Of all the ironies in Tinseltown, none is richer than this: Hollywood is a big business that, on the screen at least, loathes and despises big business.
A trio of recent and upcoming films - the reprise of Gordon Gekko in the Wall Street sequel, the plight of laid-off execs in The Company Men, a documentary account of systemic greed in next week's Inside Job - merely continue a business-bashing trend whose roots stretch all the way back to the silent era. As James Surowiecki has pointed out in a New Yorker piece, even ol' D.W. Griffith himself, in 1909's A Corner in Wheat, was wagging a righteous finger at the big bad money-men.
That piece goes on to catalogue a whole litany of pictures that, ever since, have extended and broadened the condemnation of capitalism's evil ways. But what it doesn't do is address the question that cries out: Why?
Yes, why does Hollywood hate what it essentially is?
Well, the answer is that Hollywood is really two businesses in one: It's a profit-obsessed industry but it's also a dream factory. What the factory manufactures is myths, and, typically, there's no dissonance between the industry and the product, between (to use today's parlance) the "core values" of the manufacturer and those inherent in the myths it creates. But the whole issue of capitalism is a huge exception. Capitalism throws a spanner in the factory's works, for the simple reason that its values are often directly at odds with Hollywood's dominant myth - the Great American Dream.
Of course, the Dream is all about freedom, mainly the freedom of the rugged individual to climb the ladder of success and, thus, get rich. But capitalism is about free enterprise which emphasizes a different sort of gain, not the growth of the individual but the growth from the individual to the corporation, from small to big, from rugged David to mighty Goliath.
Already, you can see the tension brewing. Capitalism fits into the Dream, but only up to a point, when it gets inflated and messy. In that sense, capitalism is to American movies what marriage is to Shakespeare's plays. The Bard ends his comedies with the wedding and never ventures into the murky marriage beyond - otherwise, he'd have a tragedy on his hands.
Accordingly, in the battles between the "isms" - capitalism versus communism or fascism or terrorism - Hollywood (not to mention the politicians who either hail from Hollywood or emulate it) likes to frame the conflict as a war between freedom and tyranny. Alas, back on the home front, capitalism has a slippery habit of morphing from friend to foe, of changing from democracy's smiling cousin into an anti-democratic, hierarchical, non-egalitarian behemoth. There, these corporate Goliaths aren't tyranny's enemy but tyranny itself - in Depression-era films, for instance, they're the assembly line that crushes souls in Chaplin's Modern Times, or they're every faceless bank that forecloses on yet another poor homeowner.
Naturally, since no one roots for Goliath, the movies trooped out a continuing parade of Davids fighting the good fight against the evil giant. David comes in many guises - the plucky union activist ( Norma Rae), the brave whistle-blower ( The China Syndrome, Silkwood, The Insider), the emboldened justice-seeker ( Erin Brockovich, Michael Clayton), the cheated inventor ( Flash of Genius), the political crusader ( The Constant Gardener), the little entrepreneur ( Other People's Money). As for Goliath, whether Big Auto or Big Energy or Big Tobacco or Big Pharmacy, he's always the same polluting, penny-pinching, deceitful, destructive, even murdering titan.
That way, both the necessities of drama, and the rugged individualism inherent to the American myth, are better served. And, generally, the audience delights in the typecasting. Sure, many of us work for and owe our livelihoods to those same corporate giants, but who on occasion doesn't see their employer less as benefactor than oppressor? Here, Hollywood is everybody's loyal accomplice in the time-honoured practice of biting the hand that feeds them.
Not that the hand doesn't deserve its teeth-marks. It took a Canadian documentary, The Corporation, to give historical weight to the evil corporate stereotype. The doc explained how a corporation is legally "a person," but a person who, over time, has developed a psychopathic character devoid of conscience and amoral in the singular pursuit of filthy lucre. Remind you of someone? Yep, none other than Hollywood's favourite bundle of sex and violence: the gangster. Sometimes, of course the gangster is the anti-hero waving his gun at the cruel business establishment ( Bonnie and Clyde); often, though, he and his mob are just the metaphoric embodiment of the establishment itself ( The Godfather saga).
In that latter case, then, the notion that the corporation has a gangster's personality blends nicely with the idea that the gangster has corporate ambitions. Nowhere is that fusion more complete than in Paul Thomas Anderson's aptly titled There Will Be Blood, focused on a rising devil in the oil biz. As for the actual captains of industry, Hollywood tends to stay away from them, unless they can be portrayed as eccentrically rugged individuals themselves, like Howard Hughes in The Aviator, or the barely fictionalized William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane, or, currently, Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. There, the corporation is reduced to its lone owner, who is then pushed off his lofty perch and slapped down to a tragic victim, if only of his own peculiar nature. In this iteration, it's not the story of David and Goliath but of Achilles and his heel.
Still, these corporate portraits are relatively rare, an absence that James Surowiecki laments in his piece, citing Henry Ford as an obvious example. But Ford is the perfect illustration of why capitalists get stuck in Hollywood's myth-making machine. Initially, he would seem the personification of the American Dream - humble beginnings, self-made man, founds a company that pays generous wages to workers and provides affordable transportation for millions. Oops, then comes the spanner - he's the damned inventor of the soul-crushing assembly line; he viciously fights off all attempts to unionize his shop; he publishes anti-Semitic tracts and displays an appalling fondness for that other ism, nazism.
There's definitely a great film to be made about Henry Ford, but Hollywood wouldn't know how to cast him: Is he the lead hand in the dream factory or the boss-man of the corporate nightmare? Either way, Nazi sympathies can't be written off as wacky eccentricities.
Ford, like many such captains, is a hard guy to pin down dramatically. Just ask Michael Moore. In his classic Roger & Me, Moore sets out to find and interrogate the CEO of General Motors, the honcho behind massive layoffs leading to plant closures and urban blight. But the failed quest speaks volumes about the movies' century-long treatment of capitalism: The elusive money-man is nowhere to be found, and so settles into his customary role as the faceless villain.
To its credit, Hollywood the big business is ready and willing to cast itself in the role of the corporate heavy. In pics like The Player or Barton Fink, flawed but artsy Davids can be seen sling-shotting volleys at the Philistine studios. And the studios are delighted to fund any attacks on themselves, albeit with a tiny proviso: They had better make money. That's because Tinseltown's objections to capitalism aren't moral or political, but merely practical. It's just that Hollywood is an industry that manufactures entertaining myths and, on screen, business must be bad so that, off screen, business can be good.