People often ask me whether my political change hurt my Hollywood career- whether I was and am the object of a new reverse Blacklist that discriminates against those who, as I did, publicly supported and continue to support the Iraq War or, worse yet, voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
Bush was my second vote ever for a Republican, the first having been for Arnold Schwarzenegger only months before. In my previous incarnation I had voted for candidates from the Socialist Labor Party and the Peace & Freedom Party, for which I had briefly been an organizer back in the seventies (the party itself was brief), as well as numerous Democratic Party candidates, usually voting in rote party line fashion, pulling the lever obediently for minor candidates for offices like municipal judgeships and school boards whose names I didn’t even recognize, let alone whose policies I had the slightest idea about. But to what extent my political switch or supposed switch (more of that in a later chapter) – a change writ large on my blog and later on Pajamas Media, a change that made me, to my knowledge, the only person to be profiled positively by Mother Jones and The National Review within one fleeting lifetime – hurt my movie career, I simply don’t know.
Maybe I wouldn’t have had much of one anymore anyway. The insider joke about the old Hollywood Ten from the original Blacklist was that none of them were any good at that point and that the glamor of being blacklisted kept them alive and in the public eye. Of course, that was an unfair accusation – not just in regards to Dalton Trumbo, but also to Ring Lardner Jr., who came back from the Blacklist to write The Cincinnati Kid and the first M. A. S. H. Albert Maltz, who wrote the WGA-award winning Broken Arrow under a pseudonym and later Two Mules for Sister Sara under his own name, was no slouch either. Anyway, in my case, it’s likely I lost some work, but I would have to have a clone to be sure what would have happened to me in the last half decade or so had I continued my life as it was. I would like to think that my public stand against Islamofascism cost me a half-dozen Academy Awards or three, but that would be blowing my own horn in the extreme. Hollywood careers are fragile things at best, especially for writers. And mine wasn’t at its height at the beginning of the Millennium anyway. I was then a decade past my Academy Award nomination and I was getting on in years for the business in general. Writers deep in their fifties are not the most sought after commodities in the film industry for a number of reasons, including a notorious inability to tolerate story meetings with twenty-five year old studio executives fresh out of Wharton who haven’t seen any movies pre-dating Spiderman II and think Chinatown is just some downtown neighborhood with over-priced lofts. It’s also true that older writers, as experienced and skilled as they may be, may not be the perfect people to write films for the Industry’s most coveted demographic – the sixteen-year old male – even though that audience is now much more heavily engaged playing computer games, which, I am told, are considerably more interesting than the movies nowadays anyway. That wouldn’t be difficult.
So the Hollywood screenwriter is in a classical trap. By the time he has fully learned his craft, he is ready for the thresher. (When I was in college, my doctor father told me one of his patients – obviously a movie exec – asked my father in a baffled tone, when informed by him that his son wanted to be a screenwriter, “Why not a producer?” I rolled my eyes at the time at what I thought was outright philistinism. Now I realize it was just practical advice.)
But beyond my place in them, the movies were losing their allure for me. The film business – swallowed by conglomerates from Paris to Tokyo – was becoming increasingly corporate and boring, nowhere near the fun I remember it having been. At the same time, cinema itself was no longer central to the culture the way it had been in the sixties, seventies and even most of the eighties, when everybody – including a sunglass-wearing dog in a legendary cartoon, sitting at the desk of the pooch’s CAA agent – said he wanted to direct. It was part of the zeitgeist. Who could forget the buzz when films like Breathless, La Dolce Vita, Apocalypse Now, Bonnie and Clyde or Lawrence of Arabia were coming out? There was nothing like that now – at least not for me. Society had moved on. We live in a time when technology is king, Steve Jobs more important than Francis Ford Coppola or Federico Fellini. Marshall McLuhan has been proven right – the medium really was the message, the iPod more important than the films played on it. Meanwhile, on television, I was finding reality shows like the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” more interesting than anything devised fictionally.
In other words, regarding the movies and me – the feeling was mutual and it was no longer love.
So I have not lost sleep worrying whether I have been blacklisted. Still I am sure this new form of Blacklist exists, but not nearly to the formalized extent of the original list of the forties and fifties with its Red Channels and dramatic hearings in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, featuring ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ witnesses. Times are different and the system functions in a very different manner. Now it operates through an almost invisible thought control caused by a post-Orwellian “liberal” conformity so pervasive a formal Blacklist is not necessary, indeed would work against itself. In some ways, this new, less overt, list is more ominous than its predecessor, because there is nothing concrete to rebel against, no hearings, no committees, no protest groups pro or con, no secret databases that I know of. There doesn’t need to be. There is no there there, in Gertrude’s immortal words – only the grey haze of a mindless received “liberalism”, the world as last month’s New York Times editorials, half-digested and regurgitated, never questioned or even analyzed, going forth forever with little perceived chance of reform, as if it were the permanent religious text of some strange new orthodoxy.
