Cathy's World: Hollywood Politics

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  May 22, 2002 at 12:44 PM
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LOS ANGELES, May 22 (UPI) -- Post-Sept. 11 America sometimes resembles the proverbial liberal who's been mugged. Even in Hollywood, long a bastion of true believers, the mood is far friendlier to those who don't toe the liberal party line than it used to be.

This trend actually first began here in the 1990s, after the riots and the O.J. Simpson case made many people less sympathetic to the usual excuse-the-victim platitudes concerning crime.

Still, there are times when Hollywood seems like one of those mythical land-that-time-forgot islands, where the outside world remains far away and dinosaurs still roam.

The other night I watched the pilot presentation for "Do Over," an upcoming WB teen comedy about a 34-year-old guy who somehow ends up reinhabiting his 14-year-old body 20 years ago, thus getting the opportunity to do high school over and this time get it right.

The big closing joke at the end comes when the guy's best friend asks hopefully if he grows up to "help the downtrodden."

"You're a Republican," says our hero, giving it to him straight. At which point the friend buries his head in his hands in despair.

I was a little surprised that such a stale, phoning-it-in joke could even hope to seem fresh and funny in 2002. Are people here really this insular?

Well, yes. A few weeks ago I found myself at a celebrity-studded party for Gore Vidal at Arianna Huffington's house. Huffington used to be considered a right-wing pundit. Then, I suppose, she remembered that she lives in Brentwood (a posh enclave on the west side of Los Angeles) and realized which side of the political spectrum would be more likely to make her parties celebrity-studded.

Those milling about included the same crowd you might find at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser: Carrie Fisher, Albert Brooks, Oliver Stone, Larry David.

Oliver Stone had his famous charm on display like a peacock's tail. "Are you four lesbians from HBO?" he asked me and a group of three other women I was standing with.

Why HBO? Who knows? Stone, whose face was the color of beet juice, said that he'd "been dancing with Dionysus all week."

He continued the lesbian theme later, while we were both standing outside waiting for the parking valets. "I think George Bush is a lesbian!" he said happily. "A lesbian in a dress! And high heels!"

Why is it that when a man doesn't like another man the worst thing he can think of to say is that the man is really a woman? I find this particular display of misogyny trite and tiresome.

"That's your fantasy," I said.

"Are you calling me a...FANTASIST?" he responded, rather belligerently. Well, yes. Especially after he went on to say that he'd just returned "from Palestine," where he'd been interviewing Arafat. I wondered if that was a package tour that included layovers in Utopia and Xanadu.

I didn't get to talk to Larry David at this party, but I'd met the "Seinfeld" co-creator shortly before the Presidential election, when I'd interviewed him about his brilliant new HBO show, "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

David had warned me at the time that he almost always calls back reporters immediately after the interview to retract (or add to) certain comments that he'd later rethought.

We chatted for a few minutes in the parking lot after the interview was over and I mentioned that I was voting for Bush. David's jaw quite literally dropped open. The cartoon version would have shown it falling on the floor.

When I got home there a message from him in my voice mail, just as predicted. But it turned out he didn't want to rethink his quotes. He just couldn't believe I was voting Republican and wanted me to read a Gail Sheehy article about Bush in that month's Vanity Fair. (I did, and it didn't change my mind. Because for one thing, it was by Gail Sheehy.)

Anyway, this being Hollywood, politics are sometimes hard to disentangle from image. A few years ago I talked about conservatives in Hollywood with John Milius, the jingoistic director-screenwriter whose 1984 the-Russians-are-coming film "Red Dawn" became notorious, in the wake of the Oklahoma City massacre, as right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh's favorite movie.

Milius, a dedicated cigar-smoker despite the asthma that dashed his hopes of serving in Vietnam, is known for his contrarian opinions, tactlessly expressed. They're as much a part of his style as the cigars.

Milius doesn't disapprove of militias, for instance, because "its good for these guys to get out and exercise instead of sitting around drinking beer."

He paused to take another call. "That was a great, true, honorable friend of mine, Paul Newman," Milius noted, when he got back on my line. "He's getting me a Volvo."

But isn't that the kind of wussy car...LIBERALS drive?

"It's a good car!" he shouted.

I was just yanking his chain, of course. I love my old Volvo, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year.

That Milius's politics haven't harmed his social life says something about the position politics really have here: business is always more important. Besides Newman, his friends to the left include Oliver Stone. "A patriot," Milius called Stone. Oh, sure.

As it happens, in spite of retro cliches like the closing joke in "Do Over," Hollywood HAS moved away from orthodox liberalism and you can see this in the product.

Ben Stein, the Comedy Central game show host and former Nixon speechwriter, has long been an open conservative. He dated Hollywood's move away from orthodox liberal ideology to "The Simpsons," which has been on the air for more than 10 years.

"'The Simpsons' was the first show that said if you're a loser it's your own fault," Stein said. "Also, the main character in South Park' says 'goddamned Democrats' at least once per episode."

So is Hollywood, long a liberal town, becoming more of a conservative town? Actually, this kind of begs the question.

More than anything else, Hollywood remains a deeply hypocritical town -- a place where, as conservative screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd has long maintained, "the liberalism stops at the studio gates."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way management treats workers.

When an assistant cameraman named Brent Herschman fell asleep at the wheel and was killed a few years ago after working a 19-hour day on the film "Pleasantville," the cast and crew organized "Brent's Rule," a drive to cap Hollywood workdays at 12 hours.

One assistant director's wife involved in this campaign thought that Castle Rock partner Rob Reiner, a well-known liberal who had recently begun his "I Am Your Child" project pushing early childhood education, might be a likely supporter.

"I wrote him saying that all the parenting classes in the world don't do any good if a parent isn't there," she said. "I told him, your company should be the second signatory to this (New Line was the first). No response."

At bottom, Hollywood's famous liberalism is less a carefully considered political point of view than a vague policy of cultural feel-goodism. A disapproving phrase heard a lot around town -- if you criticize bilingual education, for instance, or affirmative action -- is "mean-spirited."

As veteran screenwriter William Goldman pointed out years ago in "Adventures in the Screen Trade," few prospects horrify a star more than the possibility of being seen as "an unsympathetic son of a bitch."

Hollywood conservatives often complain that their politics cost them work. This might be true -- but if so, it's a rule with an awful lot of exceptions. On the other hand, actress Sharon Lawrence, who stars in the upcoming TNT film "Atomic Twister" and is a lifelong Democrat, learned how unpleasant it can be when Hollywood even THINKS you're Republican.

Lawrence happened to be in Washington for President Bush's Inauguration and People magazine ran a party picture of her on the same page of Bush and other prominent Republicans.

Gossip columnist Liz Smith reported at the time that "in a business meeting, Lawrence was chilled with a producer said, with heavy emphasis, 'I have to ask, are you really a Republican?'"

Smith didn't say exactly how Lawrence answered that question. Too bad she didn't come up with something snappy.

Too bad the writers of "Do Over" didn't either.

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