Reagan: The Hollywood Years
Author: Marc Eliot
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
In 1940, actor Ronald Reagan played dying Notre Dame football star George Gipp in the movie "Knute Rockne, All American."
Reagan was on screen for only 11 minutes, but it was long enough for him to utter what might be the most important line in movie history: “win just one for the Gipper.” Decades later he rode that fame all the way to the White House, with supporters still calling him “the Gipper.”
Biographer Marc Eliot explores stories such as these in his book “Reagan: The Hollywood Years.” Not exactly a hagiography, Eliot’s new book shines a light on several chapters of Reagan’s life that Reagan himself downplayed in his memoirs, such as his sexual dalliances with dozens of young starlets, or how first wife Jane Wyman hated Reagan’s interest in politics so much that it drove her into the arms of another man, actor Lew Ayres.
When Reagan arrived in Hollywood, says Eliot, “Conformity, complacency, virtue, belief in a Christian God, and loyalty to the country were the ultimate, if not always obvious themes of most American movies.” How times have changed.
Reagan was an actor during the most tumultuous times in Hollywood’s history, marked by union corruption, heated negotiations and violent strikes, punctuated, of course, by power struggles between the communists and anti-communists who populated the industry.
Reagan started out a FDR-liberal who paid scant attention to weighty matters such as an alleged Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Ironically, he objected to joining the Screen Actor’s Guild, writing later that “making me join the union, whether I wanted to or not, I thought, was an infringement on my rights.”
Eliot says Reagan’s “largely uninformed attitude” gradually changed, and 10 years later Reagan was elected president of the Guild.
“Reagan was superb as he commanded the stage,” writes Eliot. “He was articulate, emotional, powerful, and, most of all, persuasive.”
Reagan’s complicated journey includes two stints as president of SAG, testimonies in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and time spent as an FBI spy.
Reagan’s dwindling movie career eventually landed him a job as host of the TV show "General Electric Theater."
"GE Theater" put Reagan in front of American audiences on a regular basis, and allowed him to travel the country making speeches on behalf of GE, though they skewed more political as time went on. After "GE Theater" was canceled in 1963, Reagan made a series of paid speeches in California that he titled “The Price of Freedom.”
It was around that time that Barry Goldwater was running a losing campaign for president against Lyndon B. Johnson.
Reagan’s political transformation from Democrat to Republican now complete, and his speech-making abilities well known, he was invited to be the principal speaker at a $1,000-a-plate Goldwater fundraiser in Los Angeles.
“You and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” Reagan said in winding down his talk, “We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness!”
“The room was frozen,” writes Eliot. “No one moved, including Reagan. After what seemed like an eternity, the applause began and then rose to a crescendo and did not stop until everyone in the room had risen to their feet, cheering and stomping the floor in thunderous ovation.”
Reagan’s destiny was set.
Newsmax spoke at length to Eliot about the winding journey that transformed a B-actor into leader of the free world:
Newsmax: Was there a moment where Reagan decided he’d give up Hollywood for politics?
Eliot: No. Politics came to him. He did a nationwide broadcast to help Barry Goldwater’s failing campaign at the same time his old "GE Theater" had been on.
The popularity of that speech brought him to the attention of the nascent conservative wing of the Republican Party. They were desperate for a candidate so, based on his work with SAG and that speech, they decided they’d move him through the ranks of Governor to the presidency, and that’s exactly what they did.
Newsmax: Were there moments of foreshadowing that he’d eventually enter politics?
Eliot: No, because no one thought it made sense, including Reagan. But he was kind of drummed out of Hollywood because of a controversial deal he made between SAG and the studios over the pension fund.
His work at SAG pushed him way to the right from where he began as a liberal Democrat at precisely the wrong time in Hollywood. Eventually he was left without a job and without a wife. It wasn’t an Obama-like assault on the presidency. It was very typical of Reagan’s life. Things just happened to him in a good way.
Newsmax: You make it sound like it was an accident.
