Articles written for the website of Time Magazine but NOT published!


Hollywood - The New "N" Word
by Martin Lewis
(Written October 10, 2000)

Language analysts and cultural experts will tell you that the word "Hollywood" is one of the most recognizable words in the world. it has a recognition factor that transcends nationality. It's up there with "Coca-Cola," "MacDonalds" and "Madonna"

Which is why it has been such an attractive lightning rod over the years for American conservatives seeking to attack what they see as the lax moral code and the stealth liberal agenda that has seeped into the nation's mainstream.

The recent congressional hearings and the speeches knocking Gore for taking Hollywood money are just the latest in a long line of broadsides that date back to the perceived excesses of the film industry in the days of Fatty Arbuckle in the 1920's - which led to the creation of the prudish Hayes Office. And ultimately to the blacklisting of the McCarthy era.

The only problem with this sweeping condemnation is that it is wildly out-of-date. It makes no sense geographically, culturally or ideologically.

First of all the geography.

The word "Hollywood" is brandished as a noun and adjective to describe an entertainment industry that actually encompasses Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Nashville, London and a slew of other worldwide cities. While the big film distributors do maintain their main studios and offices in California, the powerful corporate headquarters of those companies are primary located in cities ranging from New York to Tokyo. The television industry power mainly resides in Manhattan. The American record industry is split between the three coasts (Nashville being the third.) And the much more pervasive computer game world is usually headquartered in a suburban garage or a teenager's bedroom near you.

Therefore to speak as though there is one mentality emanating from such diverse locations is patently absurd.

During his brief spell in 1996 as a candidate for Film-Critic-In-Chief of the United States - Sen. Bob Dole castigated such Hollywood movies as "Trainspotting." The fact that the movie had been made in Scotland and was distributed by New York's Miramax Films apparently eluded the Senator's grasp. (Which is why he probably failed to give it the ultimate Dole accolade of "two pencils up.")

Even more ludicrous is the lumping together of such differing entertainment genres as film, TV, music, literature, games and Internet. The motivations of the creators of these entertainment forms are widely different. There is no monolithic agenda shared by Universal's film development team and a kid in Seattle creating a Playstation game about thermonuclear dragons. Just because we as consumers embrace the products of these creators in our leisure hours - it doesn't hold that the manufacturers have any common ground. The opposite is usually the case.

The biggest error made by those who embrace the Michael Medved school of thought - is the assumption that there is some Vast Left Wing Conspiracy at play. Cabals of radically-minded entertainment executives who meet in the pot-smoke filled backrooms of Brentwood and in the rustic $3 million haciendas of Malibu to plot the downfall of the "Leave It To Beaver" world these latter-day revolutionaries so despise.

While the private politics of many of the creative souls in the entertainment industry may well be liberal or progressive - the motivations that guide the vast majority of those people and companies in their daily endeavors are cut from what Richard Nixon would describe as "good Republican cloth."

Money, money and money. Yes, some may wish to subtly influence the culture - but the truth is that most entertainment is created as a collaborative venture - and political agendas are rapidly lost in the shuffle. Success and the chance to have a better seat at the trough the following year is what motivates the vast majority of entertainment makers and executives.

And surely that is the most noble of conservative values. They are worshipping at the important altar of The Market. Far from advocating social engineering (in a liberal or conservative direction) - the monolithic Hollywood machine follows the money trail. It is supply and demand. "Hollywood" is not rife with Marxists - but Mammonists. And that is a most honorable conservative tenet.

I can offer a personal anecdote to aptly illustrate this point. Some 12 years ago I moved to Los Angeles in my then-incarnation as a writer/producer. To pay the proverbial rent I accepted a secondary job. My form of "waitressing" was to be a movie marketing consultant.

I was asked to devise a campaign for a new Costa-Gravas film "Betrayed" - starring Tom Berenger and Debra Winger. Costa-Gravas (who directed "Z" and "Missing") was one of my heroes - and I was even more enthralled when I discovered that the movie was about the right-wing militia movements then spreading tentacles through American society. Of course the film was dressed up as a routine thriller - complete with implausible Joe Eszterhas plot twists and dialogue - and had Winger as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating an Aryan Nations-style group. But I was overjoyed at the prospect of using this movie to awaken America to the danger of White Supremacists. It was due to be released just before the 1988 elections - so I skillfully devised an entire quasi-electoral campaign about a movie which warned Americans of this enemy within.

To my shock and irritation - the studio rejected the campaign as too political. The day they turned down the plan - I happened to be attending an industry party and I ran into someone I admired - actor/producer Michael Douglas. In addition to producing "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" - Douglas had acted in and produced the ultimate political warning film - "The China Syndrome" - which managed to have the Three Mile Island nuclear accident be part of its launch campaign. (In reality a grisly coincidence that did however serve to underscore the important anti-nuclear message of the film.)

