Sex, Communism, Race, and Creative Freedom in Hollywood

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In 1934, the creative freedom of unconstrained Hollywood came to a halt, setting the stage for decades of self-serving attempts at internal censorship and creative control.

Until then, filmmakers went about their business more or less unchecked, pushing the era’s moral limits with bawdy humor, violent crime, and sexual provocation. There was James Cagney swaggering and shooting his way through The Public Enemy (1931), a portrait of a bootlegging gangster who built an empire out of “beer and blood” (and famously assaulted his nagging girlfriend at the breakfast table with a grapefruit to the face). There was Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to success in Baby Face (1933), leaving a trail of heartbroken (and sometimes dead) lovers in her lusty wake. There was adultery! Abortion! Profanity! Visible undergarments! At the end, righteousness would usually prevail—the antihero would repent and reform or die trying—but this was strictly perfunctory. Then, as now, audiences loved a story that made being bad look good. And then, as now, the popularity of sensational and sexy movies began to raise questions about their effect on impressionable viewers.

Amid a climate of concern that edgy films might spark immoral behavior, and with the threat of government censorship close behind, Hollywood set out to get ahead of the game. In 1927, a committee of studio execs, at the behest of a freshly anointed industry honcho named Will H. Hays, had already collaborated to publish a now-infamous list of “don’ts and be carefuls,” a 37-item litany of topics that filmmakers agreed would be either approached with caution or avoided entirely.

The taboos were numerous and wide-ranging: “Sexual perversion,” drug use, miscegenation, and profanity (including irreligious exclamations of “My God!”) were completely off-limits, while a soft touch was urged when depicting murder techniques, law enforcement, or (my favorite) portrayals of safecracking or dynamiting, due to “the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron.” Initially toothless, in 1934 the list evolved into the powerful Motion Picture Production Code, Hollywood’s most famous and most restrictive self-censorship mechanism.

Today, the Production Code is gone. But its spirit lives on—not in taboos and restrictions about what filmmakers can’t say or show, but in guidelines and expectations about what morally upstanding, socially conscious filmmaking ought to be.

It’s against this backdrop that Hollywood makes its latest foray into content restriction with a new set of diversity standards for Oscar-eligible films, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in September. Starting in 2024, best picture nominees will be required to comply with what amount to quotas for race, sexuality, and gender. The move is part of what the Academy describes as a bid to bring more diversity to the casts, crews, and storylines that receive its highest honor.

The new requirements come in the wake of considerable struggles for the industry body. In 2015 and 2016, an all-white slate of acting nominees prompted viral outrage in the form of the #OscarsSoWhite backlash; in 2017 and 2018, the yearly awards show was haunted by the ghost of Harvey Weinstein, who had been the recipient of many a gushing thank you from the Oscars stage before he was righteously toppled by the #MeToo movement. The ceremony itself, meanwhile, has struggled for years to find a host unproblematic enough to please the Twitter crowd but charismatic enough to reverse an embarrassing year-over-year ratings drop, fueled by a sense that the Oscars are increasingly elitist, self-indulgent, and shrilly political in a way that’s unrelatable and irritating to normie audiences.

Add to this the ongoing, fractious internal battles within the Academy over the encroachment of Netflix and other new-kid studios into their prestigious club, and you’ve got a perfect storm of scrutiny—the type Hollywood has always sought to preempt with the shiny new promise of self-regulation. The standard practice in the past has been to throw a bone to Hollywood’s critics, who can then squabble over it while the real power players go back to business as usual. Or at least, that’s the idea.

In a way, these battles represent a new front in Hollywood’s diversity wars. But in another sense, they are nothing novel. The Academy was formed in tandem with Hollywood’s early content code, and it has been enmeshed in battles over what constitutes acceptable or desirable on-screen content—a matter in which the film industry has always yearned to both eat its cake and have it. Hollywood wants to wield total creative control and unimpeachable moral authority, to wag its finger out in public before retreating to backroom debauchery, to be seen as an idealistic protector of the arts against the forces of censorship and conformity while keeping box-office cash coming.

