry’s battered image and to begin lobbying against censorship and for favorable tax policies.9

Under the eye of Will Hays, the industry focused on how to organize the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures more efficiently. The result was the creation of vertical, oligarchic studio systems in which the major studios, such as Paramount, Fox, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, bought theaters across the country to ensure audiences for the films they produced. These systems clearly violated the Sherman Antitrust Law passed in 1890 for its consolidation of labor and resources into a vertically integrated market. But, with Will Hays’s lobbying efforts, and a Republican Party in control of state and national politics, the political connections of the industry paid off and the pocketbooks of these Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs continued to grow.

Studios had to balance their desire to produce titillating films—brimming with sexuality and violence—with the constant surveillance of reformers who threatened censorship if films became too risqué. In the early 1930s, as stars such as Mae West celebrated the lure of diamonds and sex, and films such as Scarface glorified mob violence, Catholic priests threatened a boycott of such “immoral films.”10 As a result, in 1934 the Production Code Administration (PCA) was established to strictly monitor all films released. By creating a review process for films to receive an MPPDA seal of approval before their release, the PCA created a self-censorship system guided by the principle that because “high trust and confidence” had been placed in motion pictures “by the people of the world,” the industry had a moral “responsibility to the public.” Overseen by Hays and enforced by Joseph Breen—a well-known Catholic layman and former journalist and public relations man—the PCA brought a social conservatism to movies in an attempt to keep divisive political and cultural issues off the screen.11

Politics off the Silver Screen

Hollywood’s political battles did not just focus on the silver screen. They also centered on the very political ideas and mobilization of workers in the industry, some of whom, such as the silent film star Charlie Chaplin, wanted to use their fame to advance political causes.12 Studio executives used their control over the public images of stars and “morality contracts” to limit such political activism. They understood that controversial or fringe political activities could alienate audiences, and in Hollywood, money trumped political ideology.

Politics also afforded substantial economic opportunities, however. Louis B. Mayer first plunged down this path by building a name for himself in the California Republican Party and inserting himself into Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign in 1928, with the help of his politically savvy assistant Ida Koverman. In what historian Steven J. Ross has called “electoral politics,” Mayer brought the “Republican Party to Hollywood and Hollywood to the Republican Party,” ultimately teaching the GOP ways to inject show business into their communication efforts.13 Jack Warner built on this tradition, seeking to make himself a valued member of the Democratic Party as he mobilized for Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932, and then as he sold the merits of Roosevelt’s New Deal through Busby Berkeley’s dance scenes on the silver screen and in film shorts such as “The Road is Open Again.”14 Mayer and Warner understood that as studio heads they had the expertise, insights, and power to use entertainment to serve presidential administrations, and these political connections could pay off economically and give them social prestige as well, even if they might alienate certain demographics. Willingness to promote certain ideas about the New Deal and intervention abroad helped Warner and other executives kill a Justice Department anti-trust investigation into the industry in the late 1930s.15

Many of their actors followed in their footsteps, becoming involved in promoting certain issues—from labor rights to anti-fascism. The Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the growth of fascism abroad politicized Hollywood workers and productions to higher degrees during the 1930s.16 Artists such as Edward G. Robinson were drawn into politics because FDR made politics “no longer merely a politicians ‘job’—he made it the concern of every human being … and in doing so he left the artist with no excuse to remain aloof about it.”17 Intense and volatile debates over the unionization of motion picture industry workers were waged throughout the industry during Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, especially as they challenged the authority of more conservative studio executives such as Mayer and Cecile B. DeMille, who worked to undermine the unionization that was taking hold in Hollywood and in industries across the country.18 The growth of the Hollywood Left was also fueled by the migration of artists and intellectuals from Europe and New York City, ultimately making the industry a beacon for radical political activity during the 1930s.19 The Screen Writers Guild, in particular, attracted communists, socialists, progressives, and liberals to assert the rights of writers in the frequently oppressive confines of the studio system.20 The guilds themselves became hotbeds of this political activity, with members organizing to gain creative and financial recognition for their artistic contributions as well as to deal with issues such as civil rights, union rights, and intervention abroad.

