This year's Oscars reinforced for many Americans the view of Hollywood as the land of obdurate limousine liberalism. Four of the five best picture nominees were self-consciously "progressive" films: Good Night, and Good Luck (on fighting McCarthyism); eventual winner Crash (on how everyone is racist); Munich (on how fighting terror militarily just unleashes greater terror); and Brokeback Mountain (celebrating gay cowboys in love). Off screen, of course, Hollywood's elite has campaigned nonstop against the Iraq War and the Bush administration.
Yet Hollywood hasn't always been a left-wing encampment, as Scott Eyman's recent, superb biography of Louis B. Mayer showed (Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer). The mogul's mogul and a lifelong Republican, Mayer reigned over Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)--the biggest and best of the studios that built Hollywood--from its inception in 1924 until a boardroom coup forced him out in 1951. Under his direction, MGM released a steady stream of hit movies, making stars out of Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and many others, and helping to create Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s, when as much as two-thirds of the U.S. population went to the movies weekly.
Central to MGM's success, Mayer believed, was "clean, wholesome entertainment." "Our pictures," he observed, "must show religion--love of flag and home--respect for father and mother. There are too many who look at these themes as 'unsophisticated' and lacking the 'realism' of actual life." At a time when the movies had unmatched influence over the American imagination, Mayer's MGM celebrated traditional verities. The other big studios followed its lead.
Earlier biographies saddled Mayer with the reputation of being "the devil incarnate," as Helen Hayes described him. Eyman doesn't gloss over Mayer's dark side: the thirst for vengeance, the will to power, the narcissism. But he credits Mayer's generosity, his "fervent love affair with America," and his uncanny business sense, too. Born Lazar Meir to a Jewish family in the Ukraine in the 1880s, Mayer lived the American Dream. The Mayers immigrated in the early 1890s to Saint John, New Brunswick, where young Louis worked for his father's scrap-metal business and received a derisory formal education. Though diminutive, Mayer fearlessly dove deep into the icy Bay of Fundy, seeking scraps. He later attributed his intimidating strength--occasionally unleashed on mulish filmmakers--to this harsh experience. Working as a junk dealer also made him entrepreneurial. "Out of this crucible was Louis B. Mayer formed," writes Eyman.
The movies came to Saint John in 1897, entrancing Mayer, who burned to escape. Borrowing and striving, escape he did, to Haverhill, Massachusetts, where he opened his first movie theater in 1907, proclaiming its devotion to "high-class films." The first movie he screened, The Passion Play, was a smash, and Haverhill residents got used to seeing long lines snake up to the theater doors. Soon Mayer had six movie houses, each with its own theme: one ran westerns, another romances, and so on. Shortly after becoming an American citizen, Mayer struck gold by buying the New England rights to D.W. Griffith's technologically innovative (and racist) 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. In 1918, wanting to make movies rather than show them, Mayer relocated to Los Angeles, forming Louis B. Mayer Productions. A few years later, theater owner Marcus Loew bought the successful firm and folded it into the new MGM, with Mayer appointed master of the show.
Mayer knew just what the public wanted. If he liked a screenplay, he'd exclaim: "It hit me here"--and thump his stomach. "If a story makes me cry, I know it's good. . . . I'm a sucker for humanity." Mayer had final say in what movies MGM made, and what made it into those movies. But while he guaranteed MGM movies' wholesome values, he shrewdly delegated key responsibilities to gifted deputies like the producer Irving Thalberg. More than any rival studio, MGM revolved around the "star." "A star is made," Mayer explained, "carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing." Everyman Spencer Tracy, vulnerable Judy Garland, the "shopgirl heat" of Joan Crawford (as Eyman has it)--all were MGM personas. Actors were salaried employees under long-term contracts, not free agents. Directors sometimes arrived after script and casting were finished. Working at MGM meant that you were on call six days a week, 40 weeks a year, and had zero say in what movies you did. And the studios owned the theaters, which meant that big players like MGM could freeze out independent producers and run their own movies on their own terms; disgruntled talent had nowhere else to turn.