Eliot: Reagan fell out of a fifth-floor window of a building and landed on the roof of the White House. He was seen as a nice guy, a mediocre actor favored by Lew Wasserman [Reagan's manager] and Jack Warner who, somehow, on the heels of a disastrous Goldwater campaign, become the nominal choice to try to save that wing of the Republican Party.
Newsmax: Did his embrace of partisan politics cause friction among his celebrity friends?
Eliot: He was a liberal Democrat until the mid '50s and he didn’t become a Republican until after JFK was elected and Bobby Kennedy launched an investigation into Universal for racketeering.
Reagan switched to the Republicans out of fury over what he saw as a personal attack on Wasserman and Hollywood. But until then he wasn’t like others, like Sam Wood, Walt Disney, John Wayne. He wasn’t a right-wing extremist. He was middle of the road, leaning left a little bit.
Newsmax: You consider John Wayne, Walt Disney and Sam Wood right-wing extremists?
Eliot: I don’t know if I’d use the word "extremists" but they were all virulently anti-union, and founders of the Motion Picture Alliance.
Newsmax: Would Reagan get much Hollywood support today if he were running for president?
Eliot: He’d be more popular now than when he left Hollywood because the pension fund, which was the big item that drove him from Hollywood, turned out to be the best pension fund in entertainment.
Actors thought the fund was worthless and they wouldn’t get residuals and that Reagan sold them out. But today, that fund is worth a few billion dollars and SAG members have the best retirement benefits of any union.
Newsmax: What was Jane Wyman’s reaction to Reagan’s politics?
Eliot: She wasn’t politically oriented. She was kind of a good-time girl. She liked Reagan because he was good-looking, strong, and she was desperate to be remarried after getting divorced.
She thought Reagan was a good choice, but he became so one-note politics, she got bored. She couldn’t get him to leave politics at the office. He’d walk around the house making speeches.
It left her ice cold, and she made him pay publicly by humiliating him with an affair. But the great thing about Reagan and Wyman is they are a real-life version of "A Star is Born," where, after "Kings Row," Reagan’s star goes down, partly because he was in the Army for five years, while her career takes off and she wins an Academy Award.
Newsmax: Regarding some labor unions back then, you write that, "The only immediate relief from the foul odor of corruption came in the form of communism." Was that Reagan’s opinion?
Eliot: That was the general feeling in the union movement because IATSE — the biggest union of off-screen workers — was largely sympathetic to communism because people like Willie Bioff and Al Capone had come into Hollywood, via IATSE, and corrupted it.
They made backdoor deals with studios where, for a payoff, they’d keep the cost of making movies down. The people who suffered were the workers. So that legitimized Communism in Hollywood because it offered a viable alternative.
Newsmax: So why was Reagan savvy enough to know communism wasn’t the right way to deal with union corruption?
Eliot: He wasn’t a big communist basher in the beginning. His testimony to HUAC was basically that it’s there, but the American way is that anybody is allowed to be there, and that communism didn’t have much of an effect any way.
He had a live-and-let-live attitude. It was when he became president of SAG and he got into a personal battle with Herb Sorrell, head of a union that was trying to replace IATSE and that was accused of being communist infiltrated, that Reagan thought the communists were no better than corrupted leaders and you had to get rid of all of them in order to keep the industry clean.
Ultimately SAG, under Reagan’s rule, sided with IATSE rather than Herb Sorrell’s union. That was a turning point for Reagan, determining that the communists had too much influence on Sorrell.
Newsmax: It doesn’t appear that you think there was anything to fear from communists in Hollywood. Is that accurate?
Eliot: It’s not what I think that this book is about, it’s what Reagan thought, and if you read his testimony to HUAC, he obviously did not think communism was a threat. He believed that, in a free society, communism would be meaningless, so what was the harm in its existence. After the Waldorf Statement, of course, that thinking hardened.
Newsmax: It almost seems like Nancy Reagan realized her husband should switch from acting to politics before Reagan himself realized it.
Eliot: Nancy was by far the more focused and ambitious of the two. She was the aggressor in their relationship and wanted to elevate Reagan and herself out of the lowest level of the social strata in Hollywood, which was entertainment. Politics was a way up.
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