Cinema and Media Studies Hollywood and Politics
Kathryn Cramer Brownell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0195


Scholars in history and cinema and media studies have explored various aspects of the relationship between Hollywood and politics. Over the course of the 20th century, Hollywood movies and entertainers within the industry have impacted national politics, influenced cultural constructions of American identity, and affected social change as well. The industry has shaped and been shaped by local, state, national, and international political pressures, decisions, and negotiations. This article focuses on how political priorities within Hollywood have changed over time and how the broader political environment has impacted film production, industry structures, and opportunities for celebrity political activism. While definitions of “politics” can vary, this article focuses on individual involvement with the political process, the construction of political ideology and the creation of national identity through film, propaganda efforts, the shifting political priorities of the industry, and the impact of local, state, and national politics on motion picture productions and business structures. By approaching the topic chronologically through the different “eras” of Hollywood filmmaking, the essay shows how the motion picture industry’s political concerns contributed to and were a product of changing cultural, social, and economic circumstances. At times, the overt politicization of Hollywood has caused intense controversy. The House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into the Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry during the 1940s and 1950s brought international attention to concerns about the political potential of motion picture propaganda and celebrity political activism. During the 1960s, movie stars became more active in grassroots movements and national politics. The following decade, as Hollywood movies were freed from the regulations of the Hays Code and the strict confines of studio system production regulations, films began to critique American foreign policy and advocate for liberal social and cultural change. By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency encouraged more scholars to study the deeper connections between the entertainment industry and politics, which had seemingly reached an apex with the actor-turned-politician taking the presidential oath of office on 20 January 1981. During Reagan’s administration, scholars further assessed how American film had transformed American culture and politics. Amidst Ronald Reagan’s use of stories and Hollywood imagery to advance domestic and international policies, historians also pursued archival research about the politics of such imagery and the meaning of silver-screen images and constructions of American identity through film. As the vast range of scholarship exposes, since the beginning of the motion picture industry, movies have played an extremely important, if frequently controversial, role in American political culture. Connections between Hollywood and the political arena have permeated the industry in a variety of ways since the early 20th century.

General Overviews

Several works have offered broad assessments of 20th-century film history and the impact of Hollywood on American social, political, economic, and cultural structures. The industry began as a tool for labor leaders to preach unionism and a cultural product popular among workers and immigrants in urban centers. The popularization of the industry among a middle- and eventually upper-class public brought dramatic changes in conceptions of Americanism as the screen emerged as a powerful tool for national unity. General overview studies focus on how the politics of the screen impacted American cultural values by pitting the values of a white, Protestant, Victorian culture against those of a more democratic working-class culture derived from newly arrived immigrants. During the 1930s, as the industry grew, sociologists sought to understand the structure and social impact of Hollywood on American culture (Thorp 1939). By World War II, entertainment on the silver screen had become a weapon of war, and the concern over the use of movies in spreading political ideology permeated postwar political debates, ultimately culminating in the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into the Communist subversion of the motion picture industry. Amidst popular concern about the propaganda power of Hollywood films, Powdermaker 1950 presented a critical analysis of the studio system and its economic structures and cultural influence just as the vertical studio system itself had begun to splinter under legal decree. By the 1970s, Sklar 1975 and Jowett 1976 produced historical scholarship that offered an analysis of the industry’s political and cultural development. While previous works such as Thorp 1939 and Powdermaker 1950 presented a sociological examination of the motion picture community, Sklar 1975 and Jowett 1976 offer scholarly analyses about the cultural impact of Hollywood Jewish entrepreneurs as they challenged the dominant Protestant political and social hierarchies. Subsequent scholars have shifted their focus to how the consumer-based, democratic culture promoted by Hollywood as an industry impacted and reflected broader changes into the political culture of the United States over the course of the 20th century. Ross 2002 examines the ways that political pressures impact the production of motion pictures through a combination of scholarly articles and primary source documents. Critchlow and Raymond 2009 also provides a range of primary sources for scholars to see the variety of ways that film and celebrities have impacted national politics. Ross 2011 divides celebrity activism into six categories: visual politics, electoral politics, issue-oriented politics, movement politics, image politics, and celebrity politics (Ross 2011). Scholarship on celebrity political activism shows not just the political experiences or impact of one individual but also the broader power of celebrity-driven publicity to shape strategies of political communication in the increasingly mass-media-oriented world (Giglio 2007, Peretti 2012, and Brownell 2014, cited under Studio System Era).

  • Critchlow, Donald, and Emilie Raymond, ed. Hollywood and Politics: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2009.

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    This sourcebook presents a compilation of primary sources that examines intersections of Hollywood and politics in the electoral realm, public policy, propaganda efforts, social movements, and the construction of cultural values. The book presents private correspondences, public statements, congressional interviews, oral history, and legislative excerpts to provide a well-rounded portrayal of Hollywood’s multifaceted involvement with state and national politics.

  • Giglio, Ernest. Here’s Looking at You: Hollywood, Film and Politics. 2d ed. Peter Lang, 2007.

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    Examines both the historical relationship between film and politics on the silver screen and in the political arena, ultimately advancing an analysis of how the lines between entertainment and politics (and more broadly fantasy and reality) have become muddled over the course of the 20th century.

  • Jowett, Garth. Film: The Democratic Art. New York: Little, Brown, 1976.

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    Examines how the motion picture industry dramatically transformed American society from a fragmented rural nation to an urbanized society with shared cultural values. Rather than focusing on movie productions, Jowett examines the makeup of audiences, censorship pressures, and business structure of the Hollywood that ultimately raised consumption expectations and standards among American citizens.

  • Peretti, Burt. The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

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    Explores the political use of Hollywood imagery to promote presidents and their policies. By focusing on the image of the “leading man,” Peretti juxtaposes the cinematic portrayal of the Hollywood star with political attempts to do the same with American presidents.

  • Powdermaker, Hortense. Hollywood: The Dream Factory. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.

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    Written by an anthropologist, this book offers a critical study of what Powdermaker calls the oppressive economic structures and pressures of the studio system. Powdermaker examines the “social structure” in which movies are made, highlighting how the production process, with its business priorities, shapes the values put forth on the silver screen.

  • Ross, Steven. Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shape American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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    Examines the political activism of Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Edward G. Robinson, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, Warren Beatty, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to show strategies employed by celebrity activists to push for political change on the left and the right over the course of the 20th century.

  • Ross, Steven, ed. Movies and American Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

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    Provides primary sources and secondary analyses on the longer political and cultural history of Hollywood, from the rise of the Hays Code in the 1920s to the global impact of Hollywood film in contemporary America. Essays in this collection provide the context for the primary documents and examine changing political pressures that film regularly faced in the 20th century.

  • Sklar, Robert. Movie Made America: A Social History of American Movies. New York: Random House, 1975.

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    This groundbreaking book offers a scholarly analysis of how Hollywood movies shattered the cultural control held in American society by Victorian elites and ushered in the values of mass consumption, ultimately making the country itself “movie made.”

  • Thorp, Margaret Ferrand. America at the Movies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1939.

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    This sociological study seeks to understand why eighty-five million Americans flocked to the movies each week, and how the silver screen’s fashions and values impacted American consumption and attitudes. The book also examines the political concerns surrounding censorship and concludes with an examination of the idea of “propaganda” and the debate surrounding the use of movies to disseminate political ideas.

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