Bright Lights Film Journal

Goodbye Warren, Hello Tim: How Clinton Demobilized Liberalism and Anti-Capitalism Came into Hollywood

Hollywood shows some unsuspected radical tendencies – after eight years of Clintonian “liberalism”

“Hollywood is at its best when it is relating to a progressive left political force that’s already out there. . . It prefers to jump on a train that’s in motion.”1

Two moving trains, liberalism and anti-capitalism, have greatly influenced Hollywood film in the 1990s. Whilst one of them was coming to a rest in a shady siding, the other has only just started to roll.

Bill Clinton disrupted and confused Hollywood liberals, destroying their activist base and precipitating a change in filmic output, from traditional liberal films (typified by Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (TCF, 1998) to a “new liberal” aesthetic. Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (Columbia TriStar, 2000) gives evidence of the result of this change. Steven Zallian’s A Civil Action(Paramount/Touchstone, 1998), Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (Time Warner AOL, 1999), Ben Younger’s Boiler Room (New Line, 2000), and Mary Hanson’s American Psycho (Lions Gate, 2000) all demonstrate how the “new liberal” aesthetic is not the prerequisite of one director.

Clinton, on the other hand, did not confuse the anti-globalisation movement. Its Hollywood supporters (Tim Robbins our main example) have remained active in a diverse range of political/social campaigns. They have sought to disassociate themselves from Clinton and mainstream politics. Their focus is on radical collectivism, distinguishing them from old and new liberals, whose main driver is individualism. Such radical themes are obvious in Cradle Will Rock (Touchstone, 1999) – a Tim Robbins film.

A significant feature of both new liberal and radical films is their criticism of corporate power. This can also be found in another set of Hollywood films from the late 1990s. These more ambiguous films differ from traditional liberalism in their treatment of individual heroes and the film form. Yet they do not offer collective visions and cannot be called radical by the definition proposed by anti-capitalists. It is important to recognise these ambiguous films as a separate body, David Fincher’s Fight Club (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1999) being the primary example.

This article is not concerned with the blockbuster movie. These are not typical of filmmakers adopting liberal or radical positions – they are invariably market-led initiatives, designed to complement synergetic studio economics. However, new liberal and radical films are not produced in an economic vacuum. Corporate Hollywood, or global Hollywood to be precise, has bought out those production companies that were once a home to socially engaged filmmakers. “Independent” filmmaking has been absorbed during the same period of the 1990s as new liberal and radical film has emerged.

Is it a coincidence that films with an anti-corporate message emerge in a period when capitalism celebrates its global dimension but hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to challenge it? The anti-capitalist train is still moving after “9/11” and the subsequent “war on terror.” A million people on the streets of Rome, 300,000 in Spain, and a major international conference at Porto Allegre demonstrate that fact. So, have the anti-capitalists made themselves permanently at home in carriage A? Has Hollywood liberalism been replaced by a more radical movement?

When the Liberals ran the show – Reaganism and Latin America

In the 1980s, activists and left filmmakers identified a common enemy in Ronald Reagan. They attacked his foreign policy in Central and Latin America for being destructive and divisive. Activists from Hollywood attended protests organised by Committee for Concern, joined Young Artists United, participated in the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee’s (HWPC) grass roots campaigning, visited teach-ins by The Show Coalition, signed up for the Creative Coalition, attended educational sessions by the Hollywood Policy Centre or got involved with the “Network.” In 1984, these organisations mobilised 2,000 creative personnel to protest U.S. activity in Central America and hundreds to meet with the leader of the Sandinista organisation, Daniel Ortega.2

The HWPC and Hollywood Policy Centre acted together as a “one-stop centre for what [was] going on.”3 The HWPC, set up by Jane Fonda and producer Paula Wienstein, provided “a cause, a more progressive place to be”4 – through seminars, political bulletins, protest information and fund raising for campaigns. These groups show the capacity for organisation among Hollywood’s creative talent and counter the idea that “radical voices – of the sort occasionally heard in the later 1960s and early 1970s – [became] increasingly marginalized.”5 Political organisation has been reasonably consistent, although the model for it changed in the 1990s as liberal groups were replaced by more radical alliances.

