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The Brat Pack's Moscow Mission : A Tale of the Politics of Two Different Hollywoods

January 22, 1989|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein, a contributing editor of this magazine, is writing a book about Hollywood and politics.

DOUGLAS ROSS AND Bruce Toms, two aspiring young film makers, have never met Budd Schulberg. But you can't fully understand the story of their encounter with the Soviet Union without understanding Schulberg's. So it's best to begin there--there being a Hollywood that's as long gone as silent movies.

More than half a century ago, Budd Schulberg grew up, in his own words, as a "crown prince" in a Hollywood whose leading lights lived in a style royalty could only envy. His father, B. P. Schulberg, had been one of the industry's fathers, an early partner of Louis B. Mayer (who went on to found MGM) and later head of production at Paramount. Young Schulberg's best friend was Maurice Rapf, son of Harry Rapf, who stood third in line at giant MGM, behind the imperious Mayer and his legendary production chief, Irving Thalberg.

Schulberg and Rapf were young, smart and idealistic, and, like many who fit that description in the Hollywood of 1934, they were fascinated with the vast exertions under way in Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. On their vacation from Dartmouth that summer, they visited the U.S.S.R. and were awed by virtually everything they saw. With its herculean construction projects and ambitious five-year plans, the Soviet Union seemed to them to be marching briskly toward the "better world" envisioned by progressives. They returned to Hollywood radicalized, believing that only socialism could lead the United States out of the Depression's bondage. Within a few years, both joined the embryonic Hollywood branch of the Communist Party, which grew rapidly in the late 1930s on the strength of the belief that, alone among nations, the Soviet Union was building a better society.

Times change. In 1987, Ross and Toms toured the Soviet Union as part of an idealistic delegation of young celebrities--drawn from the cream of the film world's "brat pack"--that went to record a video, a sort of polemic MTV clip designed to make U.S. teen-agers question their assumptions about the Cold War. Along the way, they saw something Schulberg and his contemporaries didn't: a system that, instead of pointing toward the future, seemed to be teetering on the edge of collapse.

Shaped by his times, Budd Schulberg couldn't wait to bring what he learned in the Soviet Union back to the United States; shaped by his times, Doug Ross just plain couldn't wait to get back. By the end of the trip, Ross recalls, "every single one of us was so anxious to get out of there that we would maim."

WHEN THE STARS COME OUT IN MOSCOW

THE TRIP GREW out of efforts by Tom Siegel, then the fund-raising chief for SANE--a liberal disarmament group that has since merged with another arms-control lobby to form SANE / Freeze--to raise money in Hollywood for educational and lobbying programs. The more time Siegel spent plumbing Hollywood's financial depths, the more he became intrigued with the industry's cultural power. "I was trying to convince the group that the power of this medium to push a message was too powerful to ignore," he says.

SANE officials developed the idea of taking a group to the Soviet Union, where it could examine the "evil empire" up close--and then deliver the group's anti-arms-race gospel to young people more likely to listen to them than to the penitent physicists and military planners that arms-control groups usually send out on the road. Siegel began organizing the trip in fall, 1986. But his efforts went off track almost instantly.

Siegel's problem was not attracting too few people; it was attracting too many. Hollywood's youngest stars, and would-be stars, are probably its most politically effervescent element; many have their names on more letterheads than films. Among much of young Hollywood, the desire to bury the "brat pack" label under good works beats almost as strongly as the urge to graduate from John Hughes movies. Actress Mary Stuart Masterson ("Some Kind of Wonderful"), for one, thought that the young actors' bratty image sent out exactly the wrong message to their fans--"that it was cool to be a bad boy, that it was cool to have an attitude, to not take things seriously. But the big thing these kids miss is taking themselves seriously and finding their own voice."

Soon, Siegel had 50 or 60 people turning up at meetings, "in effect auditioning for the right to go on the trip." He found himself engulfed by clamorous disputes over which young stars could attract the biggest audiences for the trip and which were the most seriously committed to political action. "Eventually," he says wearily, "all that little back-stabbing got out of hand." The project collapsed.

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