The ‘Hollywood Test’ for president

By Neal Gabler
October 3, 2012

If you think of the current presidential campaign as a movie, the economy, by all rights, should have pre-empted most of the drama and handed the lead role to the lantern-jawed financier. The movie would have told of a decent man, so unflappable that he never broke a sweat, who tried his best but couldn’t work his will on the world and make things right. Into that void, walked Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who vowed that he had the experience and strength to turn things around.

Here was a simple plot pitting weakness against strength, a well-meaning amateur against a tough-minded business titan – essentially, the professor against the industrialist.

But that’s not the way it seems to be turning out. And the reason why may have as much to do with movies as politics. We love the idea of civic responsibility, of an informed citizenry boning up on the issues. But what we really do when we vote nowadays is cast our preference for the candidate who proposes the better movie – who seems to make the better protagonist in the national drama.

We impose “the Hollywood Test.” And Romney, despite his sturdy good looks and the ready-made script, doesn’t seem to be passing right now.

We all know that politics has become another branch of popular culture and politicians can get the same media treatment as celebrities. But this may be the least of the transformations that popular culture has wreaked on political culture. All of us, conditioned by the inundation of entertainment in our lives, have come to see elections as another entertainment, and we ask our politicians to serve the function that stars serve in their movies – to provide us with the vicarious reassurance that problems are not intractable and everything will work out in the end.

Politics, then, isn’t about policy. It is about personae – about being a star. And that is where politics and entertainment really converge.

Just apply the Hollywood Test to elections, and the results look practically predestined. In movies, we typically love the guy who, unfettered by rules and civility, promises to knock some heads together to get results. (The conflation of persona with politician is what helped get Arnold Schwarzenegger elected governor of California.) We also love the regular guy who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances, like Harry S. Truman. We love the war hero (Dwight D. Eisenhower), the flawless young matinee idol (John F. Kennedy), the plainspoken cowboy (George W. Bush). We don’t like the shifty (Thomas Dewey), the pointy-headed (Adlai Stevenson), the duplicitous (Richard M. Nixon) or the effete (John Kerry).

But if modern elections have become movies, they are films in which the candidates not only have to star but have to write the scripts. In movies, after all, it is not enough to be something; you also have to do something.

Ronald Reagan was the master of both performance and script – primarily because he was trained in Hollywood to understand the movie’s effect on an audience, which is how he thought of his electorate. He knew what he had to project and how not to tip his hand that he was projecting. He also knew that the best scripts were simple and dynamic.

For Reagan, government was bad. He was going to destroy it. Anyone who supported government – to wit, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale – was in league with the devil. They became the antagonists in Reagan’s electoral drama.

And that is the whole point of elections – and the basis of the Hollywood Test: making us decide which candidate is the protagonist and which the antagonist.

Similarly, Truman not only turned the 1948 election into a drama between an ordinary man and a slick city weasel – he also devised a plot in which he was a common-man Prometheus strapped down by a congeries of big businessmen, bankers and an ornery Congress. Kennedy turned the 1960 election into the story of a young man, who wanted to energize the country, against a man dedicated to its sclerosis. Bush turned the 2004 election into the story of an intrepid man of the American West who said what he thought and a Frenchman who didn’t know his own mind.

Which brings us back to the current election. As it turned out, that economic scenario that thrust Romney into the protagonist’s role was only the first draft. President Barack Obama, with Romney’s help, managed to doctor the script and change himself from helpless antagonist to genial protagonist – and Romney from a bold protagonist into a cold, ruthless antagonist of the sort that the great film director Frank Capra used to demonize. Suddenly, the election is between Jimmy Stewart and Edward Arnold, between a country that is empathic and one that is unfeeling toward the 47 percent and materialistic.

Set up that movie and it is no wonder Romney is trailing in the polls.

Though Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, was once a Hollywood scriptwriter, Romney doesn’t seem to have learned the lesson that movie heroes don’t win the audience’s affection by harping on their opponent’s fecklessness. Batman, for example, isn’t a self-satisfied whiner. They earn that affection by acting and demonstrating their own virtues – their power, their decency, their commonality.

Obama has come to understand that. His biggest failing in the presidency, he said recently, was his inability to provide a narrative for his first term. But Romney just can’t seem to get his head around Reagan’s lesson that politics are basically movies and that every candidate is subjected to the Hollywood Test.

And in Hollywood, even an aloof professor beats a heartless industrialist every time.

PHOTO: Obama: REUTERS/Jason Reed. Stewart: REUTERS/Handout

3 comments

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Walt Disney captured “hope” in innocence. Antagonism is blind to weakness and contagious subtly causing an avalanche of public criticism. Fire does not extinguish fire but rather turns up the heat. Politicians have a following that supports their cause. Obama’s “cause” displays confidence of public approval in the face of overwhelming heat because of his script writer’s vantage point.

Posted by Vict | Report as abusive

Our politicians, our political parties and our elections have been reduced to illusions, and so comparison to movies is rather appropriate. There will be little immediate difference whichever “we, the people” chose because our “choice” is not between good and bad but between bad and worse.

The money and the power structure of Washington is like memory foam…it takes on new shapes as pressure here and there varies, but does not, in fact change at all. The single “light at the end of the tunnel” is the rising frustration with our current political gridlock.

At a time so much needs intelligent and open debate followed by effective actions supported by majority consensus, this frustration will increase and accumulate until it boils over with white hot fury sufficient to sweep the apathy which holds our country hostage to countless “special interests”. Is it not “we, the people” who are to blame when the immediate outcome of a national “election” is rather fundamentally irrelevant?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I agree with OneOfTheSheep’s post.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

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