The activists central to anti-Reagan organisations included: Michael Douglas (Committee for Concern); Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden ( the “Network”); Ron Silver, Alec Baldwin, and Christopher Reeve (Creative Coalition); TV stars Bob Foxworth, currently playing bit parts in HBO’s Six Feet Under, and the late Elizabeth Montgomery (organised the Ortega event). The willingness of Hollywood’s creative community to be foot soldiers for liberalism also contributed to film output.

Contesting the filmic terrain under Reagan

Oliver Stone’s Salvador (Hemdale/Gerald Green, 1986) shows how the filmic world was equally “a contested terrain.”6 It was based on the experiences of an American journalist in El Salvador and received two Oscar nominations. Stone was able to secure financial backing for the film because political organisations had gained clout with some producers. Mario Velsaquez, a spokesperson for the Salvadoran FMLN guerrillas: “I could get a meeting with any producer in Hollywood. And they would write out checks … ”7

However, studio executives quickly got cold feet. Despite frantic cutting by Stone, distributors Orion withdrew support for Salvador before release. The film eventually found limited distribution with Hemdale. It can be argued that Salvador’s poor show at the box office and swift transfer to video were a result of Orion’s action. Producers prepared to make donations were not necessarily prepared to have their name on a film that “condemns the United States for its support of the country’s savage and corrupt government.”8

The extent to which political activism translated into films criticising U.S. policy was limited but significant. John Duigan’s Romero (1989) and Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983) also set in Central/Latin America, were given more backing in their distribution (respectively, Warner and Lions Gate9). Yet according to contemporary reviews, the former “pussyfoot[s] around its subject”;10 the latter is “no help to anybody in finding the true facts.”11

Richard Masur (president of the Screen Actors Guild) reflects that “One of the great myths is that this town is a powerhouse of left-leaning Hollywood types … the weight of Hollywood decision makers … are more often right of centre … what Hollywood politics means today, money.”12

Money is an essential part of the sociopolitical context in which a film is produced. This became especially evident in the 1990s. First, the economic structure of Hollywood changed, giving more control over film production to massive corporations. Second, Bill Clinton’s fundraising in Hollywood was the catalyst for the demise of Hollywood liberalism.

Come on over to my place – Clinton and the White House sleepover

Clinton courted Hollywood’s favour more than any American president since the 1930s. He talked of himself as the “televisual president”13 and even briefly appeared in the film Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (Time Warner, 1997). His public relationship with Hollywood inspired Thomas Doherty to write: “President Clinton is seamlessly edited into the action … contemplate the all-but-inevitable credit line of a future production: starring, as himself, the President of the United States.”14

But Clinton learned a lot from FDR back in the ’30s. The people FDR really wanted to like him were the studio executives. They gave him money and iconographical status. Clinton’s main relationship with Hollywood was financial. The Democratic Party could raise $8 million dollars per “cycle”15 (electoral or policy-oriented campaign) in the 1990s. Groups like HWPC were priced out of this relationship, having raised a total of $6 million16 in 13 years. Clinton’s donors were studio bosses, including David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller, and executives from Time Warner, Seagram (owners of Universal Studios) and News Corporation (owners of Fox).17 The list contains few creative personnel. The only director included was Steven Speilberg,18 also an executive at Dreamworks SKG.

