D'Anna: Imagining a world with no politics in Hollywood
Since before Sunday, social media feeds have roiled with debates over whether politics should have a place in Hollywood and whether Hollywood should have a place in politics.
It got me thinking about what the world would be like if no movie or movie star or director or producer ever said, did or shot anything political.
So let’s imagine it, just the way Jimmy Stewart was forced to imagine what life would have been like without him in "It’s a Wonderful Life."
For starters, our world would have no Jimmy Stewart, partly because of his Academy Award-nominated role in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of big money in politics. But also because Stewart was politically active in his private life, and he didn’t try to hide it. He was an avid supporter of presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and he also backed the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
And speaking of Ronald Reagan, there would, of course, be no Gipper in our politics-free Holly-world. Nor would there be a John Wayne or Charlton Heston for that matter. The Duke actively promoted the U.S. war-bond effort in World War II and later backed the Vietnam War. Chuck served as president of the National Rifle Association, but beyond that, one of his best-loved roles was in "The Ten Commandments," which director Cecil B. DeMille described as a tale of personal freedom.
"Are men the property of the state?" DeMille said. "Or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today."
If we truly want to imagine life without politics in movies, we have to go back to the earliest days of cinema, to the silent era. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s overtly racist "Birth of a Nation" espoused an ideology that was critical of the very idea of equal rights and presented the Reconstruction as an affront to the white man.
One of the best-loved film stars of the silent era was Charlie Chaplin, who was also overtly political. "Modern Times" depicted the impact of the mechanized industrial age on the working class, and his classic "The Great Dictator" was a direct commentary on Hitler and the rise of fascism.
Which brings us to World War II and one of the greatest movies that never would have been made in a politics-free cinematic world. Yes, "Casablanca" was a love story. But it was also a morality play about choosing sides, sticking your neck out, and doing the right thing in turbulent political times — in this case the Nazi occupation of France.
And what about "Sands of Iwo Jima," "The Best Years of our Lives" and "From Here to Eternity"? All of them portrayed the patriotic nobility of America’s involvement in World War II. Alas, one person’s patriotism might be another’s jingoism, which would be forbidden in our attempts to imagine a movie world without politics.
Poor John Wayne. Almost all of his most memorable canon is wiped out, except of course for the Westerns. Oh wait. Manifest Destiny. Those are out, too. Which leaves us only with "The Quiet Man." Which, come to think of it, had an anti-McCarthyism theme, so that’s out, too.
In fact, some of our most beloved films starring some of our most beloved actors were veiled or not-so-veiled commentaries on McCarthyism: "High Noon"; "Spartacus"; "On The Waterfront"; and "Inherit the Wind." We’ll have to ban them all, along with movies that depicted the McCarthy era, such as "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Trumbo."
And how can we ban commentaries on McCarthyism without taking into account the Cold War? So we’ll have to say no to "The Manchurian Candidate," "Fail Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove."
And didn’t the Cold War give rise to the Vietnam War, what with domino theory and all? So no to "The Green Berets," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket" and "Apocalypse Now."
Then there are all those great movies about corruption in politics and the dangers of unbridled populism: Andy Griffith's amazing performance in "A Face in the Crowd"? Bye-bye. "All the King’s Men"? Gone, along with "All The President’s Men." "Meet John Doe" and Robert Redford’s "The Candidate"? Sayonara.
The list of movies with political overtones would probably take an entire four-hour Oscar telecast (which deserves all the criticism for being too long) to read. And it gets even longer when you begin listing movies whose directors or stars exercise their political voices.
Mel Gibson isn't exactly a shrinking violet when it comes to politics, but the cinema world would be a poorer place without "We Were Soldiers." And who can forget Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in 2012? If that means our world can’t have "Dirty Harry," "Fistful of Dollars" and "Gran Torino" — a moving film about immigration, isolation, aging, crime and the alienation of the American worker — our world just got a lot more boring.
The good news is we don’t live in a boring world. We live in a world where ideas compete in the marketplace, and one of those marketplaces happens to be Hollywood, which has always had a role reflecting the times we live in. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? The answer is yes. And where Hollywood is concerned the result has been some damn good cinema. And a lot of unadulterated dreck. But that’s the beauty of the creative process. And it’s the beauty of the First Amendment. It’s a wonderful life, indeed.
John D'Anna is the A1 editor at The Arizona Republic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.