Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Ian Scott, Professor of American Film and History at the University of Manchester (UK), October 2023
BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. This evening we're going to explore Hollywood's up and down relationship with party politics over the years while also focusing on one of the industry's great creative firebrands, Oliver Stone.
IS: Hello, my name is Ian Scott and I'm Professor of American Film and History at Manchester University in the UK. My research specialisms are in Hollywood movies, the relationship between cinema and American political culture more widely, and the social, cultural and political history of California.
BG: So what was the catalyst that got you first into Hollywood and politics?
IS: The relationship of politics to movies has always intrigued me, and my own taste had gravitated towards what were broadly termed political films a long while ago. Movies like ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’, ‘All the President's Men’ and ‘JFK’. But really it all came together when I was a grad student studying California politics; I was interested in why people who'd never stood for office before would try to win election races at a very high level first time out, principally getting elected to Congress, in other words.
The political scientist David Canon wrote a really influential book for me and for my research at the time, and it was called ‘Actors, Athletes and Astronauts’, and in it Canon claimed there was mounting evidence that these were the routes to high office. In other words, people from the entertainment industry, sports stars or people who'd done heroic acts of derring-do. I applied Canon's theory to my own research looking at candidates in California during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s who wanted to run for the House of Representatives, the federal House of Representatives, and before I knew it I was implicitly predicting the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship of California.
BG: And this relationship between party politics and Hollywood, when did it first take hold really?
IS: I suppose I'd make the claim that politics and the movies have always been inextricably linked, but really it was the 1930s, The Depression, that put that relationship into sharp relief. The Hollywood studios, as they were growing in stature and influence through the 20s, were always perceived as conservative at least at the top among the moguls, and those moguls who came west were interested in developing an archetypal American persona.
So, many were Republicans and they imposed a pretty rigid conservative line in the studios, and remember at this time studio workers were beginning to unionize as we start to get into the 1930s. The moguls thought these were all going to make Hollywood a hotbed of left-wing politics and agitation, and that did happen: it's often forgotten that the 30s really were a period of deep unrest in and around the film industry; quite a lot of strikes, quite a lot of agitation going on and, to some degree, it made the moguls even more conservative.
The difference really was the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. That began to change things. First of all, Roosevelt was a Democrat and there hadn't been one of those in the White House for 12 years, so really that was going back to the beginning of Hollywood's infancy really, so they weren't quite the force on the national stage they were by the early 1930s. And second, FDR understood that from the off if he wanted to communicate his New Deal policies to the wider population he had to be both a broadcasting star himself – so he created his famous fireside chats, as you know, his weekly radio broadcast to the nation – and he needed to cultivate a relationship with Hollywood that would sell, however implicitly, the idea of economic and social regeneration in America.
BG: And how did World War II affect Hollywood's output?
IS: The war maintained that political connection and, of course, Hollywood was deeply involved in propaganda for the military by way of organizations like the Office of War Information. After the war the Cold War provided impetus for topics and at the same time the prevalence of film noir as a genre provided an aesthetic base for Hollywood to continue to make films with a social and cultural agenda to them, if not an outright political ideology.
So you've got post-war movies like ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ that contemplated the nation's priorities after the war; films like Frank Capra's largely underrated ‘State of the Union’ with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn; Robert Rossen’s ‘All the King's Men’; and then a little bit later ‘A Face in the Crowd’ directed by Elia Kazan. All of these made an impression in the late 40s and at the turn of the 50s but, of course, the coming and growing anti-communist force during that era distracted Hollywood as well, and it scared off filmmakers and the studios from much further inquiry and investigation.
BG: Fascinating. And what followed in the 60s and 70s?
IS: So by the time we get to the 1960s and 1970s you have a different kind of force at work, a different kind of agenda is emerging. Conspiracy and paranoia thrillers like the classic ‘Manchurian Candidate’ from 1962 and then in the later decade ‘The Parallax View’ with Warren Beatty and ‘Three Days of the Condor’ with Robert Redford all suggested an American political landscape dominated by shady cabals and big corporations unaccountable to anyone. And these films began to tap into the mood of disillusionment with politics that had finally come to fruition with the Watergate scandal in the midst of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s.
BG: Indeed. I literally forced Jack Clark, who I work with, who's 25, to watch ‘All The President's Men’ last night so he was aware of 70s paranoia. Anyway, please continue.
IS: Hollywood generally was always suspicious enough of someone like Ronald Reagan – who was an insider, of course – not to trust him entirely. Reagan had previously been a New Deal Democrat who turned over to the Republican party and became governor of California in the 1960s before he became President.
The Clinton era followed a pattern established by John F. Kennedy that Hollywood was to be cultivated and money should be sought, endorsements gathered, that kind of thing, and it was very successful for Clinton during the 1990s.
