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On the radio: President Calvin Coolidge, being welcomed to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios by Louis B. Mayer.
He was born Lazar Meir. By the time he was America’s highest-paid man and the most powerful Hollywood boss in history, he’d done more than anglicize his name; he set the standard for a pioneer generation of studio chiefs who believed in America with the fervent, grateful conviction of people who’d seen the worst of what the Old World could do. Mayer kept a plaster elephant on his desk as a playful, or sometimes a not-so-playful reminder that MGM’s boss was no New Dealer. He was a delegate to the Republican national conventions of 1928 and 1932 and the state chairman of the California Republican Party in the early Thirties. He wasn’t alone, of course. There were always some Republicans and conservatives in Golden Age Hollywood, though those terms don’t always line up with our present-day understanding of them; stars like Ginger Rogers, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Taylor, writers like Morrie Ryskind. There’s a scholarly monograph waiting to be written about that forgotten history, but this post isn’t it. With the greatest respect for the people and events of that era, there’s little or no living connection with the people and the issues of today. What has Hollywood Conservatism been in our own times? How is it organized, and by who?
The origins of the modern Hollywood right can be identified with some precision. After George Bush lost the 1992 election, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Lionel Chetwynd (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; The Hanoi Hilton; Kissinger and Nixon) felt that conservative Hollywood had done practically nothing to involve itself or even so much as to politically express itself. He and his friend, apostate-leftist-turned-conservative David Horowitz started the Wednesday Morning Club, an activity of David’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture. (The WMC name referred to waking up disappointed on mornings after Tuesday elections. Since it was actually a monthly luncheon society that met on random weekdays, “Wednesday Morning” was a perpetual source of confusion.) It would be to Hollywood conservatism roughly what Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club had been to the birth of personal computers.
WMC was an IRS 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization, technically a discussion forum, not a partisan one. I saw George W. Bush and Charlton Heston there, but also Arianna Huffington (when she was still on the right), Camille Paglia and Chris Matthews. The lunches were extremely posh, usually at the main ballroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and they did attract plenty of non-conservatives, as well as wealthy business people like Anne Volokh (mother of Sacha and Eugene) who liked hanging out with politicians and stars. L.A. journalist Catherine Seipp wrote a sharp piece in Los Angeles magazine, “It’s Wednesday Morning in America”. It was syndicated nationally, greatly boosting both WMC and Cathy’s own career.
That’s the origin point. The Club was a real success for David and Lionel. It essentially paid for itself, being neither a drag nor a boon to Horowitz’s CSPC. It had prestige, but it was not a truly public activity. It wasn’t a true membership club in any sense. It didn’t put on screenings or events other than the luncheons, and had no national presence or cultural influence. None of that is a knock on it; it was built to earn respect and it did.
Only a year into the Wednesday Morning Club, Chetwynd and Horowitz joined with a friend, Cathy Siegel, an entertainment attorney and corporate officer, and founded a separate organization, the American Cinema Foundation. It had a very different charter and mission. It wasn’t set up to be “a top conservative arts group”; it was set up to be a top arts group by any standard, but (for a change) run by conservatives—not quite the same thing. Like Fox News’s Fair and Balanced slogan, the distinction is meant to have a little bit of sly irony, but also to be taken literally. We weren’t seeking the right-wing best, but simply the best, and if as all too often happens, you haven’t heard of it elsewhere, we wanted you to wonder why your other cultural sources were letting you down so badly. ACF would be our Directors Guild, our own mini American Film Institute or micro-motion picture academy. It would hold public activities in Los Angeles and Washington, and later overseas.
It too had limitations, mostly self-imposed for reasons. All of its staff and board would be known publicly; no evasion, no political concealment. The ACF board was small but “heavy”, made up of genuine big shots. It wasn’t snobbish but it was unavoidably elite; it had to be to do the job it needed to do. We were honest about that. ACF wasn’t membership oriented and wasn’t really set up to take advantage of potential sympathy or interest in the heartland. We went after major corporate sponsorship the way AFI and Sundance did, not small dollar donations like more political organizations did.
