You can always count on Hollywood panjandrum Harvey Weinstein to be bombastic about his own restraint. “In 20 years of coming to the Toronto Film Festival, I’ve never released a statement for a film,” read the statement e-mailed to journalists in mid-September. “But I would like to take this moment to formally invite Republican Congresswoman from Minnesota and Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, to co-host with me the big premiere of Butter in Iowa in a few months from now. I know Michele will already be in Iowa for the caucus, so we can save some money on airfare and travel. I would of course be more than happy to fly in the other leading members of the Tea Party movement to make an entire day of it.”
The Weinstein wit has clearly stayed hidden under a bushel too long. Note the effortless contradiction between the joke about saving money on airfare and the munificent offer to fly in—well, how many dozens of Tea Partiers might qualify for Harvey’s largesse? There speaks a people’s tribune for sure. Little did he know that, within weeks, sassing Bachmann’s vogue would amount to spearing a dinosaur.
For the record, I can’t legitimately review Butter. After around ten minutes of glib fashion jokes disguised as political criticism, largely at the expense of Jennifer Garner’s heartland gorgon—her hubby’s the champion of the Iowa butter--carving contest, she’s the Lady Macbeth behind his Land O’Lakes throne—a colleague and I looked at each other, mimed a shared lobotomy, and voted with our feet, done in by Our Side’s peculiar assumption that snobbery is incisive propaganda.
Apparently, the audience that movies like this one are designed to flatter can’t get enough of hearing that those mysterious vanilla folks out in flyover country are yokels and frauds. That must be a special comfort on election nights. But in the 1930s and the war years, a liberal-minded film mocking ordinary people would have been a contradiction in terms. Even the movies that warned against mob hysteria didn’t sneer at mobs for being tacky, today the upscale left’s debased idea of the ultimate indictment.
Disdain for one's compatriots is as old as the country, of course. Yet from the ever reliable Alexander Hamilton (“Your people is a great beast”) to democracy non-fan H.L. Mencken’s “booboi-sie,” the sensibility was traditionally conservative, adding social contempt to a principled mistrust of popular wisdom. Leftists, on the other hand, used to overdo their love of the common man—which, since some things never change, often wasn’t any too informed, making for a lot of soppiness.
The great reversal dates back to the GOP’s post–World War II witch hunt, when the House Un-American Activities Committee’s right-wing Jacobins and then Joe McCarthy targeted elites and styled themselves vox populi with a vengeance. Ever since, however preposterously, Republicans have done better than Democrats at playing the party of “the little man”—the angry, Caucasian little man, but the vestigially true-American little man even so. Like it or not, the arts wing of the liberal establishment hasn’t exactly bestirred itself to contradict the distortion, taking refuge instead in self-pity (“If they only understood”) combined with superciliousness (“They’re too dumb to understand”).
If you wonder who made hauteur respectable, try Adlai Stevenson. The most celebrated exchange of his two campaigns against Dwight D. Eisenhower went like this: “Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you,” cried a woman at a rally. Ever humorous, the Democratic nominee twinkled. “Madam, that’s not enough,” he said. “I need a majority.” That quip was one of the most appalling things ever said in public by anyone running for president, because either you believe in democracy or you don’t. Yet to educated liberals at the time—confounded that Ike’s war-winning grin counted for more than their hero’s plummy savoir faire—it was balm. Almost 60 years later, the attitude has hardly vanished.
No wonder movies of the ’50s were such a stew of mixed signals. With its cowed cow-town populace refusing to support lonely Gary Cooper, 1952’s High Noon—from a script by soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman—notoriously disgusted Howard Hawks and John Wayne into inverting its premise in the peerless Rio Bravo. Yet film students today might have a rough time guessing which one was the left-wing parable about buckling under to McCarthyism and which was the right-wing response, since Cooper still can’t help incarnating the familiar solitary figure of “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” mythology, while Rio Bravo—featuring a motley gang of misfits banding together to fight the good fight—looks like a tribute to, um, collective action. A budding teenage narcissist named Bill Clinton loved the former, but any number of Democrats might wish he’d been fonder of the latter.
