Hollywood is the sixth novel in Gore Vidal’s fictional history of the United States. In chronological order, these novels—which also include Burr (1973), Lincoln (1984), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), and Washington, D.C (1967)—cover every major period from the American Revolution to the middle of the twentieth century. As essayist and novelist, Vidal has been critical of the growth of American imperialism, debunked the founding fathers, and exposed the failings of both the legislative and executive branches of government. Except for Lincoln, there are no heroes, no truly towering figures in Vidal’s assessment of America—although he holds a special place for Aaron Burr as the dissenter who tried to reveal the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson and to fashion a political career that was not based on the pieties of the ruling class.
In Hollywood, Vidal is concerned to show how the United States made the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries in the Wilson and Harding administrations. Woodrow Wilson is presented as a surprisingly astute politician who senses that America will be drawn into World War I but who knows he cannot commit the country to the Allies until after the election of 1916 and after the Germans take aggressive action against American shipping. Wilson is clearly a man of principle, respected—if not much liked—by his fellow Democrats. He genuinely dreads the entrance of America into the war, believing that some of the country’s democratic principles may be compromised. Once war is declared, however, Wilson transforms himself into a world leader, incurring the enmity of rivals such as Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who is ultimately able to defeat Wilson’s plan for America to join the League of Nations.
Vidal is remarkable in his ability to make Wilson and Warren G. Harding live as characters. For example, there is a scene in which Senator Day glimpses Wilson in a fugitive moment. Like every politician, Wilson has a carefully constructed public face, which Day is shocked to see him suddenly drop. With his facial muscles relaxed, Wilson becomes slack and looks almost idiotic—the very opposite of the image he projects of the intellectual and highly controlled statesman.
The example of Wilson’s unguarded moment fits seamlessly into the novel’s alternation between Washington, D.C., and Hollywood. Both cities are viewed as capitals of national influence, with Hollywood developing an industry to portray, among other things, the very notion of the image, of the persona, which Wilson and other politicians have cultivated. The idea of Hollywood, the idea of the image, is not new. What is new, Vidal implies, is the mass manufacture of images. This is what attracts William Randolph Hearst (in the memorable scene that opens the novel) to making motion pictures and to investing in Hollywood. Hearst realizes that films, even more than newspapers, will have the power to dominate the public imagination.
Although Vidal does not say it in so many words, it is clear that he believes Harding was able to make himself into the President of the 1920’s because he understood the process of image building so well. Harding began as a hack, a small-town politician, and a newspaper owner. He knows all about wooing public opinion and ingratiating himself with his fellow politicians. He is handsome and looks presidential. He understands, however, that this is not enough to get him elected president. Vidal credits him, in fact, with considerable guile. After Wilson has a stroke, making him clearly unable to compete for a third term, and Theodore Roosevelt (a strong contender for the nomination in 1920) dies, the Harding forces go to work. Since there are two strong front runners for the Republican nomination, Harding’s strategy is to make himself the most attractive alternative and to make sure that he is everyone’s second choice. At the Republican convention, the front runners deadlock, and Harding triumphs in exactly the way he had planned....
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