What does Hollywood mean for Donald Trump? What does Donald Trump mean for Hollywood? Anne-Sophie Marie ponders the State of the Cinematic Union.
When I first thought of writing something on the relationship between Washington and Hollywood, I decided to wait until Trump’s first week to get a sense of the 45th president’s impact on Hollywood. This was a bad idea: between the number of shocking events we see daily through the media and his depressing unpredictability, I was drowning in a gigantic can of worms before week one was even over.
For this and other reasons, I’ll take a deep breath and, not unlike the new leader of the Free World, will begin by talking about myself. Since I don’t have lots of lots of money, I’ll try to stick to how my childhood shaped my views on American Politics and the American film industry.
I grew up between France and the US, under the Reagan and Bush administrations. During my time in America, I pledged allegiance every morning, raised the flag, sang The Star Spangled Banner, watched Sesame Street, and regularly danced to a song about Wisconsin Milk (“Don’t give me no pop, no pop! Don’t give me no tea, no tea! Just give me some milk, moo moo moo moo, Wisconsin Milk!”)
Meanwhile, in France, I listened to my Franco-Spanish (and former resistance fighter) gran praise President Reagan while she baked his alleged favourite dish: oven baked Mac ’n’ Cheese with bacon. Later, we would watch John Wayne in a Western, or a Spielberg film, because those were proper epic movies. (Comedies were still French though. And if you haven’t seen Louis De Funès / Gérard Oury classics, you should check them out).
So in hindsight, I would have been equally Americanised had I spent my childhood exclusively in France, all thanks to Hollywood and its special relationship with Washington.
Lulu (my gran) loved President Reagan because she’d seen him in movies. She loved Hollywood films. (Was her love for Hollywood due to America’s intervention during WWII? Probably a little). She told me about the First Lady as well, especially after seeing her in an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, which was quite popular in France then. Nancy Reagan, too, was a product of Hollywood, now using her acting skills in her campaign against drugs.
At the time, France was teaching me that to become a successful politician, you had to follow the “voie royale,” attend a “grand lycée” (preferably in Paris), ace your Baccalauréat, go to a “prépa” and then ‘Sc. Po’ or ‘X’ (an elite engineering school) and finally graduate from l’ENA (civil office school). French actors (I was told) came from aincestuous industry, making films that were too ‘adult” for a little girl to watch, and were generally uneducated on an academic level.
Because of these assumptions and my admiration for politics and cinema from a young age, the US presidential couple fascinated me as much as they had won Lulu over. How did they cross over so successfully? I later learnt that child star Shirley Temple grew up to be a Republican US Ambassador (Ford administration first, later with Bush Sr), that Conan the Barbarian was married to someone from the Kennedy clan, and that JFK himself had been romantically linked to the original ditsy blonde, the legendary Marilyn Monroe.
How was it that Tinseltown was (at times literally) in bed with D.C. to such a degree?
The relationship between Hollywood and the White House goes back many years (circa WWI), when the latter saw a promising trade opportunity with the former. Hollywood wasn’t only an important industry for the American economy from its fairly early years. It was also an effective tool to export other American products abroad through the power of suggestion (product placement) and of course, a subconscious messenger for American ideology.
Speaking of American Ideology, in 1915, the American Supreme court decided that a film could not be protected by the First Amendment (freedom of speech). That same year, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, approached President Wilson to offer him the opportunity to speak to the public through filmed addresses that would be screened before feature films. Though Wilson declined, a seed was planted. Hollywood gained status and by 1918, was considered an ‘essential’ business. Essential for the nation while no longer being protected by the First Amendment…interesting path for the seventh art.
The newfound relationship wasn’t without tensions in the years that followed. Some had religious origins: while the American political elite was WASP (and sometimes anti-Semitic), film moguls were mainly Jewish, often (like the aforementioned Laemmle) migrants from Germany and Eastern Europe. Often from lower classes than their D.C. contacts.
Which may have planted another seed: ongoing diversity and content issues regarding studio films, which still come up nowadays with whitewashing and stereotypes, among other examples. This began with WASP movie censor Hays and his links to Presidents Harding and Hoover, and reached scandalous levels in the Blacklist era and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As already mentioned, films had no First Amendment protection until 1952’s Burstyn v. Wilson Supreme Court decision that ‘motion pictures are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” and thus entitling it to some First Amendment protection (the rating system would have to wait until 1968). While not always the case, a few of the censor battles were linked to film content working against WASP ideology. The McCarthy era presented a particularly interesting time during which fascist narratives weren’t considered “Anti-American,” but communist film professionals were banned from Hollywood because of their political affiliations. If you remember Elia Kazan’s 1999 honorary Oscar reception, you know how deeply the Era marked Hollywood.
Looking back at those particular times, a mention of former President Reagan, who started off as SAG president and was a “friendly witness” for McCarthy is unavoidable and introduces a list of Hollywood paradoxes.