Donors were known as FOBs or Friends of Bill.19 They had no track record of opposing Ronald Reagan and used their donations to influence Clinton’s policy. Apart from seeking approval for changes in copyright laws, the FOBs did not stipulate political criteria: “Their interest isn’t ideological. They just want to be invited to Camp David. They want to sleep in the White House.”20

The 1980s activists were never invited to the White House but still sought to win Clinton’s personal support. In 1996 the HWPC helped the Democratic National Committee (DNC) organise a Hollywood gala. Through its popular support, the HWPC persuaded celebrities to turn out and to perform at the gala. The HWPC opposed a welfare repeal bill being considered at the time. They hoped that organising the gala might help them sway Clinton’s opinion. They appealed to Clinton as he was portrayed on screen, a special, honourable individual – exposing a key trait of liberalism.

Once the HWPC had set up the event, the DNC increased ticket prices to a minimum $2,500, charging $25,000 for access to a separate function after the gala with Clinton himself. The Democratic party made $4 million in one night. Clinton went on to sign the welfare bill, causing terminal crises in the HWPC. Liberalism had failed.

The wobbling of Warren – the steady hand of Steven

Warren Beatty has said, “I’ll always be a Democrat”21 and was touted as a presidential candidate when Clinton’s term ended. He is one of those few creative people known as a FOB. Bulworth is an expression of the crises Clinton caused in Hollywood liberalism: “The confusions [in the film] are the unavoidable conditions not only of a man and his cinema but of a whole way of conceiving politics and change at the end of the twentieth century.”22

These “conditions” are the corporate nature of Hollywood in the 1990s. By the time Bulworth was released, transnational capitalism controlled production. Clinton accepted the new shape of Hollywood and profited from it. Beatty intended Bulworth to convey “an underlying theme that is anti-corporate.”23 The film fails to solve the conflict between liberalism’s faith in special individuals and a social reality dominated by powerful corporations.

For film theorist Dana Polan, liberalism has specific characteristics:

  1. belief in the leadership of special individuals, uniquely honourable and charismatic
  2. individuals have coalitions of “buddies,” based on loyalty and trust rather than political position
  3. nostalgia for an invented era when these individuals and their buddies could get their way
  4. inability to grapple with the modern, neo-liberalist world and sees its heroes and their buddies as fatalistic characters

Bulworth, played by Beatty, is a charming politician who flakes out during an election. Advisors and pals, something like the gang Beatty created for Dick Tracy (1990), surround Bulworth but do not talk about policy. They talk about honesty and staying on track. Beatty’s character struggles to grapple with the world, appearing to have something straddling an epiphany and a mental breakdown. He goes underground, to the street, but fails to identify with the impoverished, criminal world there. Ultimately he conducts a bizarre rap number on a TV interview. This character is lost in new conditions.

Bulworth’s crises and the crises of HWPC stem from the same logic. Both appeal to the individual politician as a charismatic vehicle for change. Both find the charismatic politician fatally flawed. In this, liberals like Beatty misread their own history. In the 1980s, they did indeed focus on an individual, Ronald Reagan, but the effective mode of challenge was collective action.

Bulworth was released in 1998 and signalled the end of liberal activism – the HWPC, Hollywood Policy Centre, Show Coalition, Young Artists United and “Network” folded before its release. However, Beatty had provided liberal Hollywood with a lifejacket – opposition to corporate power. Erin Brockovich takes a corporation as its focus, keying right into discontent with Clinton and globalisation. At the same time it continues to prize the individual; its Oscar winning heroine is twice as charismatic as Bulworth. Soderbergh’s Traffic (USA Films, 2000), Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (Paramount, 1998), A Civil Action, Any Given Sunday, Boiler Room, American Psycho, and David Fincher’s The Game (Polygram, 1997) all featured individual heroes and their buddies standing against corporations. What distinguishes the makers of these films from the HWPC liberals is that none of them were part of anti-Reagan groupings or have taken part in political activities. What separates them from Beatty is that none were FOBs.

Anti-corporatism is also the link between liberal and radical films (Cradle Will Rock portrays steel barons supporting fascism), as well as more ambiguous ones (Fight Club shows corporate images defaced by an anarchistic gang).

