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Is Filmland in Sync With America? : Liberals stay away from a conservative conference honoring Charlton Heston, while debate ensues on whether Hollywood jibes with the mainstream.


Organizers of a weekend conservative conference on Hollywood had hoped for some sharp discussions between conservatives and liberals over filmland's image-making machine. Instead, with scarcely a liberal to be seen, debate crackled between industry insiders and outsiders.

Many of the outsiders, mainly pundits drawn from journalism, academia and politics, told the 250 participants at the Century Plaza Hotel that Hollywood was out of sync with mainstream America, that its images were too violent, too sexual and that they excoriated the pillars of society, religion, the family and the businessman.

Hollywood's conservative elder statesman, Charlton Heston, was also feted at a Saturday evening tribute hosted by Rush Limbaugh. Other speakers included former Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn and National Review editor John O'Sullivan, whose current issue features "The 100 Best Conservative Movies." The two days of seminars on "The Dream Factory and the American Dream: Hollywood and American Culture" were co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the National Review Institute.

Former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont, chairman of the National Review Institute, set the tone for the assault on Hollywood at the opening session. He railed against what he spelled out as "kulture smog . . . the misrepresentation of culture by its elites. To an awful lot of people, what you see on the screen seems out of touch with their daily lives."

"The language of the gutter has become the lingua franca of the screen," said Tony Thomas, an author and Canadian Broadcasting Corp. producer and host. "Sex and violence are a fact of life, but where do you draw the line at depicting them?"

But later, some industry conservatives defended Hollywood against suggestions of a liberal conspiracy and TV's decision-makers as mostly "suburban, bourgeois" family people. They said that what ends up on screens, large and small, is decided not by politics, but by the marketplace.

"I have never known a studio chief or network executive to approve anything without its demographic ducks in a row," Gerald McRaney ("Major Dad") told a panel on television's depiction of family life. "Usually people are, you should excuse the expression, conservative about what they put on."

Fox Inc. executive vice president George Vradenburg denied that Hollywood's view of America was largely debauched. He said the most violent show among TV's top 25 was "Monday Night Football" and noted the huge success of such family fare as "The Lion King" and TV's No. 1 show, "Home Improvement."

"We produce what will get audiences," he said. "We tend to reflect shared values. We're told we put out too many R-rated movies when G movies are more profitable. It's not true. R-rated movies are significantly more profitable. If movies are out of touch with America, why do Americans watch them?"

Vradenburg said in an interview later that Hollywood's critics didn't understand how the business worked. "Humor isn't political. Drama isn't political. I don't believe this crowd believes it. This business is driven by commercial considerations."

Conservatives also differed over the oft-repeated "chicken-and-egg question"--whether Hollywood was a lens through which society is viewed or a model that inspires behavior. The one panel that did have a self-proclaimed liberal, producer Bill Blinn ("Brian's Song"), was in harmony on the subject of censorship, with all decrying it.

The sharpest clash erupted between fellow conservatives--film critic John Simon and author Arianna Huffington, wife of Republican senatorial candidate Michael Huffington. Huffington disputed Simon's contention that artistic greatness required "the freedom to offend," saying great art must have spiritual value. Simon, known for his acid pen and declaring "God is in the details," criticized the Greek-born Huffington's pronunciation of the word spiritual to a loud chorus of boos and hisses.

Liberals came in for some sharp criticism, too, in absentia. Robert Carnegie, founder and director of Playhouse West, said most actors and artists were liberal because they were emotionally injured in their youth and were "by nature deep feelers. . . . They go in the direction of their feelings. They are not deep thinkers."

Carnegie's views were contested by artists on subsequent panels. And Ronald Radosh, a history professor at Adelphi University, criticized films on the McCarthy era such as "Guilty by Suspicion" for depicting alleged communists as being "pure as ivory snow."

"Yes, the hearings were punitive . . . but most if not all of those summoned by the (House Un-American Activities Committee) were ardent Stalinists whose own sins exceeded those of their tormentors," he said.

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