“Legendary screen star reveals that they are both ‘still processing the horror of it.’” The headline appeared in the Daily Mail in March. The “screen star” referred to is Shirley MacLaine. The other person embraced by the word “both” is her brother, Warren Beatty, who of course is also a screen star.
Here’s the actual quote from MacLaine: “I think we’re all processing the horror of it. I’m still dealing with it.” She added: “We know how difficult it was for him, but it was also for me.” The reporter, Chris Spargo, reports that “MacLaine could be seen gasping, covering her mouth in shock and then clutching her chest.”
What “horror” were they still processing?
Now, as it happens, we’ve written about both MacLaine and Beatty on this site. MacLaine, as it happens, was one of the few Americans to gain access to Communist China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. This was in 1973, at which point that nightmarish chapter of history had been going on for seven years. It involved the murder by the authorities of millions of people who were considered, for some reason or other, to be counter-revolutionaries. During the entire period, all but a tiny minority of the Chinese people lived in a constant state of terror. Who would be the next victim? Would the men come knocking at our door in the middle of the night and take one of us away forever? Which one?
MacLaine was there in the midst of it all. Filming what she saw. And she returned to the U.S. with a documentary that might have been made by Mao himself – or by Leni Riefenstahl. It was as splendid a work of propaganda for Maoism as one could imagine. Entitled The Other Side of the Sky, it tried to demonstrate certain propositions in which MacLaine actually believed – namely, that Chinese women were more liberated, more equal, than American women; that China lacked “social friction” and was awash in a sense of “brotherhood”, that everyone there was committed “to working for the common good.” The film won an Oscar nomination.
Beatty has also promoted totalitarianism. The 1981 movie Reds, which he directed, co-wrote, and starred in, was described by one reviewer as an “homage, of sorts, to the Russian Revolution.” A trailer represented it as the story of a “fight for freedom” and a timely challenge to “conservative politics” – the point being that Lenin, alongside Reagan, was benign. Reds, which celebrated a regime that killed more people than any other in human history except for the one applauded by his sister in The Other Side of the Sky, nabbed Beatty an Oscar for Best Director.
So obviously MacLaine didn’t consider Maoism a horror. And Beatty wouldn’t use that word to describe Leninism, either. So what “horror,” then, was MacLaine referring to in that Daily Mail article?
Why, it was that moment of confusion at the end of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, when Beatty and Faye Dunaway at first mistakenly presented the Best Picture statuettes to La La Land rather than to Moonlight. Days after the mixup, MacLaine was still pondering it. “I’m basically a mystic,” she told the Mail. “And I’m wondering what was that all about? And I am not sure yet. I have to think about it some more.” One wonders how much thought she’s ever given to that slightly bigger mixup for which she was primarily responsible – namely, the representation of Mao’s China in a major film as a paradise rather than a hell on earth.