And like the Code that ruled during its Golden Age, Hollywood’s signature awards ceremony isn’t just a glitzy vehicle for celebrating Tinseltown’s best; it’s about control. The imprimatur of the Academy is a powerful influence on filmmakers’ output and public perceptions of the movie business alike, but more than that, it imagines Hollywood as an arbiter of goodness. What must we say? How should we live? What moves us to fear, to tears, to disgust? Sit back, let the lights go down, and await further instructions.

The Trial of Fatty Arbuckle

The Hays Code ushered in a golden era of morally conscious filmmaking—or so the industry claimed, even as directors found ever more creative ways to remain compliant to the letter of the law while simultaneously thumbing their noses at its spirit.

Alfred Hitchcock was particularly masterful at tweaking the censors. Many of his films initially contained extravagantly vulgar material that was meant to be cut, the better to pack more coded transgression into the finished product. In To Catch a Thief, for instance, the camera cuts from a canoodling Cary Grant and Grace Kelly to an explosive fireworks display outside their window, a totally unsubtle suggestion that sexual ecstasy is occurring just out of frame. Hitchcock supposedly slid it past the censors by agreeing to cut a far more in-your-face gag involving police officers and a collection of salacious postcards. And then there were the elaborate workarounds, as in the Notorious scene where Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman ingeniously skirt the edict against “lustful kissing” by nuzzling each other’s faces for four excruciatingly erotic minutes while only allowing their lips to actually touch for a couple seconds at a time.

But more than an opportunity for either moral grandstanding or cheeky rule-flouting, the Code was a vehicle for the anxieties, prejudices, and political concerns of its time—and an early exercise in Hollywood’s ongoing creative maneuvering to maintain a pretense of compliance without actually sacrificing its freedoms, its power, or its profits.

Despite all that lofty language about the dangers of depicting bad acts on screen, it wasn’t the ideologically malleable morons in the audience the movie moguls truly feared. It was overreaching government and meddlesome activists, always seeking to stick their noses into Hollywood’s business.

In the early 1920s, anti-Hollywood sentiment was on the rise, and state legislators were introducing movie censorship bills by the dozens as political pressure mounted to do something about its destructive influence. By the 1930s, the threat of federal censorship loomed as well.

The anger was fueled by a sensational proto-#MeToo scan-dal surrounding actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was indicted for manslaughter in the death of actress Virginia Rappe. Rappe died of a ruptured bladder after attending a party in Arbuckle’s hotel suite, an illegally booze-soaked affair in the midst of Prohibition, and rumors quickly spread (with no small amount of help from the press) that she had been lethally crushed by the 260-pound Arbuckle as he attempted to rape her.

Arbuckle was acquitted after three trials, but he became a public mascot—and eventually the scapegoat—for the industry’s moral turpitude. Religious associations and women’s groups formed an alliance to demand that the actor be permanently banned from the screen, a campaign with eerie parallels to 2020’s debates about when (or if) someone accused of #MeToo infractions, such as Louis C.K. or Aziz Ansari, should be permitted to return to work; a 1922 New York Times report quotes a Mrs. Trueworthy White, chairman of the Citizens’ Committee of the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, saying that she “could not understand how anybody could be interested in Mr. Arbuckle anymore.”

The Hays Code, then, was pure calculation: a self-inflicted wound to preclude the greater nuisance of meddlers from outside the system, lest Arbuckle and other scandals become a tipping point for the government to seize control of the film industry. Agreeing to police itself from inside the house allowed Hollywood to stay in control and in the black, placating critics with anti-kissing regulations and morality clauses—and blithely throwing stars like Arbuckle under the bus—while keeping its backrooms and shady business practices free from prying eyes.