During the 1930s, liberal actors publicized certain issues, particularly surrounding international debates, when newspaper editors sharply hewed to an isolationist agenda critical of the Roosevelt administration.21 The movie theaters became Franklin Roosevelt’s greatest ally in challenging these conservative newspapers, who saw his collaboration with Great Britain as violating the tradition of American non-intervention.22 While this helped the industry gain favor in the White House, it cultivated criticism in the halls of Congress, which launched a political investigation into the industry that began with concern about “wartime propaganda” before World War II, and ended with a full investigation into the question of communist subversion after the war.

During the summer of 1941, Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND) launched a Senate investigation into the film productions that had slowly, and controversially, begun to grapple with the stakes of war abroad between the Allied Powers—Great Britain, France, and recently the Soviet Union—and the Axis Powers—notably defined as Italy and Germany at the time. Nye argued that Jewish studio executives used celebrities and the allure of entertainment to “insidiously” force audiences to watch films that aroused their emotions and sympathy for intervention in “war mass meetings.”23 A decade earlier, progressive reformers had worried that movies could corrupt children’s morals by teaching them about sexuality and consumption. Now, Nye and other isolationists feared the political ramifications of an industry that had such power to “influence the public mind.” With the ability to reach the “eyes and ears of one hundred million people,” movies, Nye believed, had become just another arm of government propaganda to manipulate the public, operating in the same way that propaganda did in fascist regimes in Italy and Germany. Ultimately, the bombing of Pearl Harbor quashed any concerns about collaboration with Roosevelt, and motion pictures quickly became “weapons of war.”

During the war, Hollywood-inspired propaganda came of age.24 In many ways, the war fused the types of political activism that had developed in the industry over the previous two decades. It brought entertainers to the White House to help Roosevelt’s Office of War Information sell the war to the public, and to raise money through the war bond campaign—building on the issue-based political activism that had permeated organizations such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. It also created a censorship office, complete with a guide for the motion picture industry, to allow collaboration with Hollywood entertainers and Roosevelt administration officials on how to use the silver screen to sell a message.25 Joseph Breen’s office was replicated with the creation of the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Picture, a self-censorship collaboration that aided the work (and padded the pocketbook, through war bond campaigns) of the Allied Powers. And finally, these wartime efforts brought entertainers into the Democratic Party, and Roosevelt’s reelection campaign. Much to the dismay of his political opponents, Hollywood became a key part of shaping the style of the 1944 election, and the lessons that Louis B. Mayer had once taught Hoover became staples of the Democratic Party.26

For example, on October 28, 1944, Humphrey Bogart’s voice boomed across the radio as he announced, “I’m not going to talk politics to you, at least not the way the world is generally used.” The actor then went on to discuss his experiences working with the United Service Organizations, and the interactions he had had with military personnel. He then pledged his support for the war, and for the commander-in-chief, as he declared, “I am going to vote for the man who has demonstrated his ability to look ahead and plan ahead in war and peace. I am going to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”27 This radio spot illuminates the ways in which partisanship and patriotism intersected, and how Hollywood’s wartime mobilization paved the way for electoral politics to expand among the Hollywood Left. The prominence of entertainers such as Bogart on the airwaves made the New York Times write in awe of what it observed as the “most successful campaign technique” devised by the Democratic National Committee: the entertainment radio spot. “It is the Democratic one-minute dramatizations written and played by the talent of Hollywood that furnish the most striking new note in campaign publicity.”28

The Opportunities and Consequences of Political Activism

Patriotic politics during the war paved the way for electoral politics during the 1944 election. But Roosevelt’s political opponents—both conservative Southern Democrats angry at the progressive leanings of entertainers who spoke out against white supremacy, and Republicans upset at Hollywood’s embrace of the New Deal—protested. Picking up on the critique Nye waged before the war, conservatives in the postwar period argued that entertainment should be separate from politics. But in their quest to derail the liberal activism of Hollywood, they too turned to entertainers to further their political agenda, and were quick to emulate the publicity strategy that served Democrats so well during the 1944 election.