You see this new faith in practice at the average Hollywood story meeting. These are ritualized events and have been for the decades that I have participated in them. You wait an inordinately long time for your appointment, often longer than at a doctor’s office, but with nowhere near the legitimate excuse on the part of the person keeping you waiting. Movie executives are definitely not in surgery. The intention of the delay is merely to confirm your lower place in the pecking order. (I personally know of a case when John Huston and Jack Nicholson were kept cooling their heels in a tiny room by the now-forgotten head of ABC Motion Pictures for nearly two hours – I assume he didn’t realize they had come to pitch him Prizzi’s Honor. Or maybe he did and this was a form of envy/vengeance.). Once inside the executive’s office, that pecking order between talent and management thus confirmed, it is instantly waved off in a burst of small talk and a call for the requisite mineral water – originally Perrier, now something more exotic like an obscure Welsh brand in a blue bottle whose unpronounceable name you can barely remember. But the small talk is what’s important, the prelude to the actual pitch, which can be as short as five minutes. This small talk can take a number of forms but usually revolves around the freeway traffic (a perpetual subject), the Lakers (declining in importance recently) and, over the last half-decade or more, a ritualized Bush bash. Fucking Bush did this or that… did you hear the stupid thing the idiot said, etc., etc.? You don’t even have to hear Bush referred to specifically – just the word idiot suffices. You know. (Who else could it be? Certainly not the Dostoevsky character.) The subtext is that we are all together, part of the secret society, the world of those who know as opposed to those who don’t.
If you don’t agree with this particular weltanschauung, even if you dissent from its orthodoxy just a tiny bit, you have but three choices: One, you can argue, in which case you are almost certain to be dismissed as a fool, a warmonger or a right wing nut (all three, probably) and therefore have little or no chance at the writing or directing job that brought you there. Two, you can shut up and ignore it (stay in the closet), in which case you feel like a coward and experience (as I have) a dose of existential nausea straight out of Sartre or, three, you can stop going to the meetings altogether, in which case you have blacklisted yourself.
I don’t know the size of that self-selected blacklist, but suspect it is substantial though not as large as the number of nausea victims – those in the closet. People have to make a living after all, just like in the days of the original Blacklist. Only there are no “fronts”, as in the Woody Allen movie of the same name. No one has come forward with an offer to pay me to write an anti-war movie under a pseudonym, a remake of The Battle of Algiers, perhaps, set in Sadr City, although, with my radical past, I suspect I could do a better job of writing left-wing movies than Hollywood has lately, judging from the box office receipts of those films.
There are many reasons for the failure of these movies, but chief among them is not what the right-wing blogs say – that they are out of touch with the public. That may be true to some degree (issue movies, taking at the very minimum nine or ten months to make, usually considerably longer, are almost always late to market as far as public opinion is concerned). It is that they are fake – these films are not really believed by their makers in any deep sense. They are a cinema of “as if” and all but the most biased sense this on some level. This is the opposite of a movie like the classic of classics Casablanca, a film that triumphs with its audiences for being heartfelt. Hollywood’s anti-war flicks are essentially posturing. They are cinema made by people who think they are supposed to be anti-war, but don’t really feel anything. No wonder the audience doesn’t respond. (This wasn’t true of a few of the Vietnam War era films that had more genuine passion, just as the demonstrations against the war then were vastly more impassioned and well attended.) Sometimes, as in the case of Brian De Palma’s Redacted, these films seem to have been made to rescue a failing career through having the “correct” political views. This may have been unconscious, or barely conscious, on the part of the filmmaker, but true nevertheless, cynical as that accusation sounds.
For evidence you need go no further than the selection of the subject of De Palma’s movie- a rape/murder of an Iraqi woman by US troops. This choice of theme is intended to convey a message against the Iraq War, but horrid events of this nature have happened in all wars on all sides, including World War II, when GI’s are known to have raped and murdered German women. So De Palma’s point is irrelevant and his work no more than propaganda, unless he wants to say we should never fight a war, which, of course, he doesn’t. (Nazis, in Hollywood’s received wisdom, are still bad.) He wants to say we shouldn’t fight Bush’s war, the Republicans’ war. But in this particular case, the Army punished the servicemen involved severely, also casting doubt on the director’s premise. It is unlikely, however, that De Palma cares. He is after all a member of the club – or fighting to get back into it – and lives in the world of the pervasive haze I have described above. To him, thinking that way is natural, like breathing. It is a kind of “going with the flow.”
Meanwhile, those flailing against this flow have a tough time. Some of this is obviously political. The system has excommunicated them. But some of it is due to this uncomfortable truth: For the most part, Republicans are lousy filmmakers.
[MORE TO COME: including an analysis of the exceptions to the rule about Republican filmmakers from South Park to Gibson – although for some of this you will have to wait for the finished book. And, since this is a work-in-progress, I, of course, reserve the right to, as the saying goes, “amend or extend” my remarks. In fact, I fully intend to.]
Roger L. Simon is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, novelist and blogger.