And they did it over and over, from censoring the pre-Code film All Quiet on the Western Front so as not to offend Nazi sensibilities to blacklisting alleged Communists in an effort to avoid government investigation or interference.

McCarthy at the Movies

In 1947, two decades after studio heads first convened to create the “don’ts and be carefuls,” another emerging threat prompted promises of self-regulation from the film industry—this time in the form of the Waldorf Statement, a press release from the Motion Picture Association of America vowing “positive action” against “alleged subversive and disloyal elements in Hollywood.” Again, the motivation was as much economics as it was self-protection. The film industry had just incurred an intrusive investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), so it was feeling political pressure to act. But its loyalty oath also kept Hollywood in the good graces of influential private groups, like the American Legion, which was threatening boycotts of films and theaters it deemed to be in cahoots with the commies.

The Academy went along to get along when it came to the Hollywood blacklist, in keeping with the principles of its founder, MGM bigwig Louis B. Mayer. Long before McCarthyism reared its head, Mayer had been unnerved by the rising power of Hollywood unions. He hoped to preempt their influence by drawing actors, directors, writers, and other creative professionals into a desirable club of his own creation.

 The Academy was specifically designed to undercut workers’ interest in organizing. The Oscars kept them distracted and cooperative while the studios stayed in control. Mayer famously bragged about how he used the promise of a spangly gala and a golden statuette to manipulate filmmakers: “If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.”

There were to be no cups or awards for Communists, of course. In the wake of the Waldorf Statement, the Academy added its own stamp of moral approval to the blacklist, excluding “subversives” from Oscar eligibility while also lauding the figures who cooperated. While blacklisted writers went to prison or fled the country and struggled to eke out a living on the fringes, HUAC informants Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg received Academy Awards for On the Waterfront, a film that starred fellow “friendly witness” Lee J. Cobb and whose storyline about whistleblowing against corrupt union bosses is widely understood to be a thinly veiled apologia for the filmmakers’ choices to name names. According to Kazan, Marlon Brando’s famous line—”I’m glad what I done!”— is “me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.” Perhaps needless to say, Kazan’s defense of the blacklist, which was itself a vehicle for the most un-American sort of thought policing and censorship, hasn’t aged well; when he received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1999, roughly half of the audience sat on their hands and did not applaud.

It took 10 years (and the embarrassment of accidentally awarding the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo a screenwriting Oscar for a film written under a false name) before the anti-Communist cultural hegemony began to crack—at which point Hollywood stopped stoking fears about the Red Menace and, eventually, started making films about heroic speech warriors standing up to authoritarian overreach.

The HUAC witch hunts are long since over, and the draconian Hays restrictions have long since been replaced by the MPAA rating system; one might imagine that the bad old days of censorship are behind us. But even now, filmmakers still self-censor, or seek creative workarounds for edgy content, in order to snag a less restrictive rating that yields bigger numbers at the box office.

And while the studio system of old-school Hollywood has long since disappeared, corporate influence remains strong. If the studio execs see an economic benefit to certain content restrictions, filmmakers have little choice but to fall in line. Disney, for instance, holds its directors to three strict taboos: no beheadings, no impalement, and no smoking—unless it’s portrayed “in an unfavorable light.” The Hays Code is gone, but the instincts that fueled it are still firmly ingrained.

Content Code Protectionism

This century-long tug of war for control—the power to decide which stories get told, and how, and by whom—is crucial context for the latest content code to make waves in Hollywood.

The Academy, which today is made up of about 10,000 members from various parts of the film industry, will soon require best picture hopefuls to check the box in two of four categories. The first, “Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives,” drew the most attention for what seemed like an eyebrow-raising level of interference in the creative process, with the capacity to influence the content and/or casting of films. But a close read of the new standards reveals that they’ll be relatively easy to meet for most filmmakers, particularly those with major studio support—which is, of course, the point: Hollywood’s content codes have long served as protectionism for the industry’s major players.