Conservatives formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA) to challenge the prominence of the Hollywood Left during the war.29 In the postwar period, this organization’s strident anti-communism and bold critique of the New Deal resonated with Roosevelt’s opponents. The conservative Hollywood screenwriter Ayn Rand saw an opportunity to roll back the New Deal in motion pictures in the postwar period, and she circulated new guidelines for the silver screen in her 1947 “Screen Guide for Americans.”30 Rand and other Hollywood anti-communists attempted to regulate the activism of Hollywood liberals off the screen and police films for hints of a left-wing agenda. MPA members invited congressional representatives from the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate communist subversion in the industry in May of 1947. As they met with congressional investigators, MPA members raised the question of whether or not left-wing stars would “bedazzle” the public and “induce” in government officials “a state of mind where they might disclose information entrusted to them and that such disclosures would be detrimental to the national defense.”31

The following fall, the famous 1947 congressional investigation into the extent of “communist subversion in the motion picture industry” tore the industry apart and ushered in an era of conservatism during the postwar period that shaped on-screen productions and quieted radical and progressive activism.32 These investigations and the blacklist that followed, with a pledge to not knowingly hire any communists in the industry, have generated tremendous attention toward the topic of Hollywood politics by participants, journalists, and scholars. The interpretation of this Cold War moment in the industry, however, has become incredibly politicized. Conservatives, then and now, look to the HUAC investigation for evidence of how the industry has always been a bastion of liberalism. They point to the communist loyalties of the blacklisted individuals as justification for the investigation.33

On the Left, another narrative has prevailed. Targeted individuals produced memoirs to defend their actions and speak out against the blacklisting experience. By the 1960s and 1970s, a culturally liberal Hollywood industry celebrated the “Hollywood Ten” as defiant artists who withstood pressure to “name names,” a story of moral dilemma on which Victor Navasy expands in his 1980 account Naming Names.34 With titles such as I’d Hate Myself in the Morning, a plethora of memoirs from participants themselves created a favorable narrative of the Hollywood Ten. Since the 1980s, the literature on the blacklist has focused on the individual political activities of the men and women involved, the political and professional pressures to renounce a “communist past,” and how the blacklisted writers used pseudonyms to maintain a place in the industry that would not publicly hire them. These accounts hold up the blacklisted ten as heroes, artists who refused to cave to political pressure and who fought against repression for their civil liberties.

Scholars agree that the blacklist, which derailed the careers not just of the Hollywood Ten but of a range of other liberal and progressive entertainers, transformed the industry during the postwar period. The HUAC hearings in October 1947 merged the worlds of Hollywood and Washington, and the resulting publicity demonstrated to politicians the power entertainment held to shape the nation’s hearts and minds.35 Recent scholarship also examines the ways in which Cold War anti-communism focused attention on the political potential of entertainment, and the impact this has had on the economic structures of Hollywood, the trajectory of party politics in California, and the public role of entertainers. The Cold War intensified internal divides within the Hollywood political community as writers, actors, directors, and producers renounced their political activism and informed on their friends and colleagues in an effort to save their professional careers. Initially, during the HUAC hearings the Hollywood community, including Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) President Eric Johnston, studio executives such as Jack Warner and president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Ronald Reagan, defended the integrity of Hollywood, promising to stand tough against publicity-seeking politicians. Within two months, however, the industry bowed to political pressures, embraced the blacklist, and as Thomas Doherty notes in a recent study on the topic, Johnston “oversaw a regime more intolerant and destructive than the moral policing put in place by Will Hays.”36

The Cold War also shaped subsequent onscreen productions.37 While various anti-communist movies sought to show viewers the evil and subversive nature of communism, other movies challenged the parameters of Cold War America as the industry itself became a central point of contestation over what it meant to be an American.38 Postwar “message movies” grappled with racial inequality, anti-Semitism, and the threat of nuclear war as filmmakers such as Stanley Kramer and Stanley Kubrick used provocative entertainment to expose the paradoxes at the heart of Cold War America.39 Recent literature has focused on the behind-the-scenes political collaborations with entertainers and government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Intelligence, Office of Information Agency, and the Department of Defense, as politicians sought to use propaganda and cultural ambassadors to spread democracy and capitalism in the battle for “hearts and minds” against the Soviet Union and communism.40

As Cold War politics destroyed the careers of many individuals on the Left, the anti-communist atmosphere also paved the way for Hollywood entertainers on the Right to achieve prominence in state and national politics as they reshaped the Republican Party, first in California and then nationally.41 By embracing the conservative climate of anti-communism, Cold Warriors such as Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, and Eric Johnston helped to make entertainment a staple of American foreign policy, demonstrating the value of their skills and expertise in the new television age.