The new activists and the “Authentic Left”

In 1999, Bill Carrick, Democratic campaign consultant in Los Angeles, argued: ” … the Clinton presidency has had a great moderating effect. Hollywood hadn’t had a close relationship with the White House … .The ideological heat of the eighties evaporated overnight.”24

What he could not predict was the involvement of some of Hollywood’s major figures in a political event that dwarfed anti-Reagan activities:

“November 30th, 1999, marked a turning point in history. Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets of Seattle to stop the World Trade Organisation … Seattle marked the greatest failure of elite trade diplomacy since the end of World War Two. Even in 1982, when the Reagan administration tried to force through a new round of negotiations for trade liberalization, there was at least a declaration and future work agenda at the end of the conference. Not in Seattle. The Clinton team [said] the talks ended in total collapse.”25

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins helped organise New York contingents to join the demonstration. Danny Glover spoke at public meetings. And Sean Penn swung his weight behind this action: “There’s an enormous amount of room for an activism … it’s starting to come … Nothing like Seattle happened in 20 years. It is a very hopeful thing.”26

Seattle was a mass physical expression of the anti-corporatism in the films discussed in the previous section. But Seattle was a collective event, helping to explain why Cradle Will Rock poses its anti-corporate message in a collective setting: “Togetherness was the theme … organised labour with everyone else … Earth Firsters with Sierra Clubbers, and a chain of bare-breasted BGH-free Lesbian Avengers weaving through a crowd of machinists.”27

Penn hints at the broad nature of this activism in his quote, too. Sarandon and Robbins also protested at the death of Amadou Diallo in police custody in New York, against the Gulf War, and campaigned for radical candidate Ralph Nader at the last presidential election. Sarandon is the public head of MADRE (international women’s organisation) and narrates videos of major protests for free. Robbins sits on the board of The Nation Institute. They were jointly given the Upton Sinclair Award by Liberty Hill Foundation for their activism. Liberty Hill Foundation has a list of some 100 Hollywood sponsors who help it fight for “economic justice … [and] class-based politics.”28

Glover spoke at Princeton University in November 2001, saying America “was to blame for bombing and terror around the world.”29 He has won awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the TransAfrica Forum, and a lifetime achievement award from Amnesty International for civil rights activity.30 He is a United Nations Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador.

At the same time Mike Farrell, TV actor, runs a civil rights/anti-death penalty organisation, supported by Robbins, Sarandon and Glover. Alec and William Baldwin keep the Creative Coalition alive, bringing politically minded Hollywood people together on specific issues: “[We’re in] very good shape … In Massachusetts we helped leverage the Clean Elections law.”31

Others examples include: Martin Sheen – protesting against immigration laws; Ed Begley Jr. – environmental campaigner; producer Haskell Wexler – organising the Bus Riders Union; Sean Penn – encouraging black people to vote for radical candidates;32 Ed Asner, who has been a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy.

The issues listed above are more wide reaching than those of the 1980s and, at least in the case of anti-globalisation, they are more ideological. In the words of Naomi Klein, “capitalism has re-emerged as a legitimate subject of public debate.”33 All these issues are, therefore, part of a new more radical Hollywood activism, focused not on an individual politician but on a world system and its atrocities. This is an “authentic Hollywood left that functions beyond the parameters of narrow electoral politics.”34

Unlike filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, who seem to have walked away from Clinton, this “authentic left” is fundamentally opposed to him. “I don’t consider Clinton a progressive” (Alec Baldwin); “I’ve never been a Clinton supporter” (Robbins); “I don’t think I’ve ever really supported Clinton’s presidency … voting is a means to an end … [in] this quote, unquote, representative democracy [it’s] become an end in itself … Change comes from without” (Glover).35

Furthermore, these activists want to make politically engaged films. Tim Robbins sums up the thrust and commitment of their artistic endeavours, when talking about Cradle Will Rock: “I wouldn’t have done it if there hadn’t been a window into the present … .the conflict between art and politics.”36

Robbins makes this obvious in the final scene of the film, where a shot of actors in 1940s period costume expands until the 1990s Time Square – full of sparkling adverts for transnational corporations – takes over the frame.