We couldn’t do everything, so we stuck to things no one else could do—hold an annual Freedom Film Festival, present seven Andrzej Wajda Awards to brave filmmakers of formerly Communist countries, help get an Oscar for Mr. Wajda, and for films like “The Lives of Others”. We sponsored Cuban films at the Kennedy Center and a protest photo exhibit about Cuba’s treatment of gays. We held seminars on TV writing, PBS, and why Hollywood’s storytellers seem to love dirty cops. But we didn’t do retail politics. We weren’t the go-to place to see Dinesh D’Souza. At a time when every conservative group was casually mislabeled as the Christian right, we were in a literal ethnic sense one of the least Christian.
There are other models, other ways to make a difference. One was the Liberty Film Festival, held for a couple of years by Libertas, an ambitious married couple (Govindini Murty and Jason Apuzzo) who hired and then lost John Nolte, later of Breitbart. LFF was a splashy, explicitly conservative weekend film festival that was more or less billed as America getting in Hollywood’s face. Despite a few “name” guests, some of them on the ACF board, it was neither feared nor respected in the industry and disappeared quickly. Murty and Apuzzo made too many enemies too casually, including on the right, accusing Clint Eastwood of anti-Catholic attitudes over scenes in “Million Dollar Baby”. Libertas was able to attract national attention, at least from conservative publications, and if run more professionally might have survived infancy. But in the words of Billy Joel’s “Big Shot”, “I’ll give you one hint, Honey, you sure did put on a show”.
From time to time other arts groups and would-be influencers announce that they’re coming to town to shake things up, and the hotels, screening rooms and PR agencies welcome them with open arms. At the height of the DVD boom, Walmart could probably have made Fayetteville, Arkansas the next Sundance if it had really wanted to. They had the power to make themselves respected, even feared. No one who lacks that power should bother to make plans to conquer the town.
Another organization that took a diametrically different approach to offering something to Hollywood’s conservatives was the once-secret Friends of Abe, the Fight Club of the American right. It’s okay to say its name out loud; it’s all been in the open since it ended. FOA was altogether different from Govindini’s LFF, from my ACF, and from David Horowitz’s CSPC, although plenty of people belonged to several or all of them. Friends of Abe had something in common with the Wednesday Morning Club; it was a purely social group without public activities or any attempt at public influence. Unlike any of our projects, FOA was completely secret.
Cameras were confiscated at the door. Confidentiality was as assured as velvet ropes and security guards could make it. It was very difficult to join, and almost impossible to find out about. But as fancy as the parties were, once you were in, FOA wasn’t elitist. A libertarian screenwriter, a FiCon financier, and a socially conservative Teamster who drove props to locations could all rub elbows at the bar with Jon Voight and Jim Caviezel. Actors, in particular, were able to relax, knowing that the press was rigorously excluded. Eventually, of course, it leaked. (Good old Pat Boone explained, “I can’t tell you about it. It’s a very secret group of conservatives, real hush hush”. The reporter from Variety nodded as she wrote it down.)
At that point it disbanded from fear of public exposure. FOA was the most actor-led of Hollywood’s conservative groups, and actors are far more vulnerable to shifts in public opinion than writers or directors. This is a harsh sounding but seriously meant metaphor: In other words, to them, being a conservative in Hollywood was something like being gay in Hollywood back in say, 1955. It was something you had to keep secret from the bosses and the general public at all costs because people who used to like you might hate you. It’s not exactly illegal, no, and everyone in Hollywood has heard snickering whispers of someone mixed up in this icky conservative thing, but it’s certainly frowned on socially, something that can only be admitted in private among the closest of friends. Liberals who may hate that metaphor should consider what drives conservatives to see it as accurate.