Celebrity Politics Comes of Age

With the introduction of television, the connection between Hollywood and politics flourished on the Left and the Right, as politicians on both sides of the spectrum recognized the assets that entertainers brought to the increasingly visual political realm with their unique showmanship skills.42 It was Dwight Eisenhower who first experimented with the new technology of television to win the White House. During his successful campaign and his administration, he “professionalized celebrity politics,” by turning to advertisers and entertainers to construct a media persona that translated the culture of stardom to his presidential campaign.43 Although he was initially reluctant to make television such a priority, figures such as Robert Montgomery—the actor-turned-television advisor—convinced him of the communications potential of television, which he ultimately used to build a national consensus and bring disaffected Democrats and independent voters into the Republican Party.44

John F. Kennedy followed in Eisenhower’s footsteps. As the son of a former movie executive, he took his celebrity operations one step further. A relative newcomer to the Democratic establishment, he adopted a Hollywood style to transform himself into a celebrity in order to win political legitimacy in the party during the 1960 election. As he took to the primary trail in Wisconsin and West Virginia, he did so with the lyrics of Frank Sinatra, the production team of Jack Denove, and the keen insights of his father to appeal to voters as “Jack Kennedy Fans.” It was controversial, but it worked.45 Hollywood’s political activities over the previous four decades paved the way for Kennedy’s success by reshaping modes of political communication and the cultural expectations that audiences had of their political leaders. While Richard Nixon dismissed the power of entertainment in 1960 during his campaign, he made it central to his successful bid eight years later, and famously appeared on the show Laugh In as part of his effort to emulate Kennedy’s “showbiz politics” strategy.

If political parties found the secret to political success in collaboration with entertainers in electoral politics, the civil rights movement also saw the importance of celebrities in raising awareness, sympathy, and money for the cause of racial equality. Harry Belafonte became a trusted confidant and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., raising money for the movement and also visiting the halls of the White House to advise John F. Kennedy on civil rights issues. In what Steven Ross calls “movement politics,” Belafonte and other activists such as Jane Fonda attempted to use their celebrity to “fight what they viewed as dominant systems of American power that led to inequality at home and imperialism abroad.”46

Other African American “Stars for Freedom”—including Dick Gregory, Sammy Davis Jr., Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier—risked their entertainment careers as they became involved in the civil rights movement. As Emilie Raymond demonstrates, “while small in number, these stars changed the racial climate in Hollywood and helped establish a blueprint for celebrity politics that has only become more significant in contemporary political culture.”47 They dramatized the issues in effective ways that appealed to white northern liberals who were their fans. They also raised money, contributing dollars from their own pockets and organizing benefit concerts that entertained audiences while promoting the message of racial equality.

These “Stars for Freedom” also expanded the pathways for celebrity activism in movements on the Left and the Right and as candidates themselves. By the summer of 1964, a panel of journalists, local politicians, and movie stars joined together in a Hollywood Press Club panel to address the question: “Should Hollywood and Politics Mix?” Debating the moral right of a performer to “influence followers toward his own personal political, or other belief,” the panel concluded that celebrities “could, and should” become active participants in American politics.48 “Politics is and should be everyone’s business and Hollywood is and should be everybody’s business,” declared one panelist. “I can’t think of a more perfectly mixed cocktail.” That year, George Murphy had a successful Senate run, and Ronald Reagan emerged as a prominent spokesperson for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, paving the way for his own gubernatorial bid in California two years later. Soon after Jane Fonda became a star of the anti-Vietnam War movement, generating tremendous controversy and earning the nickname “Hanoi Jane” when she traveled to North Vietnam in 1972 and posed for a picture with North Vietnamese troops.49 Although Fonda’s activism exposed her to the risk and ridicule that increasingly accompanied celebrity activism, entertainers played a prominent role on both sides of the campaign trail in the presidential election that year. Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine headlined “Rock ‘n’ Rhetoric” rallies for George McGovern, and Sammy Davis Jr. and Pam Powell served as surrogates for African American and youth constituencies for Richard Nixon.50

This prominence of entertainers reflected a shift in power structures in both worlds. In Hollywood, the breakdown of the studio system allowed stars to have more say over their public image and business decisions. In Washington, the rise of the primary presidential nomination system required media savviness, and ways to generate free airtime. As McGovern’s campaign manager noted, presidential hopefuls needed to align with people who could play media games, and “sparklies” from Hollywood certainly could.51 But more significant, perhaps, was the shift in political culture. After forty years of controversial political mobilization, entertainers gained political credibility and politicians tried to turn themselves into celebrities to gain political legitimacy. Only with these shifts in how we value, judge, and select our political leaders could an actor, and then a reality television star, become president.

