No industry is more identified with Southern California than entertainment. Yet, in the past, the industry’s appeal has lain in identifying with the always-changing values and mythos of American society. But, today, that connection is being undermined, not just by technology, but also by a seemingly self-conscious decision to sever the industry’s links with roughly half of the population.
This was painfully obvious during the Oscars — the penultimate event of the seemingly endless award season — when speaker after speaker decided to spend their moments of fame denouncing President Donald Trump. For all his personal failings, and often misguided policies, most Republicans and independents disapprove of the relentless Trump bashing in the media.
Hollywood’s decision to make itself part of the anti-Trump resistance would make for wonderful satire, if you could get it on film. Imagine feminist icon Emma Watson fighting for “women’s empowerment” while baring her breasts in Vanity Fair. Or a host of social justice warriors, like Meryl Streep, demanding justice for the dispossessed, then returning to their estates where these victims of Trumpism are not likely to be found outside the servants’ quarters.
The results also have a hard side: dismal ratings, down from a traditional viewership of 40 million to a mere 32 million, following a pattern that has seen it slide badly the last three years. Most Trump voters turned off the political speeches, notes one survey. But the Academy had other ways to show its contempt for its customers: None of the 10 largest grossing movies, notes USA Today’s Mitch Albom, got nominated for best picture, best actor or actress, or for supporting roles.
The everyman era
The preference of sophisticated opinion may be quintessential to Europe’s boutique film industry, but the blending of popular tastes with art has long propelled Hollywood’s historical success. This separation between audience and the Academy was not always the case. Films like “Gone with the Wind” (1939), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), “Ben-Hur” (1959), “The Sound of Music” (1965), “The Godfather” (1972), “Forest Gump” (1994) and “Titanic” (1997) all managed to be both blockbusters and best picture winners.
Hollywood, wrote author Leo Rosten in 1940, was “the very embodiment” of “magic success,” allowing a truck driver to dream of being a hero, or a small-town waitress “to compare herself to a movie queen.” Hollywood was Middle American to the core, which appealed not just to our own audiences, but also to those around the world.
In a political sense, Hollywood connected with Americans across the ideological spectrum. During the contentious 1930s, Hollywood could accommodate both the conservative myth of the loner — Gary Cooper and John Wayne — and also produce powerful dramas that touched on issues of class and inequality, such as “Our Daily Bread” (1934), “How Green Was My Valley” (1941) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940).
Some progressive-leaning films were written by people who were later “blacklisted” during the McCarthy era, a tragedy that deprived the industry of some of its greatest talents. The industry instead favored biblical epochs like “Quo Vadis” (1951) as well as innocuous comedies starring the likes of Doris Day.
“It was boy meets girl, lives happily ever after,” recalled former Los Angeles and Orange County Republican Congressman Bob Dornan, who grew up during this time. “There were clear-cut heroes and villains. Nazis torturing little old ladies, John Wayne landing on the beaches. … America was the bearer, the hope of the world.”
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.