Well this was going to be easy. All I had to do was tell Douglas my campaign ideas - which as a good liberal he would undoubtedly endorse - and then return to the film studio the next morning and crow as they realized that an Oscar-winning producer had informed them how wrong they were.

Whoops! Michael Douglas might be a great liberal. He certainly detested those anti-American militia groups who were terrorizing us in the late 80's. But he put me straight in five succinct minutes. My job was NOT to try and use the film to make a political point (however much he supported it.) My job was to sell the film in the most effective way. And that meant selling a thriller. "But didn't you use Three Mile Island to sell "The China Syndrome"?" I asked in surprise. "Wasn't that part of the whole anti-nuclear movement?" No it was not. It was a thriller. If it ALSO made people think - then that was excellent. But the purpose of Hollywood films was to make money not political points.

I was chastened - but educated.

And while some indie films seen by a small crowd may have a political or social agenda - Hollywood-created films and TV shows rarely do.. They are made so their makers can become rich. Or richer.

The fact that people who are intelligent and rich and who logically OUGHT to be selfish and vote Republican to profit their personal pocketbook - but instead vote Democrat to satisfy their conscience is the inexplicable fact that sticks in the conservative craw. How could people such as Steven Spielberg or Robin Williams NOT vote for lower taxes for themselves. The notion of putting the nation's health before personal wealth is genuinely mystifying to most right-wingers. So this bizarre selfless behavior is explained away - very patronizingly - as "liberal guilt." But what has Robin Williams got to be guilty about? Okay "Patch Adams" perhaps. But little else.

The final irony as conservatives make one last heave to brand the entire fall of the American Empire (Eisenhower era) on "Hollywood" is that to the extent that there is a "Hollywood" somewhere - it sure isn't in Hollywood anymore.

While Democrats from Gary Hart and Bill Clinton to Al Gore used to pay homage to the Lew Wassermans, Mike Medavoys and David Geffens as the font of entertainment industry largess and lucre - the shift in the past few years has now placed the power firmly in New York.

A new generation of king-makers has arisen - and they dwell in the new Orient. The East.

The big Al Gore fund-raiser at Radio City in September was organized by the powerful Harvey Weinstein - co-chairman of Miramax Films - aided by two equally influential pals - Jann Wenner (publisher of Rolling Stone) and John Sykes (President of VH1)

These new players are a generation younger than the youngest of the old guard Democrats in entertainment such as David Geffen - and they operate in a more direct manner. While Geffen has amassed immense personal wealth - his reclusive nature these days makes him a far-less accessible figure to young talent.

But the ubiquitous Weinstein with his won't-take-no-for-an-answer style has become a magnet for the hottest screen stars. For actors ranging from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Jude Law to Sharon Stone, Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow - Weinstein is undoubtedly The Man. Securing Tom Cruise's first-ever presidential endorsement (for Gore of course) while simultaneously being one of Hillary Clinton's most prominent supporters has only enhanced his image.

John Sykes revived a moribund VH1 in part with a series of annual benefit shows under the umbrella of the VH1 Honors. Initially saluting a variety of causes, he smartly settled on music education as an issue dear to the Clintons' heart - and astutely involved them in the programs. His predecessors at MTV and VH1 had hitherto embraced non-partisan causes such as Amnesty International - but had never outed themselves politically as Sykes has. His still-youthful enthusiasm for music reflects a sixties sensibility which many musicians find endearing.

Though neither Weinstein nor Sykes hit their current successful stride until the early 90's, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner has 30 years of accomplishment to his name. As the chronicler of the baby-boom generation, Wenner has the credentials which embrace music, movies and the entire counter-culture. The fact that the "counter" has become the mainstream is not perceived as a selling out; rather a sign that the national zeitgeist has moved to the shores his magazine staked out in the late 60's.

When Michael Douglas introduced these three organizers to the audience at the Radio City fundraiser - he cheekily dubbed them The Three Divas. A nod to Sykes' recent VH1 "Divas" shows - and a bigger nod to the reputations each of the three enjoy as men who drive hard and demand much of those around them.

When conservatives next rail about the "H" word of Hollywood - a word which they have been trying to demonize as being inter-changeable with the dreaded "L" word - they might be wise to consider where the real power and real enemy lies. In New York. And that is an "N" word with which they might be wise to not tangle.

As Humphrey Bogart memorably said to the Gestapo major in "Casablanca": "there are certain sections of New York that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade." 'Hollywood' NY may be just such an area....


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