Ronald Reagan’s transformation from actor to president depended on these changes in American political culture, and exposed the ways in which the worlds of Hollywood and Washington had become deeply intertwined by the 1980s. Reagan famously quipped to biographer Lou Cannon, “I don’t understand how anybody could do this job without having been an actor.”52 During his years in Hollywood, he listened to production cues, read a script, and spoke to audiences through a camera—all lessons that certainly helped him adjust to a mass-mediated political world that had made such skills central to political leadership. His legacy as the “Great Communicator” further ingrained in American political life the belief that celebrity mattered, and it could in fact pave the way to the presidency.

And yet, Reagan’s Hollywood experience also helped shape his political ideology and fueled his shift from New Deal Democrat to conservative Republican. His work with labor conflict as president of the Screen Actors Guild, his experience in political organizing groups such as the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Science, and Professionals (HICCASP), and his work in promoting the public image and favorable tax policies for the Motion Picture Industry Council all pushed him ideologically to the right, revealing how Hollywood itself was a training ground not just for his communication skills, but also for his political development.53 Moreover, as Donald Critchlow and Jennifer Frost have shown, postwar Hollywood aided the economic, political, and cultural mobilization of conservatives in California and then across the country.54 Reagan’s presidency emerged as a triumph of the conservative movement that the industry helped to popularize, and his electoral success depended on the networks with big businesses that entertainers helped to forge.

Whereas Hollywood’s political activism was initially seen as controversial, by the 21st century both political parties worked to recruit celebrities as campaign surrogates, fundraisers, and even as candidates themselves. While conservatives frequently criticize the industry for its liberalism, the historical record reveals that Hollywood political activism is a bipartisan tradition. Over the course of the 20th century, celebrity activists turned the silver screen into a powerful tool for political communication and their performative skills into necessary requirements for office. The result is our modern environment, in which the former reality television star Donald Trump used his fame and media skills to ascend to the White House, while entertainers themselves actively lead the resistance to his administration through entertainment television, in movie theaters, and during Hollywood’s annual awards evenings.

Discussion of the Literature

The first major historical studies of Hollywood and its political influence came out during the 1970s, with the publication of Robert Sklar’s Movie Made America and Garth Jowett’s Film: The Democratic Art. These books examined the battle between Jewish immigrants in the newly formed entertainment industry and the white, Christian establishment, as the latter was eager to use threats of censorship to curb the power of the former.55 Both books ultimately argue that Hollywood’s cultural success helped to usher in a transformation in American values and its identity as the country shifted from a Victorian society to a modern consumer society. The election of the actor Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 encouraged even more historians to broach the topic of Hollywood’s politics, and overwhelmingly cultural historians examined the ways in which Hollywood played a role in constructing ideas of “Americanism” over the course of the 20th century.56

Inspired by the flourishing of labor history, scholars also began to examine the mobilization of workers in Hollywood studios, noting the industry’s success in creating and maintaining strong unions. Workers were frequently exploited by the studio systems of the 1930s, but found inspiration with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and, in particular, the Wagner Act of 1937. Historians have examined both the political activism of workers in forming guilds such as the Screen Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild—the former more politically radical, but the latter more politically powerful, with its list of celebrity members.57 Labor activism also shaped silver screen productions, leading to what Michael Denning has called the “laboring of American culture.”58 Its portrayal of working people on the silver screen promoted a particular type of liberal democracy that respected and celebrated the role of the American worker in American political life.59

In recent years scholarship on Hollywood’s politics has continued to expand. Historians have explored individual careers of politically active celebrities, notably including the left-wing actor Charlie Chaplin and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, the conservative actor John Wayne, the civil rights activist-turned National Rifle Association spokesperson Charlton Heston, the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and figures of the Hollywood Ten such as producer Adrian Scott and writer John Howard Lawson.60 In 2011, Steven J. Ross published the transformative book Hollywood Left and Right. This book explores the “electoral politics” of Louis B. Mayer and Warren Beatty, the “issue politics” of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, the “movement politics” of Jane Fonda, Harry Belafonte, George Murphy, and Ronald Reagan, the “image politics” of Charlton Heston, and the “celebrity politics” deployed by Arnold Schwarzenegger to win the California governorship in 2003. Ross provides a tremendously useful analysis of the different types of celebrity political activism by using these individual biographies of ten celebrity activists on the Left and the Right. His work broached new ground by demonstrating the ways in which Hollywood has helped to change the nature of political communication and the public’s expectations of political contenders and entertainers.

