Movies' Liberal Dose of Conservatism

Studios churn out highest portion ever of family movies

REPUBLICAN presidential hopeful Bob Dole has blasted Hollywood as a sleaze machine at a time when the film industry is in fact increasingly looking to more traditional, family-oriented fare for boffo box-office receipts.

The money earned by such hits as "Forrest Gump" and "The Lion King" hasn't been lost on directors and producers. Nor has the success of three romantic comedies now sizzling at the box office: "French Kiss," "Forget Paris," and "While You Were Sleeping."

This trend may involve more than mere economics. Could it be, ask many in Hollywood, that there is a yearning by viewers for the more conservative ideals of the past?

The growing evidence is forcing a heated philosophical debate in this historically liberal bastion. "It's at least glasnost [openness], if not perestroika [restructuring]," claims conservative Michael Medved, film critic for the New York Post.

That's not quite the kind of Hollywood that Senator Dole of Kansas portrayed. In his blistering broadside on the entertainment industry last week, the Senate majority leader hit what he termed the "mainstreaming of deviancy." He denounced such hyperviolent films as director Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," as well as foul-mouthed rap groups such as Geto Boys and 2 Live Crew.

In the film industry Dole's words were about as welcome as a stink bomb at Spago restaurant. Prominent directors and studio executives leapt to portray the Kansas senator as a natural-born hypocrite more concerned about gun control on screen than on the streets. They noted that Dole did not criticize the violent action movies made by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, or Sylvester Stallone - Republican supporters all.

But the whole spat overlooks the fact that Hollywood is already making more family-oriented flicks than at any time in recent decades. Fully 40 percent of big studio output was fit for kids in 1994, according to the Christian Film and Television Commission. That's up from 32 percent in 1993. Look at arguably the biggest hits of the last 18 months: "The Lion King," a family oriented Disney cartoon, and "Forrest Gump," a film Dole himself championed for its portrayal of love, marriage, war, and business.

"Gump" has now earned $661 million worldwide. By portraying a decorated Vietnam vet sympathetically, while depicting antiwar radicals as obnoxious, the Tom Hanks star vehicle is "the first film that has really repudiated the '60s in an explicit way," asserts conservative activist David Horowitz, himself a former '60's radical and now head of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a think tank.

The activist acknowledges that the makers of "Forrest Gump" have adamantly refused to embrace a politically conservative agenda. But he claims that the hugely successful "Gump" will do for conservative values in the '90's what "Easy Rider" did for liberal values in the '60's.

"We've drawn back from the excesses of the '60's," says Mr. Horowitz, adding that people are taking a second look at social experiments of all sorts and returning to more traditional ideals.

And despite Dole's comments, Hollywood is not completely isolated from the mood of the country. Some conservatives believe there is at least a new openness in the industry, if not a change of heart.

Mr. Medved says that for the first time in decades there is a discernible willingness to tolerate opposition in what he calls the one-party liberal state of Hollywood. Emphasizing that the entertainment industry is too big for a single trend to dominate, he says evidence of the change is more subtle.

For every "Gump," celebrating values such as sex within marriage and positive images of the government, there are now only 20 trumpeting a liberal lifestyle, claims Medved. "This is good," he says. "We didn't used to get even 1 in 20."

Producer Ken Wales, a conservative Christian, agrees that a conservative trend is under way both in Hollywood and across the country, for several reasons. One is that both baby-boomer filmmakers and audiences are having families and settling down. "People in the industry as well as those who go to the movies are realizing they want their children to have stable, family-oriented values," he says.

The producer of the recent television series, "Christy," Mr. Wales says that at the same time, increased technology and special effects are creating a hunger for simpler, more spiritual values. "There's stressfulness and depersonalization in the cyberspace frontier. People are more estranged from human contact."

Liberal activist Gary Goldberg, director of two films with family themes - "Dad" with Jack Lemmon and "Bye, Bye Love," about three single divorced fathers - urges dropping the labels. He says it's "useless for either side to take the moral high ground on these values. The rhetoric of the radical right has been more debilitating to American society than anything I've seen in a long time."

Yet it has been a mistake on the part of the left to not debate the conservative position, Goldberg adds. A father of two, he adds that while more baby- boomer filmmakers may be raising children and bringing personal values into their work, family values have never really gone away from Hollywood - and don't belong to either party. "We all grew up on John Wayne and Jack Webb, after all," he says.

Another longtime liberal activist, Danny Goldberg, chairman of Warner Brothers Records and president of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says Hollywood follows the marketplace. Filmmakers conform to the tastes of the market they want to reach, not the politics. "The notion that there's an ideological fix to any of this is just not true," he says.

But critic Medved calls this marketplace theory of Hollywood a myth. "The bottom line in Hollywood is prestige, not money." He calls critics one of the most liberal communities in the industry and says they honor dark, cutting-edge material with antireligious and antifamily images.

The best evidence of a new openness may be simply the range of voices calling for dialogue. In Washington, Democratic Sen. Paul Simon and Republican Rep. Sonny Bono have called on Hollywood to participate in hearings and a task force with the goal of increased communication.

In Hollywood, activists such as David Horowitz are planning more conservative fund-raisers "like the ones the Democrats give all the time."

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