Hollywood is plagued by liberalism. This is a cliché that has been repeated for decades. In 1996 Charlton Heston told a reporter that there were “more conservatives in the closet in Hollywood than there are homosexuals”. Kelsey Grammer, despite being at one time the highest-paid actor on television, described being a Republican in Hollywood as “having a target on your back”. Campaign contributions for the 2016 US presidential election from the entertainment sector were made overwhelmingly in favour of the Democrats.
But for an industry long-perceived as devoted to progressive values, Hollywood has a way of exposing itself as the opposite over and over again. This year there was no Golden Globes ceremony, and its tainted prizes were given out via a series of tweets. This was the result of ongoing criticism of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which conducts the ceremony and bestows the awards, after it was revealed last year there was not a single black person among its 87 members – and that the former HFPA president, Philip Berk, had forwarded an email that compared the Black Lives Matter movement to Charles Manson’s cult.
The crimes of Harvey Weinstein have come to define the industry’s pervasive culture of sexual abuse and misogynistic bullying. Without wishing to excuse Weinstein or paint him as an unfortunate scapegoat, it is highly unlikely that he was the sole trader in this economy of threats and sexual gratification. The former supremacy of his position in Hollywood, and the long list of famous women he victimised, gave the story its scale and infamy, but his comeuppance has perhaps concealed the inevitability that others like him remain in the system – perhaps they even joined in the condemnation of Weinstein.
Hollywood’s woolly liberalism is mocked for its hypocrisy by people of more or less every political persuasion, not just conservatives. It is often jarring to hear powerful celebrities lamenting inequality, even if you don’t find the specific individual awful. These statements feel so insincere for one glaring reason – the same reason the soppy emotive actor grasping a golden trophy and crying about hungry children has become such an irritating cliché. The people making these statements are usually very, very rich.
The Hollywood actor (unlike, say, a rich but mostly private citizen who engages in philanthropy) is cursed by the inescapable fact of their fabulous wealth. It could be said that the industry’s opulence is exposed in a less gauche manner now than in the past – that projecting an image of wholesome normalcy, rather than diamond-dripping excess, is now the PR goal of the famous actor – but this is mostly a minor question of aesthetics and taste, not substantive change. No matter how comparatively down to earth a celebrity may be – from the bumbling girl-next-door image of the young Jennifer Lawrence to the extreme glamour of an Elizabeth Taylor – we still need them to be rich, untouchable to civilians. Almost nobody – barring those who live in abject penury – can opine on the injustices that surround us without being hypocritical, as we choose each day not to dedicate our lives and finances to their improvement. This should not be a reason to ignore problems. Still, it does make for an uncomfortable spectacle when part of one’s actual professional function is to exhibit excessive wealth.
I question the idea that Hollywood players should be congratulated for speaking about social ills when they aren’t required to. This attitude paints the powerful as essentially innocuous, innocent folk who are at worst dopey dilettantes. They are just part of the entertainment industry, that’s all. They are here to make us smile and distract us. If they choose on top of that to make some comments about – or donations to – a good cause, how can we fault them?
But the entertainment industry does not merely provide us with benign bedtime stories for tired people to vegetate in front of. Hollywood is not a frivolous and ultimately decorative industry. It occupies a dominant position in our culture, and reflects, reinforces and creates social dynamics. The near obsession, for instance, with cinematic narratives of authority and hierarchy (such as the enduring popularity of war films and police procedurals) are not incidental or accidental.
And one does not have to go in search of the supposedly mythical conservative film (which Republican actors claim is impossible to get made) to see this. Ben Affleck’s 2012 picture Argo was received generally positively, and Affleck has remained a roguish but harmless figure who few would describe as conservative. Yet the film is saturated in overt, ugly racism, depicting Iranians as an indistinguishable mass of screaming maniacs. The Todd Phillips film Joker has a superficial sympathy for the working classes, albeit a sympathy that renders them so downtrodden and grotesque that it becomes almost funny. But its portrayal of angry crowds rising up shows poor people as both frightening and brainless, reacting with malevolent fury to their circumstances.
Most recently, Don’t Look Up engages in something similar. Crowds that support a Trump-esque president shout down the truth and wilfully participate in their own extinction through ignorance, and yet the dissenting other half of the world, those who believe the extinction event is coming, aren’t shown in a much better light. They flail helplessly on their phones, releasing limp and pointless vlogs, vapid pop songs. Collectivism is a punchline, humanity pathetic and disgusting. The only passing hope for the rescue of the world lies with two people alone, who happen to be played by beautiful celebrities. The rest of the world may as well not exist. Don’t Look Up lampoons celebrity culture and the derision of the media for its audience while enthusiastically engaging in both.
Naturally, making big, popular films was always an economic pursuit, but the extent to which mainstream film-making has become an exercise almost entirely in marketing is remarkable. To suggest that it might be preferable to privilege making art over producing popular cinematic products is now, bizarrely, such an out-there opinion that it gets you in trouble for a lack of egalitarianism. Martin Scorsese was lampooned for saying several years ago that Marvel franchise films bear little relationship to the cinema he loves. We are in a strange spot when Martin Scorsese – who, despite his genius, is hardly the last word in esoteric experimentation – must conform to the idea that whatever Hollywood deems entertainment is sacrosanct. This fundamental cynicism and anti-intellectualism makes the film industry’s claim to upholding progressive values increasingly absurd. Whatever moral authority Hollywood once had, it has truly been squandered.