Scholars have built on Ross’s work, challenging the dominant perception in American political history that Hollywood is merely fluff or peripheral to 20th-century American political history. Recent work has demonstrated how Hollywood—the industry, its productions, its values, and its workers—have been at the center of transformative political changes over the past century—notably the rise of the celebrity presidency, the advances of the civil rights movement, the mobilization of the New Right, and even the rise of the national security state and surveillance during the Cold War.61

Primary Sources

The Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California, is the first place scholars interested in Hollywood politics should visit. It has an extensive archival collection that includes information on the industry’s lobbying efforts, individuals’ political activities, and debates over film content. The library also has an thorough collection of media related to the industry, and along with its trade magazine collection, these newspaper accounts provide insight into the various ways that politics have shaped the industry. A range of special collections located in various branches of the University of California Libraries in Southern California (notably those at UCLA and at California State University, Northridge) also have collections documenting the political activities of organizations across the political spectrum, ranging from the Hollywood Anti-Fascist League to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The University of Southern California also holds valuable resources linked to Warner Bros. and Jack Warner’s political activities in particular. Presidential libraries across the country also hold significant correspondence as well as information regarding the role of celebrities in political campaigns. The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is another valuable archive that holds personal papers of many entertainers and organizations, including the Hollywood Democratic Committee and the Motion Picture Industry Council. Here, Steven Vaughn has also donated his materials from his book Ronald Reagan In Hollywood, including the access he gained to the Screen Actors Guild during the 1940s (a difficult archive to access), that are also valuable, though limited to Reagan’s tenure as SAG president. Finally, the Howard Gotlieb Library at Boston University has increased its archival holdings related to figures in the entertainment industry in recent years, and offers new material for scholars to consider.

Further Reading

Brownell, Kathryn Cramer. Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Ceplair, Larry, and Steven Englund. The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930–1960. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Critchlow, Donald. When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls, and Big Business Remade American Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Doherty, Thomas. Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.Find this resource:

Frost, Jennifer. Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism. New York: NYU Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Giovacchini, Saverio. Hollywood Modernism: Film and Politics in the Age of the New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Langdon, Jennifer. Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott, and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s Hollywood. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

May, Lary. Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.Find this resource:

May, Lary. Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.Find this resource:

May, Lary. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Raymond, Emilie. From My Dead Cold Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Raymond, Emilie. Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities and the Civil Rights Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Ross, Steven. Working Class Hollywood. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Ross, Steven. Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shape American Politics. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Ross, Steven. Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.Find this resource:

Scott, Ian. American Politics in Hollywood Film. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.Find this resource:

Sklar, Robert. Movie Made America: A Cultural History of the American Movies. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.Find this resource:

Stokes, Melvyn, and Richard Maltby, eds. American Movie Audiences: From the Turn of the Century to the Early Sound Era. London: British Film Institute, 1999.Find this resource:

Vaughn, Steven. Ronald Reagan in Hollywood: Movies and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Welky, David. The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of WWII. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) Jack Valenti, “It’s Lights, Camera, Politics,” Lost Angeles Times, September 6, 1996, Article I.

(2.) Material for this entry draws on work I have previously published, notably in Kathryn Cramer Brownell, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), and “Hollywood and Politics,” in Oxford Bibliography in Cinema and Media Studies (Oxford University Press, 2013).

(6.) Alice Parker, “Mothering the Movies,” in Movie Censorship and American Culture, ed. Francis G. Couvares (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006).

(7.) Neil Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Doubleday, 1988).

(8.) Gilbert King, “The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial,” The Smithsonian, November 8, 2011; Sklar, Movie Made America; see also Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood Censorship and the Production Code (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001).

(9.) Sklar, Movie Made America; and Leff and Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono.