Firstly, what followed the Blacklist era brought a list of Hollywood stars turning to social activism, be it political (Jane Fonda) or apolitical (Robert Redford), which we still see today in the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio (especially with his 2016’s Before The Flood, which, by the by, I highly recommend). The creation of ratings in 1968 and protection of the First Amendment also allowed for more political freedom and sometimes criticism of the American Political System or of the “powers that be” (e.g. Oliver Stone, Michael Moore). And while many actors still followed a vocational education, others like Meryl Streep or Tommy Lee Jones received the kind of college education which could begin a political career. In fact, Tommy Lee Jones, who attended Harvard on a need-based scholarship, graduated cum laude and lived in the same hall as former Vice President Al Gore, who later went on to not only win the Nobel Peace Prize, but also a Grammy, an Emmy and an Academy Award.
Despite such developments, no Hollywood alumnus has really climbed up the political ladder on the Democratic side thus far (except for current Minnesota Senator and SNL alumnus Al Franken). In addition, the intellectual side of Hollywood is still vilified in a variety of ways depending on the political or social cause at hand (sometimes with reasons, other times gratuitously). Meanwhile, we see democratic candidates use star power and privileged relationships with Hollywood to win elections and later keep in touch with the people. Both Clintons are tremendous examples, and of course, former President and amazing crooner Barack Obama. Will we keep seeing charismatic Democratic candidates who could have made it in Hollywood, or should we get ready for President Affleck?
But let’s look at the present: the new American President, who (like President Reagan and the Governator before him) gained popularity through his celebrity status, has threatened the media with lawsuits, asked news agencies to shut down social media, and has so few allies back in Lalaland that his inauguration concert suffered from it. Just a few months after the end of one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories (President Obama), Hollywood, despite its effort to put Hillary Clinton in the White House, woke up to an elected president who was born out of Beauty Pageants and Reality TV, won two Razzies (Worst Supporting Actor and Worst New Star) for playing himself, and threatens Tinseltown’s more humanitarian and generally leftist ideals.
Will great battles ensue? Or will some see Trump’s ‘America First’ policies as an opportunity to bring a lot of filmmaking back to California through financial incentives after years of below the line industry members being hit by runaway productions (which has arguably hurt below the line Californian film staff a lot more than their above the line counterparts)? I might have missed related articles, but though I read plenty on Trump’s policies when it comes to the automotive industry, I have seen nothing so far to boost the film industry (I’m pretty sure hitting the National Endowment for the Arts won’t help us).
Meanwhile, Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey recently waved a white flag in favor of the newly elected American President, even hinting he may outlast his four year mandate. Is this beautifully naive hopefulness, does Mr McConaughey know something we don’t, or is this a move towards a special relationship with President Trump that may resemble the McCarthy years?
If Hollywood were to work with the White House in a McCarthy/Reagan fusion filmmaking recipe, they might hit a few obstacles on the global scale, seeing how many enemies President Trump is making abroad and the threat of trade wars, especially given the size of the Chinese market. A silver lining in the runaway productions cloud, other countries’ filmmaking infrastructures now have the means to produce high quality films of all genres.
But as mentioned before, President Trump doesn’t come from the filmmaking part of Hollywood. He comes from Reality TV, and therefore might not even care for the future of American Filmmaking, thus potentially breaking the century old special relationship between Washington and Tinseltown.
Reality TV enabled Trump to win many Americans over because, like FDR and Reagan before him, he was in American homes. He became a friend to many.
A teacher once told us moguls had signed our death warrant when they developed Reality TV. Unlike film/fiction, Reality TV doesn’t develop empathy or critical thinking. Sure, film can be incredibly manipulative, but it is story telling. Reality TV might have prepared audiences’ brains for a Trump victory. And if the past week is any indication, President Trump will run America like The Apprentice, which was shockingly his main concern during National Prayer Breakfast earlier this week as he criticised former Governor and movie star Schwarzenegger’s ratings on the show. In an episode of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, Trevor Noah recently toyed with a new way to broadcast White House news, following President Trump’s broadcast choices when he appointed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court (interestingly, Gorsuch may be good news to those worries about the First Amendment according to a recent article in Hollywood Reporter).
If President Trump annihilates public media such as NPR and PBS, direct interaction of a more cultural with the American public is bound to become near impossible.
Equally impossible though is to tell where this new chapter will take the film industry, but it seems that the more intellectual, open-hearted and inclusive side of the hills is needed now more than ever, not merely in vague feel good words spread widely, but, in the likes of FDR and Mr Rogers, addressing each individually, and reopening hearts and minds through the power of relevant eye opening content and authentic performances (in this light, David Harbour’s SAG Award speech might be going in the right direction), listening to and addressing all American citizens.