Movie moguls of the 1920s and 1930s, Mark Wheeler tells us, treated their studio employees with "hardness, shrewdness, autocracy and coercion". If movie politics have become less confrontational – studio strikes are no longer broken up by thugs wielding baseball bats – the Washington-Hollywood axis is more complex than ever.
Wheeler achieves a fine balance between Hollywood politics and its effects within America. Crucially, he reminds us that the pre-war socialist movement, the Popular Front, was primarily a creation of Hollywood activists. Its defeat during the McCarthy era removed any likelihood of a major left-wing political party in the US. One effect felt today is the reluctance of Hollywood liberals to believe in collective resistance to social injustice – as a result, their effectiveness is diminished.
Wheeler also notes political ambiguities – for example, when one arm of the Murdoch empire promoted George Clooney as the star of a 20th Century Fox film while another arm, Fox News, attacked the star for his political activism. For those interested in the power that accrues to Hollywood rather than distractions on screen, Wheeler will be rewarding reading.