By the time of the George Bush administration in the 2000s, Bush largely eschewed Hollywood: he didn't feel it was the kind of community that was very sympathetic, probably rightly, to some of his politics. Although in the immediate post-9/11 era there was an unlikely alliance between the administration and the Hollywood studios and some of the unions like the Screenwriters’ Guild that tacitly supported The War On Terror in the backdrop to 9/11.
The Obama years brought in endorsements even from those who resisted political involvement. So big celebrities, musical stars like Bruce Springsteen who'd been very loathe to support and come out publicly for candidates in the past, came forward for somebody like Obama, who it was thought was really going to change not just American politics but really the whole of American life, American society at that time.
The Trump years followed, of course, and that was quite some reaction as you know, and in many ways the Trump years have been a masterclass in someone saying how much they're personally loved and how they're admired only for such communities – and Hollywood has been most particularly vocal in this – only for communities to refute that claim entirely about Trump in many ways.
BG: And in what ways have films affected government policy rather than a vice versa?
IS: The wider political landscape has seen the exposure of things like American nuclear policy, for example, in a movie like ‘The China Syndrome’ in the late 1970s starring Jane Fonda, a film that appeared around the time at the near nuclear meltdown disaster at 3 Mile Island in Pennsylvania.
But perhaps one of the most obvious examples of influence is, of course, Oliver Stone's ‘JFK’ from 1991. A film that had such traction beyond the pages of review sections of the magazines and newspapers that it eventually resulted in the U.S Congress passing what is known as the Assassination Records Collection Act which set up a review board that over the past 30 years or so has released millions of pages of previously redacted material. JFK caused such a storm over the official story of Kennedy's assassination in 1963 that the American Congress quietly realised it was actually the custodian of a history that frankly few accepted anymore, if they ever had; and Stone, who gave testimony to Congress himself, was well aware of the impact that his film was having and the influence it was having over people's public perception that the Warren Commission Report of 1964, intimating that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin who had killed Kennedy, was simply not believed by the wider American populace.
BG: And you interviewed Oliver Stone. That must have been something?
IS: I did find Stone absolutely fascinating to interview, and subsequently I began to learn a lot more about what motivated him, and understand the years after I'd interviewed him – which was around about 2012/2013 – I began to understand a great deal more about what it was he was telling me at the time, particularly when I reviewed his first book of memoirs a couple of years ago, ‘Chasing The Light’.
In a way Stone encapsulates some of those contradictory impulses in Hollywood. He very much wanted to tell his own stories when he came to Hollywood and it just so happened that those stories and the history that he was a part of, and growing up in, during the 1960s and 1970s was really a time of fraction and disjuncture and a very kind of conflictual time for the United States and for American history more generally.
Stone understood the great opportunities and principles that are at the heart of the American ideal, but he also understood well the terrible costs that were paid for some of those principles. Notably in Vietnam where Stone served with distinction and then made later three very different films about the conflict. But at the same time you know he's kind of an establishment figure: he understands Hollywood's an industry and he works within its confines for good and for ill.
I'll tell you when I asked who he most admired in American cinema – thinking that I had a list in my head of the kind of names he would go to – he straightaway said Steven Spielberg, not the filmmaker you might automatically assume to be somebody Stone would think of as a real inspiration. But the point was that Stone admired Spielberg's freedom within the system, the ability to make films on his terms. Stone might not have made a film like ‘Lincoln’ the way Spielberg did, or ‘The Post’, or ‘Bridge of Spies’ or more subject matter you could see Stone being attracted to, but I think he just admires Spielberg's craft and his determination not to be swayed by fads and taste to do what he wants. That, for so many political filmmakers indeed, is an enormous attraction: the freedom to be able to dictate your own projects and mould them to your vision, however collaborative that vision might seem.
So I think Stone would tell you he managed longevity and he managed to kind of mould his political vision because he made films on time and to budget, and certainly he delivered a run of movies from ‘Salvador’ in the mid-1980s, all the way he's through to probably ‘Natural Born Killers’ a decade later, that were commercial but were also critically challenging movies that audiences wanted to see, and which in Stone's case tapped into a zeitgeist that few filmmakers can ever achieve.
But with movies like ‘Platoon’, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, ‘The Doors’, ‘JFK’ and even ‘Nixon’, as well as ‘Natural Born Killers’, Stone had a run of films that did all of that and more. He understood about maintaining relations with the studios – even though he didn't always agree with them by any means – but that's why he's managed to mould such a long-standing career for himself.
BG: A compelling character indeed. Many thanks for your time, Ian. It's been great.
IS: Thanks very much for having me. Thank you.
BG: This has been the UK Desk for Arts Express, and I've been Brett Gregory. Cheers.
Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK).