One of the great misconceptions about Hollywood is that it is a liberal institution. Several false assumptions inform this misconception: thinking of “Hollywood” as a monolithic entity in any way besides its shared corporate infrastructure, confusing public endorsements of celebrity politicians by celebrity movie stars as political activism, thinking that left-leaning consumers of movies see Hollywood as representing their political beliefs in any way, selectively reading a limited number of texts (e.g., Green Zone “proves” Hollywood’s liberalism, but every superhero movie ever isn’t proof of its conservatism), and, most importantly, thinking that the most public figures associated with Hollywood (i.e., stars and filmmakers) are Hollywood.
This last point I think is one that has continued to be the least considered when such straw man critiques are drawn, because Hollywood here is equated only with its most visible figures who overshadow its intricate but also not-so-shrouded political economy. It’s no mistake that despite the fluctuating numbers of major and minor Hollywood studios in the past 100 years, the most powerful studios, like the biggest banks in the nation, have been referred to as “The Big Five.”
And indeed, to the surprise of no one, both Big Fives have had and are continuing a lucrative relationship with one another. Hollywood’s agenda, of course, has always been profit, and the representatives of this ideology are not George Clooney and Matt Damon, but Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal (Chairman/CEO & Co-Chairman, Sony/Columbia), Stephen Blairson (CEO, 20th Century Fox), Brad Grey (Chairman/CEO, Paramount), Ronald Meyer (President/CEO, Universal), Robert A. Iger (President/CEO, Walt Disney), and Barry Meyer (Charman/CEO, Warner Bros.).
According to Marketplace, Individuals working in sports and entertainment make up roughly 2% of the 1% wealthiest Americans. When considering the many facets of industry that may be referred to as “entertainment,” what constitutes such a number can be quite confusing. For instance, do uber-wealthy people who become reality stars count as part of this bracket? What about individuals like Steve Jobs or Mark Cuban, whose work has maneuvered quite liberally between industries? As Cole Abaius argued in his two-part examination of product placement in movies, a line demarcating where entertainment ends and other forms of industry begin doesn’t really exist.
But even taking into account the strictest and most evident definitions of sports and entertainment (e.g., athletes and actors), this number seems staggeringly low. But we only understand wealth through celebrity largely because the only wealthy people we know of are celebrities. Johnny Depp and Michael Bay may be part of the 2% of the 1%, but they take up a far greater percentage of the public imagination when it comes to who and what we think of when we think of wealth. The truth is, if one is going to look for a Hollywood equivalent to serve as a comparison to the 1%, the names listed at the end of the third paragraph provide a far more fitting analogy than your average movie star.
The Populist Rage Dollar
That Hollywood can profit from populist anger isn’t anything new. New Hollywood, after all, likely would never have happened had studio heads not seen a lucrative outcome in making films that appealed to, or even exploited, the youth movement. After all, crowd-pleasing and populism aren’t mutually exclusive sentiments. But contemporary Hollywood filmmaking must negotiate an appeal between particular and general audiences. In Hollywood’s logic, appealing into a political moment must be shrewd, but never exclusionary. Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist was almost certainly greenlit with the vague intent to appeal to a post-2008 world in mind, despite that there’s no way those involved could have predicted its release coinciding with Occupy Wall Street. And it’s not the first. Last summer, The Other Guys replaced the traditional villain of the macho action-cop movies, the drug dealer, with a white-collar corporate criminal, and last fall Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps brought Gordon Gekko back to reflect on a post-2008 America.
But where The Other Guys ranged from surprisingly inventive to a bit didactic and the Wall Street sequel never bothered to actually say much, Tower Heist surprised me in several ways. With the film’s titular location as a fitting metaphor for the fantasy of vertical social mobility, Tower Heist not only addresses the income gap between the middle-class (Ben Stiller) and the uber-wealthy (Alan Alda), but also the gradations in middle-class-to-working-class-to-poor life as well by including a maid (Gabourey Sidibe), a burger-flipper-turned-elevator-operator (Michael Peña), a petty thief (Eddie Murphy), and a former one-percenter (Matthew Broderick).
In Slate’s “Spoiler Special” podcast review of the film, Dana Stevens points out that Eddie Murphy’s thief, unlike the other characters involved in the heist, never even had a pension that was at stake as a non-employee of the building. Thus, the fact that the major cast of characters work in an environment wherein social mobility is even visible says something about the wealth disparity and invisible classes in American society. And (spoiler alert) the image of a car made of gold being haphazardly dangled down a skyscraper is perhaps one of the most fitting visual critiques of the logic of “trickle down” economics that was never intended.
Profit and Appropriation
But films like these, entertaining as they may be, can really only be understood as reflections of social discord to the extent of being an attempt to profit from it rather than any real expression of progressive politics or attempt at social change. This is an obvious point, but it’s one that’s often forgotten when any unifying ideology outside of corporate profiteering is argued to inform Hollywood’s decision-making. The institution certainly likes to pat itself on the back for being on the cusp of social change, but how “risk-taking” is it really to make a movie like In the Heat of the Night in 1967 or Brokeback Mountain in 2005? These may be good movies, but their existence more accurately signifies the recognition of a potential appeal to certain audiences rather than being harbingers for social change. The next time AMPAS produces a montage congratulating itself for its own supposed progressivism, somebody should splice in clips from John Cassavetes’s Shadows or Todd Haynes’s Poison.
But the reason Hollywood can never actually be a progressive institution is intrinsic. A for-profit corporate entity, Hollywood repackages standardized products. Thus, in a film like Tower Heist, our working-class heroes must defeat the wealthy ogre (a scenario as unlikely as the heist itself) and the problem that must be overcome resides in the individual villain (the justice met with Alda’s character, like Bernie Madoff’s conviction, creates an illusory sense of a problem solved). Institutionalized Hollywood narrative structures have almost never allowed mainstream cinema to adequately address systemic problems, which is why most movies about contemporary racism reduce themselves to ham-fisted lines of dialogue, and movies like Tower Heist locate unmitigated greed within the individual and not the system.
Hollywood can’t be occupied from the inside. Actual attempts at progressive social change through Hollywood, like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore’s 2007 announcement that the Oscars are “going green” in the energy black hole that is the Kodak Theater of all places (I’m sure everyone rode bikes to the red carpet that year), tinges with hypocrisy. And while there’s certainly no rule about where celebrities lend their microphone, celebrity presence at events like Occupy Wall Street are suspect and frankly unhelpful for a movement pursuing the needs of the collective over the individual (even if you’re a populist, albeit one-percenter, hero like Batman). Hollywood’s public faces, even if they aren’t accurately representative of Hollywood as a complex commercial institution, are the faces of individuals with accumulated wealth and power. And that’s the major reason Hollywood can never really be an active, progressive component in political moments like this one: because of its economic role, Hollywood’s relationship to any form of grassroots political action can only be one of appropriation.
However, Hollywood can be occupied from the outside, and in several ways already has been. While Hollywood often appropriates social change, the reverse is possible as well. Icons and symbols of Hollywood narratives can be utilized for political ends, aided by the recognizability and encoded meaning of anything manifested through Hollywood. Anonymous’s use of the Guy Fawkes mask from the 2006 adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is a pervasive example of a meaningful utilization of a Hollywood image with political intent. Think of it as reverse-appropriation.
Popular culture can shape the iconography of protest, and vice versa. Appropriation and exploitation by an institution like Hollywood is inevitable, but the buck never has to stop with them.