By the mid-1930s, MGM stood at the apex of this system. At its peak, the studio employed 6,000 and sprawled across 167 acres, with sets that ranged from a Victorian street to a tangled jungle. It had its own barber shop, round-the-clock eatery, police force, and zoo (home to the lion that roared before every MGM production). Mayer may have demanded morality onscreen, but the MGM lot was more relaxed. Writers packed the studio opium den; a black man known as Slickum supplied hookers. Nor was Mayer himself--by 1937, the highest-paid salaried worker in America, worth around $1.3 million a year before taxes--all that upright in his personal life. He divorced his long-suffering wife, Margaret Shenberg, in 1944 (later remarrying) and used his authority to bed aspiring starlets. But as Eyman notes, he also inspired fierce loyalty: "To work at MGM in these years was to have a sense of security unparalleled in the movie industry--many employees were like enlightened Moonies, spouting a cult of MGM."
And the movies! A Night at the Opera, The Philadelphia Story, The Human Comedy--on and on the list goes. MGM's Golden Age reflected the energy and optimism of the American democracy that had lifted a poor Ukrainian Jew from peddling scrap to the pinnacles of wealth and power. "It was proper to tell stories of success and its importance, so others could achieve what he had achieved," says Eyman. But the studio's sophisticated classics could also carry a darker European subtext. A Greta Garbo tragedy like Camille, directed by George Cukor (the son of first-generation Hungarian immigrants), is as much Old World as New in sensibility. You often hear about American cultural imperialism, says the French writer André Glucksmann, but in Golden Age Hollywood, Europe "'colonized' the imagination of the New World."
Two factors helped bring down MGM and the studio system. First, the 1948 Supreme Court antitrust decision in U.S. v. Paramount et al. strong-armed the studios into giving up their theaters, weakening the moguls and shifting power to actors, independent filmmakers, and the agents who represented them. Then came television. In 1947, 136,000 sets illuminated American living rooms; a year later, 700,000. As audiences started staying home to watch the tube, MGM films began losing money. And Mayer was out, victim of a changing industry. He wandered about, seemingly forgotten, until his death in 1957. His funeral was like that of a head of state, with former President Herbert Hoover among the honorary pallbearers and all of Hollywood's glitterati in attendance. Spencer Tracy's eulogy evoked the end of an age:
The story he wanted to tell was the story of America--the land for which he had an almost furious love, born of gratitude--and of contrast with the hatred in the dark land of boyhood across the seas. . . . The shining epoch of the industry passes with him.
The change was gradual, but by the 1960s the old moguls and the system they ruled were gone. Like so many American institutions, Hollywood was radicalized in the 1960s and '70s, and a new filmmaker elite emerged whose worldview--secular, anticapitalist, celebrating sexual liberation--was at odds with the bourgeois ethos that Mayer so loved. Enlightening, not entertaining, became Hollywood's mission. No movie captured the transvaluation of cinematic values more perfectly than Dennis Hopper's 1969 biker epic Easy Rider, "one of the worst acclaimed films ever made in America," in the words of David Thomson in The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. Its vision of America as corrupt to its core struck a chord with younger viewers, and it earned more than $160 million in today's dollars and two Oscar nominations.
Wowed by Easy Rider's box office, the industry rushed to install younger left-of-center executives who could replicate its connection with alienated youth. In the decade after Easy Rider, Hollywood films like Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H* questioned nearly every aspect of American life. Heroes disappeared, and the western, once a Hollywood mainstay, became the subject of mockery. Big business was the bad guy. Religious characters appeared in a harshly negative light, if at all. Explicit sex, violence, coarse language, and nihilistic storylines characterized Hollywood's product. New Hollywood exactly inverted Mayer's filmmaking philosophy.
