Hollywood Left and Right: How movie stars shaped American politics

Co-presented with the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney


Professor Steven J Ross
19 April, 2011

Steven J Ross tells an important story that has escaped public attention: the emergence of Hollywood as a vital centre of political life and the important role that movie stars have played in shaping the course of American politics.

Ever since the film industry relocated to Hollywood early in the twentieth century, it has had an outsized influence on American politics. Through compelling larger-than-life figures in American cinema–Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Edward G. Robinson, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, and Arnold Schwarzenegger– Ross reveals how Hollywood’s engagement in politics has been longer, deeper, and more varied than most people would imagine. The Left and the Right each gained ascendancy in Tinseltown at different times. From Chaplin, whose movies almost always displayed his leftist convictions, to Schwarzenegger’s nearly seamless transition from action blockbusters to the California governor's mansion, Ross traces the intersection of Hollywood and political activism from the early twentieth century to the present.

Ross challenges the commonly held belief that Hollywood has always been a bastion of liberalism. The real story is far more complicated. First, Hollywood has a longer history of conservatism than liberalism. Second, and most surprising, while the Hollywood Left was usually more vocal and visible, the Right had a greater impact on American political life, capturing a senate seat (Murphy), a governorship (Schwarzenegger), and the ultimate achievement, the Presidency (Reagan).

Professor Steven J Ross

Steven J Ross is Professor of History at the University of Southern California, where he is also the co-founder and co-director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. Ross is the author of Workers On the Edge: Work, Leisure, and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati, 1788-1890 (1985), Movies and American Society (2002) and Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (1998)–which was named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the “Best Books of 1998.”

His forthcoming book, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (September 2011), received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Film Scholars Award–the academic equivalent of an “Oscar.” His op-ed pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, International Herald-Tribune, Huffington Post, and Washington Independent, and he has frequently appeared on talk shows and in documentaries as an expert on movie stars and politics.

Steven J Ross was a Visiting Professor at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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