Does this way of looking at it come anything close to even satirical reality? There’s an element of truth in it. A lot depends on who you are, how old you are, and where you are in the industry. Lionel Chetwynd once put it succinctly, “(Being a conservative in Hollywood) isn’t always a minus. But it’s virtually never a plus”. Fear is understandable, but you have to be careful not to validate what they think of you, as if what you are and what you believe is something to be ashamed of.
The Center for the Study of Popular Culture is now the David Horowitz Freedom Center and conducts activities. Friends of Abe has some vestigial existence, like the veterans of Woodstock. Effectively it’s long over. The Liberty Film Festival is gone a decade ago, but it helped launch the career of Breitbart’s John Nolte. I started to close out the American Cinema Foundation in 2015, as many of my pals and allies on the Board and I had finally grown older together, and frankly I was confident with a curmudgeon’s professional cynicism that there weren’t many, if any halfway knowledgeable, halfway conservative film curators left in the whole country. I trimmed the ACF website back to what amounted to a static catalog of 1994—2014. We packed up nearly a thousand rare overseas books and video tapes, many sent to the motion picture academy library, some to the American Film Institute. We’d done our bit for history.
In 2016 I rethought the issue, thanks to the writers I discovered on this site and the internet’s ability to make talent visible. With nothing to offer a prospective successor but a name, a track record, a website, and a very modest amount of intellectual property, I asked @titustechera if he’d give it a shot. It’s a rare coincidence: the young online scholar who knew film history the best was also, by providence, the one who cared most about American culture. In two years Titus has reoriented ACF towards online media, interviews, and podcasts. If you care about reading conservative viewpoints about the movies, wish him well. He’ll need all the help he can get.
Remember the guy with the 1928 microphone at the head of this post? Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM when Leo the Lion was the unquestioned ruler of the film industry. He was born in Czarist Europe, grew up hungry in Canada in a big, desperately poor Jewish family, and through ceaseless hard work managed to impress boss after boss until he was made the boss of Hollywood’s top film studio of the Golden Age. When you read anecdotes about “LB”, the same story keeps repeating, because it so clearly said something about the man and his times, and how distant we are from them.
Mayer was in the studio’s tiny, exclusive executive screening room, watching a rough cut, an unfinished edit of an Andy Hardy movie. This was a much liked MGM series starring Mickey Rooney as a go-getter American teenager, sort of a Marty McFly of the Thirties. As always at Metro, all the craft elements were first rate. In this scene, Andy’s mother is sick, possibly dying, while Andy stands weeping at the side of her bed. It’s a tough moment, a three handkerchief special. Suddenly Louis B. Mayer exploded angrily, “That good American boy should be on! his! knees! He should be praying!” On his orders, the scene was refilmed the next day exactly as he wanted it.
People told this story for decades for a couple of reasons: If you liked Mayer, and/or the golden age of MGM movies, it showed how even the tough studio boss had a sentimental streak. If you didn’t like Mayer or the Hollywood studio system in general, it shows how the big producers reduced everything to a schmaltzy, cornball level. But both ways of telling the story ignore the real point: Mayer’s take on the scene was truer dramatically than the original version. It was also culturally more sensitive, psychologically more accurate. Smarter. He was purely and simply right, and the scene was better as a result.
That’s the kind of instinctive understanding of America’s virtues that is so hard to find among today’s tastemakers. That’s the kind of conservative vitamin missing from the Hollywood diet. When I say, “conservatives in Hollywood”, that populist spirit is closer to what I’m talking about than anything old Louis B did to advance the Smoot-Hawley tariff or fund Thomas Dewey’s 1944 campaign. The point is to change the culture, not make films about worthily dull donor class subjects (“Boring From Within: The AEI Story”).
Just like our series on Hollywood Communists, there are always stories within stories to tell about Hollywood Conservatives. We barely touched on movie content in this post, but that’s part of the overall ebb and flow of talent. As always, I’m eager to speculate with you how our years in Hollywood could have been done better, or how the future could be different.
To coin a phrase, I love it when a plan comes together.