Even so, once he went into politics, Clinton did have what used to be called the common touch, not exactly a widespread virtue among college-educated liberals of his generation. Scorning conventional values is the proper job of bohemias and avant-gardes, but it’s lousy training for winning elections, and the boomers were products of an era that conflated cultural arrogance with moral superiority. Starting with The Graduate, which ridiculed the suburban middle class on purely aesthetic grounds—whether these people were bigots or had voted for Goldwater, both unlikely in that milieu, mattered less than their consumer-society Philistinism—the movies that catered to hipster entitlement seem incredibly smug today. Even at the time, Studs Terkel was rightly outraged by the scene in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces in which Jack Nicholson, playing an alienated child of privilege, humiliated a diner waitress as if he were sticking it to his oppressors.
Symbolically heralded by the huge success of Star Wars, the Reagan era recast popular culture as well as governance in its image. Effectively beaten at their own game, since the man in the White House hadn’t stopped being a movie star—as his biographer Lou Cannon put it, he’d landed the role of a lifetime—Hollywood liberals felt newly otiose, and so did the liberal audience. No wonder the hippest new filmmakers to emerge in the ’80s were Joel and Ethan Coen, whose frisky satires ended up endorsing some of the boutique left’s worst prejudices about the heartland.
Whether that was the Coens’ intention is debatable. Their callower movies’ snark at the expense of uneducated, feckless people was always offset by Preston Sturges–style glee at the crackpot inventiveness of lower-depths Americans. In their maturity, they’ve largely sworn off making fools of their characters, and the major exception—2008’s Burn After Reading—is arguably more sympathetic than scoffing about the naïve goofballs caught up in CIA intrigue. Yet it’s hardly unreasonable to guess that many of the Coens’ fans in the ’80s and ’90s—educated, hip, and cued to be derisive—got off on seeing their unchic fellow citizens turned into corn-fed Martians.
One reason the Coens’ work stood out was that so few other movies, satiric or otherwise, still featured that class of Americans at all. The same was and is even truer of TV, where the yuppification of sitcomland that began in the ’80s has become so much the norm that the regional and economic (though not racial) diversity of earlier sitcoms looks like Woody Guthrie for the eyes by contrast. Of the two great exceptions, one—The Simpsons—is a sui generis monument to the stratum-trashing inclusivity of pop culture at its best. The other, which spent six of its nine seasons among the top-rated shows on the air between 1988 and 1997, has been all but elided from our collective memory.
That would be Roseanne—the gutsiest, least compromised sitcom ever to hit No. 1, and a show to make Emma Goldman’s ghost stand up and cheer. Not that you’d have known it from the ruckus when Tina Brown, always on the outlook for provocation, brought Roseanne Barr in as guest editor of The New Yorker’s women’s issue in 1995. It didn’t matter that Barr, who’d fought ABC—and won—to defend her show’s integrity, qualified as a feminist heroine if anyone did. Nor did it matter that Roseanne’s intransigent blue-collar championing of everything from women’s lib to gay rights had been a slap in the face to Bush 41’s class-based politics of caricature. To The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, as well as New Yorker writers Jamaica Kincaid and George W.S. Trow—both of whom quit in protest at Barr sullying their sanctum—all that mattered was that Brown had invited a vulgarian through the front door.
Barr herself is famously obstreperous. Psychodrama, not perspective, is her calling card. Her afterthoughts on the whole flap are telling anyway: “In the end, it’s because I was working class and those guys are snobs. And they don’t like working-class people. … They don’t want to elevate any working-class point of view. The closest they get is Barbara Ehrenreich, one of the elite talking about what it’s like to be working poor.” Characteristically, the jab at Ehrenreich is both unfair to her and spot-on about the larger sensibility at work.
Not much has changed in the 16 years since—except, of course, that popular culture now seems incapable of producing a Roseanne at all. The sophisticated audience gets its upscale treats, while prole America sees itself represented only on reality shows and seems perfectly content with that. Not for entirely bad reasons, either, since reality TV has long articulated all sorts of sociological grit scripted shows leave out. True, in terms of prole America’s self-image, it’s a considerable slide from Bruce Springsteen to Jersey Shore, but what the hell: At least someone still cares. More than Harvey Weinstein does, anyway.