clock menu more-arrow no yes

How ’80s Hollywood and Ronald Reagan fueled each other — and paved the way for Trump

Film critic J. Hoberman discusses how movies during Reagan’s administration reflected the nostalgia and uncertainty of the era.

Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown and Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.”
Back to the Future was a “triumphant” nostalgia movie for the age of Reagan.
Universal Pictures

Much has been made of the way Donald Trump, on the brink of failure as a businessman, parlayed a stint on reality TV into both a revitalized public image and the American presidency. But he’s hardly the first entertainer to ride that wave into the White House — a case that writer J. Hoberman makes brilliantly and lucidly in his new book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan.

Make My Day is the final installment of Hoberman’s trilogy on Hollywood during the Cold War. The first two books focus on the ’60s and ’70s, respectively; Make My Day focuses on the ’80s, and in it, Hoberman shows how Hollywood provided a build-up to Ronald Reagan’s presidency, then captured America’s desires and anxieties during his administration. From The King of Comedy to Gremlins, Ghostbusters to The Last Temptation of Christ, Hoberman explores how films of the decade reflected an America that was newly fond of nostalgia cinema, still reeling from the blow to its self-image that was Vietnam, and largely allergic to the more subversive filmmaking of the decades that came before. And at its helm was Reagan, who began his career playing good guys on the silver screen.

Hoberman is one of America’s most influential film critics, having started his career at the Village Voice in the 1970s, where he was the second-string reviewer to Andrew Sarris. He spent many years at the Voice, eventually becoming the senior film editor, a position he held until 2012. Now, he regularly writes for the New York Times, Film Comment, and other publications. And to commemorate the publication of Make My Day, a series of films discussed in the book, with commentary by Hoberman, is running at New York’s Lincoln Center through Labor Day.

I recently sat down with Hoberman at Lincoln Center for a conversation about the dramatic arc of Reagan’s presidency, the ways Hollywood became the de facto “Department of Amusement” for America in the 20th century, and how Donald Trump is — and is not — an heir to Reagan.

Our conversation has been lightly edited.

Alissa Wilkinson

You start the book with an interesting metaphor: Hollywood as the country’s “Department of Amusement.” Can you explain a little more about what that means and where that came from?

J. Hoberman

Yes. The Department of Amusement comes from a [1934] movie — not a great movie, but a very interesting one — called Stand Up and Cheer!

Alissa Wilkinson

I had never heard of it before.

J. Hoberman

It’s rarely shown, even on television, in part because it has Stepin Fetchit, and so they’d have to cut a tremendous amount out of it. [“Stepin Fetchit” was a stage persona of the black actor Lincoln Perry in the 1930s; the stereotype that “Fetchit” played is considered to be a racist portrayal of a black man as a fool and the “laziest man in the world.”] But it also has Shirley Temple, so that’s how I got to see it, I’m sure, on TV.

Shirley Temple, Scotty Beckett, Mary Jane Carey, Lorena Carr, and Madge Evans in Stand Up and Cheer!
Shirley Temple, Scotty Beckett, Mary Jane Carey, Lorena Carr, and Madge Evans in Stand Up and Cheer!
Fox Film

In the movie, the idea is that the Depression can be cured by Hollywood, and the name they give it is the Department of Amusement. That’s the premise of the movie. And of course, [the “cure”] works.

So I was intrigued by this movie, which I think I saw probably before Reagan became president. I wondered, could he have seen this movie? Because it’s a handy way to describe Hollywood’s function in America.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are lots of interesting connections between the US government and Hollywood — in how the military interacts with Hollywood, for instance. But in your book you point to Reagan’s administration as a point at which the Hollywood ethos itself melds with politics.

J. Hoberman

Yes. It’s important to remember that during World War II, Hollywood was very close to being an unofficial arm of the government. It was very important. The Office of War Information looked at everything [the studios put out]. They determined what movies could be shown overseas, and so on.

It wasn’t censorship per se, though Hollywood had their own version of censorship with the Production Code. But it was certainly a way of steering the ideology of movies. And they had a lot of help, because there were a lot of people in Hollywood who were very involved in the war effort and were glad to make these kinds of movies.

So you could say that Hollywood was mobilized for the first time during World War II, and after the war it remained mobilized. There was this period of a brief civil war between the right and the left, and the right prevailed. So anxious producers began making anti-communist movies, and a certain kind of patriotic movies, and so on. The government didn’t tell them to do it, but they were good enough business people to do that.

In the ’60s, the system began to break down. Television had something to do with it. The fact that the studios were divested from the theaters had something to do with it, and there was the rise of agents and stars, and the decline of the studios. You’ve got these personalities who thought of themselves as kind of political figures. John Wayne is the best example of this, but he’s not the only one. Warren Beatty, a number of stars ...

Alissa Wilkinson

Robert Redford.

J. Hoberman

Yeah, Redford’s another one. And then my sense of it is that the [Hollywood studio] system really looks like it’s going to fall apart in the ’70s — the period that people think of as the best period for the movies.

Around the time of the Bicentennial, [the Hollywood system] began to reconsolidate with these new, let’s call them “neo-Hollywood movies” — [Steven] Spielberg, [George] Lucas, but also Rocky and so on.