Much like the Hays Code, the Academy’s diversity standards dropped at a pivotal moment, amid a resurgence of anti–Hollywood sentiment—this time surrounding perceived shortcomings in matters of diversity, representation, and social justice. It’s one of many ways in which the Academy and its codes are historically intertwined, a relationship that has displayed remarkable longevity even as notions of morality and quality continue to evolve.

 As recently as 10 years ago, Hollywood’s power still consolidated into a more or less familiar loop: The studios decided which movies get made, while the Academy steered our notion of which movies are good, in multiple senses of the word. Today, the Academy Awards are as much about signaling Hollywood’s political and cultural correctness as they are about rewarding exceptional filmmaking (see: Al Gore, Oscar winner).

The film industry’s ability to keep its hands on the cultural controls depends on preserving this dynamic. For the Academy to find itself on the wrong side of history, pummeled by the double whammy of #OscarsSoWhite and the #MeToo movement, is not just embarrassing but threatening—particularly at a moment when the culture at large seems to be taking a great leap forward. And while “cups and awards” might have kept filmmakers in thrall for decades, creative and critical power isn’t concentrated the way it used to be.

While Steven Spielberg was throwing a tantrum over letting Netflix into the Oscars, Martin Scorsese made the streaming service the home for his latest three-hour moody mafia flick. Digital technology and smartphones have drastically lowered the bar for budget filmmaking and attracted experimental-minded auteurs like Steven Soderbergh, while the proliferation of on-demand and streaming media creates a massive glut of new content, more than any one person could ever consume.

The challenge this year is even greater, as COVID-19 has shuttered theaters in major markets, delayed tentpole releases, and left Hollywood without its usual abundance of popular and prestigious films to award. The Oscars have already been delayed and the deadline for entrants pushed back. The requirement that movies debut theatrically in order to qualify for awards, a massive source of conflict in years past, has been dropped without fanfare or objection (albeit with promises that it’s just this once).

But even before the coronavirus killed the movie theater, the balance of power was shifting as distributors experimented with simultaneous on-demand releases—and as small-screen production values were giving Hollywood blockbusters a run for their money. Prestige filmmakers, actors, and writers are increasingly turning to television, where anthology-style series let them stretch a story over 10 luxurious hours. And a cultural discourse that used to be driven by elite tastemakers is now happening largely on social media, where even Hollywood’s critical darlings can be destroyed by viral backlash.

Amid all this change, the new Oscars diversity standards are a plea to be left alone and in controla way of saying: See, you can trust us! We’re the good guys!—before the next hashtag-driven controversy forces them to start policing the filmmaking process in more intrusive, and less financially comfortable, ways.

But they’re also a last-ditch play for continued relevance from an industry that still sees itself as a vital engine for social change, that can’t quite fathom how it fell behind the times. At a time of enormous unrest and uncertainty that has shaken some of the country’s most storied institutions at their foundations—and in an era when diversity and inclusion is such a brand necessity that even Doritos has announced a partnership with Black Lives Matter—there’s a palpable desperation at the idea that Hollywood might have lost its place as an influencer.

Like the Hays Code before it, the diversity requirements are Tinseltown’s way of asserting cultural dominance through self-policing in a time of cultural and economic turbulence. The new requirements work the way the Oscars have always worked: by setting an agenda, and by defining what high-quality, culturally important filmmaking looks like. Only this time, instead of telling filmmakers what they can’t say, they’re instructing producers, writers, and directors—those who aspire to Hollywood’s commanding heights, anyway—what they have to say, and in turn, instructing American viewers as to what they’re supposed to think.

It’s an attempt to enforce cultural hegemony by an industry increasingly anxious about its status. After all, movies have been moving the needle on our moral compass for a hundred years. Could so much have changed? Surely Twitter has not replaced Tinseltown as the nexus of cultural power. Surely America still needs Hollywood to tell us what’s good, what’s beautiful, what’s right. Because if not Hollywood, who? Won’t someone please think of the morons?


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