The onset of the presidential nominating conventions reminds us that Hollywood’s political face is as hard to read as ever.
To Republicans, show business is a liberal bastion, but today, as in the past, the true “owners” are solidly conservative. I would not want to try and raise Obama money from Rupert Murdoch, John Malone, Philip Anschutz or Sumner Redstone, or even from former CEOs like Harry Sloan and Terry Semel.
The big anomaly is that, while the owners hover to the right, the men who run the show lean in the other direction — think Jim Gianopulos or Leslie Moonves or Ron Meyer or Brad Grey or Bob Iger. Peter Chernin, when he was running Twentieth Century Fox, once explained to me that Murdoch was “hands off” when it came to the politics of his executive corps (Chernin leans left). As evidence, Murdoch’s News Corp. last week closed a major distribution deal with DreamWorks Animation, thus providing a shot in the arm to Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of Obama’s biggest financial backers.
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The ideological split of the moment had its roots in Hollywood’s political past. Studio titans like Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck and Jack Warner were aggressive right-wingers to the point where they had no problem supporting the Black List in 1948. To Walt Disney, guilds and unions had the taint of Communist influence, His view met with favor from Rep. Parnell Thomas of the House Un-American Affairs Committee, who charged that the Screen Writers Guild was “lousy with Communists.”
The studio bosses were scandalized when they discovered that William Morris (yes, the original William Morris) was an advocate of friendship between the Soviet Union and the U.S. They threatened to boycott the talent agency, even though Morris was not himself a Communist.
It was precisely eighty years ago that Mayer, the maven of MGM, almost turned against his own ideology. In the depths of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s New Deal proposed a bold plan for reviving key industries. Monopolies would be condoned providing that labor unions were allowed to initiate collective bargaining.
Mayer and Warner coveted the freedom from antitrust constraints but hated the notion of dealing with the guilds or empowering the agents. MGM had gone so far as to issue an edict banning agents from the lot. In his book, “The Agency,” Frank Rose describes how Mayer and other studio bosses refused even to meet with a committee representing the top agencies. Their resolve was shaken when, upon issuing their mandate, the studios were literally shaken by a severe earthquake.
Nonetheless, the studios went so far as to advocate a government-enforced code of practices under which agents would be forbidden to “foment dissension, discord or strife.” Agents would also be banned from studio meetings involving clients unless financial deals were directly involved.
Ultimately both the Roosevelt administration and the studios backed off their positions and talent agents were again free to practice “dissension, discord and strife.” The Screen Actors Guild was soon founded, paradoxically on the initiative of two comics, Eddie Cantor and Groucho Marx, and a hood, George Raft.
Hollywood’s political temperature is a lot lower today than in the ideologically inflamed ’30s and ’40s. The owners of corporate Hollywood know they have to play their cards carefully in dealing with the creative community. Murdoch’s Fox News may propound a fiercely hard-right ideology, but his own tweets occasionally reflect a political ambiguity. While Louis B. Mayer had no hesitation in instructing his minions how to vote, none of the hierarchs of the moment would think of going there.
And it’s been years since an agent has been banned from a back lot. “Strife,” it seems, is accepted as a way of life.