This is the perfect time for Reagan. Not just because he was in movies; the movies were in him, in a very profound way. He could really personify Hollywood; it really was his worldview.

I think that that’s why he’s Hollywood’s greatest hit and last hit.

Alissa Wilkinson

I guess he would have personified nostalgia for a large number of voters, who would have remembered him from the movies of their youth.

J. Hoberman

The thing that I was trying to make clear in the book is that these [’80s] movies are symptoms of something, and Reagan is a symptom, too. They come out of the same social need. When nostalgia became recognized as a concept, even around 1970 and ’71 it was typically focused on the 1950s — or, rather quickly, on an imaginary version of the ’50s.

That wasn’t Reagan’s period. If he was going to be nostalgic for anything it was the 1940s. But he was able to conjure up this imaginary past that was very appealing to people and that was already going on on TV with Happy Days, and in movies like American Graffiti. There are many other examples of this.

A scene from American Graffiti (1973).
A scene from American Graffiti (1973), which was set in an imaginary version of the ‘50s.
Universal Pictures

So Reagan rode in on a wave of nostalgia. Then there’s the Bicentennial [in 1976], which is all about that, too. The country — [Americans] needed that. They wanted that.

Alissa Wilkinson

That nostalgia seems really different from the nostalgia of our era. Back then it seems like we were nostalgic for America’s imagined past; today’s nostalgia feels like second-order nostalgia. We’re nostalgic for Hollywood’s past.

J. Hoberman

Yeah. I think that that’s true of Trump also; it’s nostalgia for nostalgia. “Make America great again.”

But there’s that show ...

Alissa Wilkinson

Stranger Things.

J. Hoberman

Stranger Things, right. Which is sort of like an ’80s show.

Alissa Wilkinson

A pastiche of ’80s movies.

J. Hoberman

I spoke with someone recently who said when he first saw Happy Days [which ran from 1974 to 1984] on Nick at Nite, it seemed like it was from the ’50s. Not about the ‘50s, but from the ’50s. It’s a simulation of the past.

Alissa Wilkinson

People my age had the same experience with The Wonder Years, which ran from 1988 to 1993 but takes place from 1968 to 1973. You think, when you’re a kid, that you’re watching a show from that time, not about that time, so its version of that era replaces the actual era in your mind.

J. Hoberman

That’s right.

Alissa Wilkinson

I wonder whether the same thing will happen to people two generations from now with Mad Men.

J. Hoberman

Yes. TV is history.

Alissa Wilkinson

So, having said all that about the era leading up to Reagan’s presidency, can you describe the dramatic arc, so to speak, of the Reagan presidency and the movies that were part of it?

Actor Ronald Reagan
Reagan in The Bad Men (1941).
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

J. Hoberman

So obviously, Reagan has been around. He even was making moves toward getting the Republican nomination in 1968. He’d only been the governor [of California] for two years. And it was very close in 1976 — it really could have been him running against Carter, which would have been a fascinating match-up. Then he was extremely well positioned to run in 1980. So there’s a certain kind of inevitability about him. At the time it seemed horrible that this was happening, but in retrospect, you can see that he was there and he was going to get this job.

He did win. It’s a decisive win; it’s not a close one.

But right away, he alienated people. Democrats still controlled Congress, and so on. And his presidency was considered to be over after a couple of months — he was already very unpopular.

And then he survived an assassination attempt. There is really no other way to describe it: It was a miraculous thing [for his presidency]. It’s not as if people weren’t used to having their leaders assassinated! It was happening all the time. There even was this crazy superstition that he would die in office. So when he took the bullet and survived, it was magical. His whole program went through; there was just no opposition to him in Congress. That was a very triumphant period for him.

However, before the midterm election, there was a recession and he was getting the blame for it. Once again, he was on the ropes. The Republicans lost seats.

After that, he essentially revived the Cold War. There had been a lot of tension before that centered on Central America — Nicaragua and Cuba and so on. But he began baiting the Soviets in 1983. This was scary to some people and thrilling to others. It was somewhat polarizing. But he seemed to be showing some strength again, and that only increased throughout 1983.

The conquest of Grenada, as I think of it, was an incredible triumph [for Reagan]. You have to remember that American self-esteem had not recovered from the Vietnam War. It was a tremendous issue still. You can see this in the first Rambo film, First Blood. In that movie he’s such an ambiguous figure; he’s not the Rambo of the second film.

And so Grenada was taken as ... I mean, it was ludicrous. This was like the smallest nation in the Western hemisphere, and [the invasion] was regarded as this huge thing. The whole thing is so bogus. When I was teaching, I learned the lesson; I had just started teaching in 1983 and I made a joke about it. I didn’t think I was being particularly heavy-handed, but I was being ironic about Grenada and the students did not find this funny at all. I thought, Oh, really? Things have changed.

So that was a key thing for [Reagan]. Then he continues to build momentum and the economy is recovering. But [the Republican Party] still were very afraid that [former astronaut and Democrat] John Glenn would be a better candidate than him, and you can see why. If Glenn had had more personality, it might have worked.

So the momentum built [around Reagan]. And then, by the summer of 1984, it’s like complete hysteria. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. Reagan was bigger than the Beatles. