Communism? Peachy! Oscars mixup? A horror!

Shirley MacLaine

“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.”

Warren Beatty in “Reds”

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?

Mao Zedong

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.

Vladimir Lenin

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?

The horror! The horror!

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.

Warren Beatty and Lenin’s “fight for freedom”

On Friday we harked back to 1981 and the movie Reds, Warren Beatty‘s nostalgic look at the beginnings of Soviet Communism. 

A trailer for the film makes it clear exactly how Beatty viewed it and how he wanted potential audiences to view it. “There is a movie,” reads the on-screen copy, “that challenges conservative politics[,] that shines a spotlight on the issues of our day.” It’s about “a nation’s right to freedom…about the fight for freedom.”

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Alexander Kerensky

Let’s break this down: this trailer is actually suggesting that the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution of 1917 – which overthrew the democratic government under Alexander Kerensky that had been installed after the February Revolution of 1917 and replaced it with a totalitarian regime – was a step forward for freedom. Yes, the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to decades of oppression, terror, forced collectivization, show trials, political murders, genocide in the Ukraine, the Gulag, and much else. Furthermore, the trailer equates the Kerensky government with American conservatives circa 1981 (the year, of course, that Ronald Reagan became president), and implies that both are enemies of freedom; meanwhile it likens the Bolsheviks to the American Democratic Party of 1981, and suggests that both are heroes of freedom.  

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Dorchester Hotel, London

Beatty began writing Reds in 1976 with Marxist playwright Trevor Griffiths. They worked together on their screenplay celebrating Communism during months-long stints at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel in New York, the Dorchester in London (described by Wikipedia as “one of the world’s most prestigious and expensive hotels”), and the glamorous Plaza Athénée in Paris. Sometimes, while working in Paris, they were helped out on the script by Elaine May, who flew in and out of New York on the Concorde. There’s no record that any of them saw the irony in any of this. 

redsposterCertainly the irony seems lost on Peter Biskind, author of an in-depth Vanity Fair article about the making of Reds. Biskind makes it clear that he finds the “idealism” of the film’s hero, John Reed, praiseworthy, and he expresses regret that this “idealism…seems even more alien today than it did in 1981, given the current cynicism about politics.” He actually writes the following about Reed (played by Beatty) and his girlfriend and fellow Communist, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton): “More than just lovers, more than just revolutionaries, they have made political lives, lived their politics, and Reds is above all a tribute to that.” At least the late Roger Ebert picked up on the irony, noticing in his review that the copyright statement at the end of this film about a man who hated millionaires reads “Copyright MCMLXXXI Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited.” Beatty, for his part, appeared, by the time he won the Oscar for Best Director, to have recognized the contradictions at the heart of his own project, giving a nod in his acceptance speech to the bigwigs at Paramount and its then parent company, Gulf + Western, for their “decision, taken in the great capitalistic tower of Gulf + Western, to finance a three-and-a-half hour romance which attempts to reveal for the first time just something of the beginnings of American socialism and American communism.”

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Film rights, anyone?

Don’t get us wrong. Reds is a terrific piece of filmmaking – excellently acted and directed, with splendid production design, stirring set pieces, a lucidly told and fast-paced story about memorable characters. That’s precisely the problem. Beatty made a hero out of America’s most prominent early enthusiast for the Russian Revolution, and did a remarkably effective job of making that useful stooge’s blind devotion to a cruel and monstrous tyranny look praiseworthy, exciting, and supremely romantic. One can only be sorry that Beatty was moved to make a film about an ardent fan of Boshevism rather than about any one of its millions of victims. When, one wonders, will Tinseltown release a movie on the scale of Reds about the Gulag? 

Warren Beatty’s love letter to Lenin

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Warren Beatty in Reds

We’ve spent the last couple of days contemplating Shirley MacLaine‘s love affair with Mao’s China. Now let’s turn to her brother, Warren Beatty, and his long-term crush on Soviet Communism. Our focus is on the epic 1981 movie Reds, Beatty’s “dream project” and “labor of love,” which he co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. It tells the true story of John Reed (Beatty), a journalist – and devoted Communist – who, in the U.S., helped establish the American Communist Party, and, in Russia, was a fervent participant in and witness to the birth of the Soviet Union, where he became one of Lenin’s very first American useful stooges and ended up as the only American to be buried in the walls of the Kremlin. 

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A scene from Reds

Politics aside, Reds is a good old-fashioned big-screen drama in the best Hollywood tradition. Over three hours long, it’s as stirring and sweeping as Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia. And there’s no fashionable modern-day moral ambiguity: Reed is, quite simply, a hero. The movie encourages us to view his commitment to Communism as admirable. As Peter Biskind wrote in a 2006 retrospective on the film for Vanity Fair, it’s an “homage, of sorts, to the Russian Revolution as well as to the high passions that animated the largely forgotten American left in the years before, during, and after World War I.” In Biskind’s eyes, it wasn’t just John Reed who was a hero – Warren Beatty, too, was a hero, whose “vision and persistence” enabled him to win over studio heads who weren’t enthusiastic about the idea of a motion picture that would “dramatize the Russian Revolution from a not entirely unsympathetic perspective.”

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Diane Keaton in Reds

Biskind tells a story that provides a glimpse into Beatty’s mindset. While visiting the Soviet Union in 1969, Beatty was asked by Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk to star in a movie about Reed. Beatty turned Bondarchuk down – not because he was loath to take part in a project that would have been a work of sheer Communist propaganda filmed under close Kremlin control, but because he didn’t like the script. Even then, however, he was already thinking of making his own Reed movie, and asked to meet an old woman who had been one of Reed’s lovers. She had spent 16 years in a labor camp, and hated Stalin, but was philosophical, telling Beatty that “of course the revolution is in its early stages.” Beatty’s reaction? “It was at that moment I thought, I have to make a movie about that kind of passion.” Not, note well, a movie about that kind of self-destructive delusion – the woman was still devoted to an evil and pernicious ideology that had landed her in a labor camp for 16 years! – but about what he regarded as a laudable ardor.

More on Monday.

Shirley MacLaine: a fool’s paradise

Back in 1975, as we saw yesterday, Shirley MacLaine released The Other Side of the Sky, a staggering whitewash of a documentary about China, which she’d visited a couple of years earlier.

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Shirley MacLaine

Before going to China, she’d told reporters that sexual equality was “an official fact” in China and that America hadn’t achieved it yet; in China, far from waking up to the fact that she was a guest of a totalitarian terror state, where interviewees had to parrot the party line or else, MacLaine believed everything she was told. China, she insisted, was without social friction; everyone there shared a feeling of “brotherhood” and a “commitment to working for the common good”; during her visit, she later wrote, “it slowly dawned on me that perhaps human beings could be taught anything.”

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Deng Xiaoping at the White House

All nonsense, of course. But guess what? The documentary was taken seriously. It was nominated for an Oscar. Yes, for an Oscar. At a time when China was still a great unknown, it helped sell many Americans on a massive lie about the reality of life there.

In 1979, the Cultural Revolution finally having ended, China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping, visited the United States at the invitation of President Carter. At a state dinner, Deng was seated near Shirley MacLaine, who, according to one report, 

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Buddhist statues being burned during the Cultural Revolution

gushed that she had visited China during the Cultural Revolution and that everything had been wonderful. She was particularly struck by a professor who told her how grateful he was that the party had decided to send him and his fellow academics to the countryside. Deng looked at her scornfully and said that “he was lying.” Professors should be teaching university classes not planting vegetables.

Deng, eager to put China on the road to prosperity, had no interest in preserving the disastrous fabrications and delusions of the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile the starry-eyed Shirley, ignoring all reports to the contrary about the terrors of the Cultural Revolution, had remained in her fool’s paradise.

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Cultural treasures being burned during the Cultural Revolution

This is, needless to say, a woman who in interview after interview over the decades has presented herself as a proudly independent artist and intellectual, a thoroughgoing and defiant individualist, answerable to no person and no institution. But she had no trouble whatsoever wholeheartedly embracing the idea of a government with the power to force people out of their own beloved occupations and ship them out of the city to work on collective farms. A government that burned books and films – and executed countless artists, actors, authors, and other creative people like herself.

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Beijing rally during the Cultural Revolution

There’s no record of how MacLaine replied to Deng that evening. One thing’s for sure, however: his answer sure didn’t teach her a lesson. In the more than three decades since that state dinner, she’s continued to be a useful stooge for tyrannical regimes, promulgating cockamamie theories about international events and comparing the U.S. unfavorably to any number of unfree nations. As recently as 2011, she told an interviewer that, after World War II, the U.S. government, in cahoots with Nazi scientists, pushed a fear of Communism onto the American public in order to “keep control” over them. In other words, it’s not Communist governments that “keep control” over their subjects through terror; it’s the U.S. government that does so, by inculcating a (presumably unwarranted) terror of Communism.

She’s a useful stooge of the first water. And yet she still reaps applause everywhere she goes. Which is also the case with another star we might mention – her younger brother, Warren Beatty. How could two such ridiculous tools of totalitarianism have been born into a single family? We’ll continue pondering that question next time, when we move on to him. 

“Journalist spies,” then and now

Declassified Soviet documents have long since proven otherwise, but the myth persists that concerns, during the decade or so after World War II, about Kremlin operatives in Hollywood, Washington, and the New York media were the product of “McCarthyite hysteria.” It’s always useful, then, to be reminded just how real that phenomenon was – and just how important it is for free people always to be on guard against the infiltration of their societies by the servants of tyranny.

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Walter Duranty

Today, it’s well known, at least in some circles, that Walter Duranty (1884-1957), the New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Russia, was in fact a tool of Stalin who routinely printed outrageous lies – and who actively sought to discredit colleagues who strove to get out the truth. But Duranty wasn’t alone. On July 1 of this year, Matthew Vadum reported on new research in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies establishing that the number of American reporters of that era who can fairly be described as “journalist spies” turns out to be considerably higher than was previously thought.

In the article referenced by Vadum – entitled “Spies in the News: Soviet Espionage in the American Media During World War II and the Beginning of the Cold War” – University of Ohio scholar Alexander G. Lovelace reports that as of June 1941, no fewer than 22 American journalists were active, full-fledged members of the USSR’s spy network in the U.S., and that after 1941 that number grew. As Vadim reminds us, “the relationship between the U.S. government and the press was different in those days.” What he means is that there was an atmosphere of trust; government officials took it for granted that American journalists were, first and foremost, loyal Americans; consequently, as Lovelace notes (his article, unfortunately, is behind a paywall), they “were routinely trusted with secret information to be used as ‘background’ for stories.”

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Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Warren Beatty as John Reed in Reds

Who were these “journalist spies”? Some of their stories have already been told. The 1981 Warren Beatty movie Reds made heroes out of two of the earliest such turncoats – John Reed and Louise Bryant, both of whom, in the wake of the October Revolution, filed disinformation-packed “news reports” that glamorized the fledgling USSR and its Communist system.

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Whittaker Chambers

Nor is it any secret that Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine from 1939 to 1948, was a Soviet spy. Chambers, of course, eventually recognized the error of his ways, turned in State Department official Alger Hiss and other Communists, and told the story of his own journey into and out of the Party in the classic memoir Witness.

But Chambers wasn’t the only staffer at that supremely influential newsmagazine who was secretly working for the Kremlin. Others included John Scott, Stephen Laird, and Richard Lauterbach. The last-named did Stalin a great service when he reported that the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviets killed more than 20,000 Polish military officers in cold blood, had been committed by the Germans.

29 Jun 1955, Washington, DC, USA --- Original caption: Washington, D.C.: CBS News correspondent Winston Burdett testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee here today. Burdett admitted being a Communist from 1937 to 1942 and under questioning by Eastland, he said that he had engaged in espionage abroad for the Communists. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Winston Burdett testifying in 1955 before a Senate subcommittee, to which he confessed to having been a Soviet spy

Other KGB men included Peter Rhodes of the New York Herald-Tribune and Winston Burdett of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and CBS News. (Burdett, who for a time had regular personal contact with both FDR and J. Edgar Hoover, eventually admitted his history of espionage in testimony before a Senate subcommittee.) Then there was Walter Lippmann, in his time the dean of American political commentators. Lippmann himself was not a Soviet spy, but – as it turns out – his secretary was. Therefore Lippmann, in whom many leading politicians confided, unknowingly helped transmit vital top-secret information to the KGB.

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Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men

In the immediate post-Watergate era, many young Americans’ image of journalists was shaped largely by the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, which depicted Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as stirring heroes of American freedom. Some of those Americans took a long time to recognize that many journalists are, in fact, less devoted to objective truth than to partisan agendas, in the service of which they are more than willing to distort or suppress the facts. Some Americans, alas, have yet to wake up to this reality. Alexander G. Lovelace deserves our thanks for a timely reminder that even the most trusted, respected, and highly placed members of the fourth estate may secretly owe their allegiance to the most morally abominable of masters. There is no reason to believe this is any less true now than it was in the early days of the Cold War.