September 1, 2012
|Dirty Harry captured the conservative mood of the early 1970s|
Clint Eastwood got one thing right during his senior moment at the Republican convention: Hollywood isn’t all liberal. The first time Clint gained serious press attention in national politics was 1972, when he was invited by President Richard Nixon to attend his nominating convention in Miami. Nixon was a movie buff who understood the power of Hollywood. In 72, he wanted to use specific celebrity endorsements to shape the way that the public understood him. He wanted Democrats like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr to show that he was a centrist and he wanted Old Hollywood to evoke nostalgia for a happier, more traditional age. When Nixon held a meet-and-greet for actors at his West coast mansion, one guest called it “a cocktail party at the Hollywood wax museum.”
Commentators at the time were sniffy about Nixon’s Hollywood strategy precisely because its choice of symbols seemed so passé. The 1970s are remembered for experimental liberal film making – Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, All The President’s Men etc. The hot talent of the time was Left-leaning, even hippie – Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Warren Beatty. But Nixon understood that movie politics is just as diverse as its many genres. Individual movies can be interpreted in multiple ways. The Godfather was meant as an attack on hyper-masculinity and even a parody of Nixon, but it became part of a revival of white ethnic nostalgia. It could be argued that the Corleone family’s patriarchy offers a seductive alternative to bureaucratic welfarism.
Moreover, different people watch different sorts of movies. The early 1970s might be best remembered by historians for the radical current in Hollywood, but audiences also flocked to see movies that protested 1960s liberalism. Depictions of literal cowboys became more critical (McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Wild Bunch), but the cowboy-as-bringer-of-justice was reborn in contemporary settings. Charles Bronson’s Death Wish normalised and glorified the vigilante. In Bronson’s New York, political correctness and human rights emasculated the cops and shifted the protection of the law from the victim to the villain. It took an architect with a gun to return order to the streets. “This ain’t ovah…”
Like Bronson, Clint Eastwood made an easy transition from the wild west to the ugly city. Dirty Harry was a huge hit in 1971, and while audiences loved its depiction of an angry cop breaking all the rules, critics divided over its meaning. Newsweek called it “a Right-wing fantasy,” Pauline Kael said it was an overt attack on liberalism and the great Roger Ebert accused it of “fascism.” Feminists protested the movie outside the Oscars ceremony. Nixon understood that audiences conflate characters and actors and that Eastwood The Man had become Eastwood The Cowboy in the minds of voters. That’s why Clint got an invite at the 1972 convention – not just because he was a famous, wealthy backer, but because he was visual shorthand for the administration’s law and order policies. He fulfilled a similar function in 2012, when he even repeated his famous “Go ahead, make my day” catchphrase – delivered in 1971 when he was about to finish off some punk kid with a blast from his Smith & Wesson. In 2012, the bravado fell a little flat. Clint is 82 and probably as blind as a bat. He’s more likely to shoot himself than a bank robber.
Conservatives have written a lot about how liberals dominate Hollywood. Superficially, they are right. How else do we explain the column inches devoted to George Clooney campaigning for Obama or Sean Penn for Chavez? But these are actors pursuing activism separate from their artistic product, and we shouldn’t confuse the two. Their public liberalism says nothing about the content of their movies or the way that the audience interprets their on-screen character (Clooney plays charming and Penn plays angry, but this not the stuff of Jungian archetypes). In fact, Hollywood doesn’t try to shape the zeitgeist nearly as much as it struggles to capture it. At certain moments, its product has been remarkably conservative and helpful to the Right: McCarthyite spy flicks in the 1950s, vigilantes in the 1970s, muscle-men Reaganite movies in the 1980s. And many of the great archetypes of US cinema remain conservative. The cowboy – the self-reliant gun owner who knows how to treat women right and bandits wrong – is the unofficial symbol of the Republican Party. Ask Michele Bachmann.
Today, Hollywood could be helping conservatives again. The mood of TV and movies is apocalyptic: zombies, natural disasters, alien invasions and Gotham aflame. They reflect the fear of decline that grips America, turning up the panic to such a degree that the case against Obama has been pushed into the viewers’ subconscious. It’s up to Mitt Romney to capitalise on the zeitgeist and turn it into a vote winner, to become Dirty Harry. The content of Clint Eastwood’s speech to the convention may have been shambolic, but the visual cue of his presence might have helped the GOP enormously.