IN THE MIDST of the recently concluded election campaign in which “family values” played such a prominent role, my wife and I found ourselves struggling with an affair. Thankfully, it wasn’t ours. It was that of the protagonist of a movie on which my wife, a development executive, was working, and the problem she was having was how to enlist the audience’s sympathy once the fellow had transgressed. Audiences wouldn’t like him, my wife complained. They would expect him to be made of sterner stuff. Whatever the statistics about real-life infidelity, she realized, audiences (we) are really quite traditional when it comes to our movies.
It was an odd epiphany to have in the middle of a campaign where Hollywood was portrayed as a liberal bogeyman gleefully trashing everything decent and sacred in our nation. But then Hollywood-bashing has always been one of America’s favorite sports. Everyone hates Hollywood — or at least the idea of Hollywood, the idea of tanned sharks wearing gold chains, being chauffeured in Rolls-Royces, living in splendid palaces and squiring nubile starlets. Hollywood is the American Sodom.
But if everyone hates Hollywood on principle, not everyone hates movies. It has been a right-wing sleight-of-hand to conflate the two–to take the animus against Hollywood and apply that to the movies themselves. Movies purvey bad values, goes the mantra. Or as Marilyn Quayle put it in a recent interview on CNN, the movies celebrate “alternative lifestyles,””lack of hard work” and “disrespect for parents.”
Anyone with the slightest sense of irony will recognize one here. Most of these so-called “family values” as packaged by the Republicans were invented by or at the very least were first given coherent expression by Hollywood.
It was from the movies of the ’30s and ’40s–with their idealization of small-town, middle-class America–that Ronald Reagan, a longtime Hollywood resident, drew his idea of “traditional values.” His morning in America was really the sun coming up over the Idaho community where Andy Hardy lived or over Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls or over the New York tenements where Pat O’Brien advised Jimmy Cagney to right the error of his ways.
Ah, but Hollywood was different then, say the conservatives. Nowadays it is all pornography and violence and alternative lifestyles. It’s liberal! (Then, I might add, moralists carped about gangster pictures, suggestive comedies and Mae West.) So, with the dust of the election having settled, let me assert the startling proposition that the vast majority of our movies are still fundamentally traditional when it comes to values and that Hollywood, far from leading an assault on moral values, is actually one of their last bastions.
That said, what makes the movies a convenient whipping boy is that they do often deal in sex and violence while their conservative opponents would prefer they all be sunshine and uplift. But even the dullest members of the audience, if not the dullest critics, know that these are vehicles, not values. A violent movie does not advocate street violence, nor does a sexy movie advocate promiscuity or infidelity or sadomasochism, even if it includes these things.
TO TAKE MARILYN QUAYLE’S LITMUS TEST, I am hard pressed to think of a single movie, much less a few dozen, that advocates “alternative lifestyles” or a “lack of hard work” or “disrespect for parents,” even if these are somehow liberal ideas, which of course they aren’t. You can pick your own anti-traditional values and probably come to the same conclusion. The notion that Hollywood promotes these things is ridiculous when you wrench it out of campaign rhetoric. Who favors a “lack of hard work,” Marilyn?
But I believe American movies not only do not promote these sort of absurdist values, I believe that they actively promote traditional moral values.
Let’s take Arnold Schwarzenegger. Defenders of Hollywood have rightfully pointed out that conservatives are hypocritically silent about violence when it’s meted out by Arnold, but this may be one of the few times that conservatives are right about the movies. Schwarzenegger’s pictures, however violent, are essentially about restoring order, punishing misdeeds, bringing peace and stability. They are about traditional values.
In fact, most violent pictures are. We don’t usually cheer the action hero because he wreaks havoc, destroys the social order and acts from amorality; when Schwarzenegger did that in the first “Terminator,” he was the villain. It is the hero’s values we’re rooting for, and those values are almost invariably traditional ones: loyalty, community, integrity, love, individualism, sacrifice.
Even those movies that seem critical of American values–and many of our best films are–are usually critical in direct proportion to the degree to which American values are not fully moral ones or to the degree to which we have failed to live up to them.
ONE HAS TO LOOK NO FURTHER than today’s movie listings to prove the point. “Under Siege” is violent, but what terrible values does it purvey, other than that force is occasionally necessary, which was, after all, the rationale for Desert Storm? No one is rooting for Tommy Lee Jones. “A River Runs Through It” is about devotion and grace. “Last of the Mohicans” is about continuity and loss–not liberal themes as far as I know. “Consenting Adults” has extramarital sex, but it doesn’t advocate it. And “The Mighty Ducks,” well … These pictures aren’t the exceptions; they are the rule.
Admittedly, Hollywood has had it both ways. Ever since Cecil B. DeMille’s erotic Biblical epics, our movies have managed to have their sensualism and their traditional values too. If conservatives don’t seem to recognize traditional values, it may be because they’ve been distracted by the wrappers the movies come in.
They’re so busy looking for sex and violence and maybe an alternative lifestyle that they stop watching movies the way most people do–not as a series of discrete actions but as a full-bodied narrative informed by a moral perspective. If they could only get past the gaudy packaging, they would discover that there’s values in them thar Hollywood Hills–good, old-fashioned, traditional values.
Neal Gabler is the author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” and is working on a biography of Walter Winchell.