Note: The following appears in slightly altered form here.
Hollywood Liberal. To hear it from “Conservative” pundits that’s one word not two. For to equate liberalism with Hollywood is link the “misguided idealism” (as the Right would have it) of the former with the “mainstream” fantasies manufacted by the latter. And what of that “mainstream? Can a multi-million dollar consumer-driven industry really be as “radical chic” as the Hugh Hewitts and L. Brent Bozell’s would have us believe?
That question seems more pointed than ever with Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy picture (and let’s face facts folks, it is a gay cowboy picture) up for eight Oscars with a “you-can-bet-the-farm” lock on at least three of them. But when you look at the bottom line — ideological as well as financial — Brokeback‘s “radicalism” is more apparent than real. Arriving at the climax of a cultural moment that has included everything from Will & Grace,Mary Cheney, Elton John and above all Ellen (no last name needed) it’s a shrewdly-crafted “prestige” picture aimed like a heat-seeking missile at the same female viewers who made Queer As Folk a cable hit. For it’s not about “gay liberation” and the radical politics that would transform self and society at every concievable level but well-closeted romance, replete with studly leads, smooching and muttering about their “feelings” in ways sure set aflutter those feminine hearts longing for a softcore version of what’s known as “Hot Man-to-Man Action.” No wonder the “family values” crowd has been slow to attack it. No wonder it’s an “art house” hit on par with Merchant-Ivory, rather than Larry Kramer.
Needless to say traditional Hollywood liberalism hasn’t gone begging this year what with the one-two Oscar punch of George Clooney’s McCarthy-era drama Good Night and Good Luck and his acting turn oil-and-terror thriller Syrianna But like Warren Beatty before him what brought Clooney leading-mensch fame wasn’t politics but romance.. Beatty’s Reds may have concerned early 20th Century leftism, but it won its Oscar and its audience for its resemblance to that all-time heart-tugger Doctor Zhivago. As for Clooney, while he may have put on the pounds to play a disillusioned CIA man in Syrianna, it’s his slimmed-down, babe-a-licious post-production self that’s on primary display during Oscar season.
Yet while Clonney may appear to be the Man of the Liberal Hour, he’s been overshadowed by Brokeback. And to find out why, one has to the past and that most signal of Hollywood legends, Gregory Peck. One of the most beloved and respected of all Golden Age stars, Peck’s long career was marked by well-tempered playing — both on-screen and off. His low-key yet commanding presence in a film was a cynosure of “quality” which carefully “framed” issues of liberal import that without him would have proven too “controversial” to be made.
In 1947 Peck starred in Gentleman’s Agreement — the Oscar-winning film version of Laura Z. Hobson’s novel about anti-Semitism in the U.S., playing a Gentile who passes himself off as a Jew in order to expose discriminatory injustice. In 1962 he won the best Actor Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird, the film version of Harper Lee’s novel about a white Southern attorney defending a poor black man accused of rape. In both instances Peck served as a cordon sanitaire between the “mainstream” (i.e. non-black, non-Jewish) viewer and dramatizations of religious and racial injustice. Just as Gentleman’s Agreement soft-pedalled anti-Semitism though his goyishness, so To Kill a Mockingbird delicatey bypassed the actual history of the civil rights movement, and the African-Americans who lived and died for it, to tell the story of a good non-racist white man. For Oscar demands “necessary fictions” presided over the taste and restraint embodied by Peck.
And so we come to 2005 and George Clooney who while “red hot” is just a degree or two over Oscar’s Peck meter. For that’ where you’ll find 2006’s “Atticus Finch” . . .Ang Lee. The directorial chameleon capable of navigating everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), to Stan — no relation–Lee (The Hulk) is neither gay nor a cowboy and therefore in Hollywood terms was born to tell a gay love story uncontroversially set in the pre-AIDS past and utterly removed from the political movement whose success made it possible. Half Peck’s height, Lee glows with Peck’s temperament. He’s gracious and modest to fault — just like his film. Safely kept in a closet of breathtaking visual beauty, decorous dramatic restraint and utter ahistoricism the gay cowboys Brokeback are “Peck’s Good Boys” all the way. And thus the man who brought them to the screen will be rewarded for services rendered to what that celebrated anti-cowboy Gore Vidal calls “The United States of Amnesia.”
Gregory Peck, we “just can’t quit you.”