Between actor Robert Montgomery’s coaching Ike, Sammy Davis Jr’s cavorting with Nixon and Sinatra’s hosting glitzy birthday bashes for Kennedy, conservatives and liberals both have benefited spectacularly from the entertainment industry.
While Hollywood’s political pendulum has swung decidedly liberal and being conservative today is like being gay in the eighties, it wasn’t always that way.
Back in the 1950s, actor Montgomery’s role as White House staff consultant plunged the celebrated actor/producer into the national political scene up to his famous white collar and plaid tie.
Montgomery would help to polish President Eisenhower’s TV, radio and newsreel appearances. And why not? The General had to look natural on camera and media trainers like myself know that sometimes that can take work. Ironically I used to be an actor too, albeit Off Broadway, occasionally quite a ways off up in upstate New York.
And if it weren’t for Warner Bros, his millions of movie fans and leading the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood, who knows if President Ronald Reagan would have ever had a chance to say that immortal line, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” topping even his famous “Win one for the Gipper.”
In these polarized times, events like the Academy Awards churn satirically political. Hollywood licks its lips waiting to make fun of that one-time star of “The Apprentice” on NBC where I used to be VP before I started TransMedia Group. And after the show conservatives scold entertainers for their insuperable comedy. BTW, my latest book is titled “Is there enough Brady in Trump to win the inSUPERable BOWL?”
Then the Grammys featured Hillary Clinton in a prerecorded skit, but not nearly as funny as Alec Baldwin’s parodies SNL.
Afterward both Donald Trump Jr. and Nikki Haley tweet criticisms, Haley claiming the “great music” of the night had been ruined by such “trash.”
In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Sean Hannity castigates Hollywood’s “liberal cultural hypocrisy.” And on and on the show goes.
Beware of Immigrants
Pop culture has long been used as a tool for both political control and resistance. According to author Kathryn Cramer Brownell, “the rise of the modern entertainment industry was rooted in the controversial idea that immigrants and the working class had a right to leisure too.”
At the turn of the last century, vaudeville acts attracted the attention of new immigrants, which stoked the ire and concern of middle-class reformers and corporate establishment. They worried about celebrating immigrant culture too much.
According to Brownell, censorship laws to regulate theaters and their patrons became a way for the middle class and the ruling elite to exert control over where and how immigrants spent their leisure time.
At times, Hollywood activists used their fame to advance liberal politics, just as they often do now. One was my hero, Charlie Chaplin. His fabulous films took on immigration authorities and worker-hostile industrial efficiency measures like the assembly line, until his pro-labor performances were seen as pro-communist during the post-World War II Red Scare, and his right to live in the United States — Chaplin was born in Britain — was revoked by the U.S. attorney general in 1952.
Frank Sinatra and Jack Warner worked for the Democratic Party, creating memorable radio spots for Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection campaigns in 1944. Sinatra later would produce glamorous, celebrity-studded events for President Kennedy, to whom Marilyn Monroe would sing the sexiest rendition of “happy birthday Mr. President.”
Want to know about Hollywood and politics, read “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life” by Brownell, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University.