(10.) Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

(11.) Thomas Doherty, Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

(13.) Ross, Hollywood Left and Right, 51–88.

(14.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 12–42; Giuliana Muscio, Hollywood’s New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997); and Nick Roddick, A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930s (London: British Film Institute, 1983).

(17.) Ross, Hollywood Left and Right, 95.

(19.) Giovacchini, Hollywood Modernism.

(20.) Nancy Lynn Schwartz and Sheila Schwartz, The Hollywood Writers’ Wars (New York: Knopf, 1982); and Danae Clark, Negotiating Hollywood: The Cultural Politics of Actors’ Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

(21.) Sam Lebovic, Free Speech and Unfree News: The Paradox of Press Freedom in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); and Welky, The Moguls and the Dictators.

(22.) Welky, The Moguls and the Dictators.

(23.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 42–45.

(24.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 42–74; and Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda shaped World War II Movies (New York: Free Press, 1987).

(25.) Koppes and Black, Hollywood Goes to War; and Welky, The Moguls and the Dictators.

(26.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 78.

(27.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 78–79.

(28.) “Various New Devices Used to Capture the Votes,” New York Times, November 2, 1944, 18.

(29.) Critchlow, When Hollywood Was Right, 42–68.

(30.) Ayn Rand, Screen Guide for Americans (Beverley Hills, CA: Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, 1948).

(32.) US Congress, House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, Communist Infiltration of Hollywood Motion Picture Industry (1947). Accessed via LexisNexis Congressional Hearings Digital Collection, Hearing ID: HRG-1947-UAH-0015.

(33.) Michael Medved, Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Tradition (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993).

(34.) Victor Navarksy, Naming Names (New York: Viking Press, 1980).

(36.) Doherty, Show Trial, 323.

(37.) Stephen Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); and Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

(38.) Reynold Humphries, Hollywood’s Blacklists: A Political and Cultural History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008); Jennifer Langdon, Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in the 1940s Hollywood (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008); and Frank Krutnik et al., eds., Un-American Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007).

(39.) Jennifer Frost, Producer of Controversy: Stanley Kramer, Hollywood Liberalism, and the Cold War (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2017); Andrew Falk, Upstaging the Cold War: American Political and Cultural Diplomacy, 1940–1960 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011); and Charles Maland, “Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus,” in Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context, ed. Peter C. Rollins (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983).

(40.) John Sbardellati, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies: The FBI and the Origins of the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); and Tony Shaw, Hollywood’s Cold War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007).

(41.) Critchlow, When Hollywood Was Right; Ross, Hollywood Left and Right, 131–184; and Kathryn Cramer Brownell, “Movietime U.S.A.: The Motion Picture Industrial Council and Politicization of Hollywood in Postwar America,” Journal of Policy History 24, no. 3 (2012): 518–542.

(42.) Burt Peretti, The Leading Man (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).

(43.) David Haven Blake, Liking Ike: Eisenhower, Advertising, and the Rise of Celebrity Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(44.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 129–157.

(45.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 158–187.

(46.) Ross, Hollywood Left and Right, 8.

(48.) “Should Pix and Politix Mix? Consensus of Press Club Panel” Could, and Should,” Variety, June 11, 1964.

(49.) Ross, Hollywood Left and Right, 227–270.

(50.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 207–224.

(51.) Brownell, Showbiz Politics, 221.

(52.) Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Public Affairs, 2000).

(55.) Sklar, Movie Made America; and Garth Jowett, Film: A Democratic Art (New York: Little, Brown, 1976).

(56.) Lary May’s work is at the forefront of this work. See, for example, Screening out the Past.

(57.) Schwartz and Schwartz, The Hollywood Writers’ War; and Clark, Negotiating Hollywood.

(58.) Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997).

(59.) John Bodnar, Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

(60.) The first of this comes with Charles Maland, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989). More recent work on biographies expanded during the 1990s and early 2000s; see Gerald Horne, The Final Victim of the Blacklist (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006); Langdon, Caught in the Crossfire; Alice Kessler-Harris, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012); Frost, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood; and Emilie Raymond, From My Dead Cold Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006).

(61.) Critchlow, When Hollywood Was Right; Brownell, Showbiz Politics; Frost, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood; Sbardellati, J. Edgar Hoover Goes to the Movies; and Raymond, Stars for Freedom.