Unlike Beatty before him or Soderbergh in Erin Brockovich, Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock presents collective visions of struggle. He is the primary example of where the new Hollywood left are at – on a moving train and utterly happy with its direction. Rumour has it that Robbins and Sarandon are now planning an “offbeat” movie about the attack on the World Trade Centre, focusing on the daily struggle of working people to work together. The tendency to radicalism and collectivism is undeterred by recent world events. Where is this train headed? Danny Glover, speaking this year has one idea: “I’d like to be in an organization that could set forth some sort of left agenda; that’s what I want to be involved in.”

  1. Marge Tabankin, quoted in Marc Cooper. “Postcards from the Left – Under the Cloud of Clintonism,” The Nation, April 5th (1999), 4. []
  2. Ibid., 2-3. []
  3. Richard Masur, quoted in Cooper, 4. []
  4. Lara Bergthold, quoted in Cooper, 3. []
  5. Douglas Kellner, “Hollywood Film and Society” in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. (Oxford University Press, 1998), 360. []
  6. Ibid. []
  7. Mario Velsaquez, quoted in Cooper, 3. []
  8. Stephen Prince, A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989(University of California Press, 2002), 260. []
  9. Ralph E. Rodriguez, “Men with Guns: The Story John Sayles Can’t Tell,” in Jon Lewis ed, The End Of Cinema As We Know It (New York University Press, 2001), 168-174. []
  10. John Walker, ed, Halliwell’s Film and Video Guide 2002 (Harper Collins Entertainment, 2002), 704. []
  11. Ibid, 874. []
  12. Richard Masur, quoted in Cooper, 1. []
  13. Thomas Doherty, “Movie Star Presidents,” in Jon Lewis ed., The End of Cinema As We Know It (New York University Press, 2001), 156. []
  14. Ibid, 157. []
  15. Cooper, 2. []
  16. Ibid, 3. []
  17. Ibid, 2. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. Frank P Tomasulo, “Empire of the Gun,” in Lewis, The End of Cinema, 115. []
  20. Stanley K Sheinbaum quoted in Cooper, 2. []
  21. Warren Beatty, quoted in Peter Biskind, “On Movies, Money & Politics – Beatty, Baldwin, Glover, Robbins, Stone and Lear,” The Nation, April 5, 1999, 11. []
  22. Dana Polan, “The Confusions of Warren Beatty” in Lewis, The End of Cinema, 148. []
  23. Warren Beatty, quoted in Biskind, 11. []
  24. Bill Carrick quoted in Cooper, 2. []
  25. Kevin Danaher ed, Globalize This! The Battle Against the World Trade Organization and Corporate Rule (Monroe, 2000), 7-8. []
  26. Sean Penn in Andrew Pulver “The Revolution Stars Here,” The Guardian, Tuesday, August 28, 2001. []
  27. Doug Henwood, in John Charlton ed “Talking Seattle,” International Socialism Journal 86, (2000, International Socialism), 8. []
  28. Cooper, 4. []
  29. Dave Sommers, Lethal Lesson, trentonian.com, November 16, 2001. []
  30. Ibid. []
  31. Alec Baldwin, quoted in Biskind, 5-6. []
  32. James Kaplan, “Give it up for Sean Penn ,” The Guardian, May 6th (2001). []
  33. Naomi Klein, “Victory! The World Bank And The IMF Were Shaken To Their Very Core ,” The Globe and Mail, 19th April, 2000. []
  34. Cooper, 5. []
  35. All quoted in Biskind, 1-2. []
  36. Tim Robbins, quoted in Biskind, 10. []