Thomson looks back fondly on this period, Easy Rider notwithstanding: "I believe that there was a narrow window (from about 1967 to about 1975) in which the prospect of grown-up American cinema . . . came into being." Yet while it's true that some of the nervy films produced during these years stand up, others seem more dated--even less "grown up"--30 years on than do MGM's older masterpieces. If you don't believe me, try sitting through Altman's meandering Nashville.
One thing's for sure: with some notable exceptions, New Hollywood never caught fire with the public. As the movies embraced the counterculture in the late sixties and early seventies, weekly attendence plummeted below 20 million, down from over 35 million just a few years before (television had siphoned the rest of the Golden Age's 90 million or so regular filmgoers). And despite a swelling U.S. population, weekly attendance wouldn't get close to 30 million again until the mid-1990s, when Hollywood began to downplay consciousness-raising and started entertaining again--and entertaining kids, especially. As Edward Jay Epstein explains in The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, the true genius of the industry's post-studio-system future was Walt Disney, a Midwesterner who never felt at home on the West Coast.
With Mickey Mouse in the twenties, Disney found an inexhaustible profit pool, argues Epstein: "children at play at home and around the world." Disney could tap this colossal market by licensing the animated characters from his movies to book publishers, toy manufacturers, and scores of other industries. And because his cartoon figures needed little verbal elaboration, they could also reach a global audience. Walk into a toy store or fast-food restaurant and see how quickly Hollywood has embraced Disney's model. Merchandizing tie-ins are omni present, ranging from action figures to video games. The global audience is now as vital as the American one, and gravitates toward special effects that downplay verbal complexity. The home video market, another source of licensing profits, is now larger than that of movie theaters, and will get larger still as more Americans lug home those wide-screen high-def TVs. Theater ticket sales now make up less than 15 percent of studio revenues.
One striking fact about many contemporary youth-targeted movies, which often lack New Hollywood's sophistication, is how they tend to hark back to the MGM era in their values. Drawing on age-old heroic archetypes, box office giants like Spider-Man 2 and The Chronicles of Narnia focus on the struggle between good and evil, extol self-sacrifice and martial virtues, and come down on the side of Truth. Looking to younger audiences has made sense for today's movie business for another reason, in Epstein's view: Since the studios can't rely on automatic turnout in the theaters, they must generate a unique audience for every movie on its opening weekend. The chief means of doing this is massive television advertising, targeting the demographic most willing to get out of the house on weekends: kids, especially teens. The ad campaigns usually cost more than the studios' box office take--and actors get paid a lot more these days, driving production costs higher still--so licensing becomes even more essential to profitability.
So what about all the Good Night, and Good Lucks that Hollywood has been rolling out? They don't usually pack 'em in on opening night, and Edward R. Murrow doesn't lend himself to an action figure. How do such films get the green light? Epstein argues that Hollywood functions according to a social and political logic as well as an economic one: Elite filmmakers want to make money, but the desire for recognition from peers and critics is also important. To win a big award and cocktail party kudos, a "hard-hitting" film exposing Big Oil machinations will get you a lot farther than, say, Finding Nemo. The New Hollywood spirit survives, albeit diminished, in today's industry.
Yet the future promises a momentous shift, perhaps even--after the Golden Age, New Hollywood, and the Empire of Licensing--a fourth moviemaking era. Thanks to new technology, the cost of producing independent movies diminishes by the month, and the web provides a distribution network that doesn't require budget-busting ad campaigns. So we could soon see more of Thomson's "grown-up" cinema. And the politics of some of these movies may surprise. A small, vibrant moviemaking right is emerging, centered around the annual Liberty Film Festival, film mogul Philip Anschutz, and a growing group of conservative and libertarian screenwriters and documentarians. Instead of the right habitually reproving Hollywood, we might see a new cinema that artistically reflects--rather than crudely imposes--a different, nonliberal, worldview.
That would represent a big step forward in reclaiming popular culture from the left.
Brian C. Anderson, senior editor of City Journal, is the author of South Park Conservatives.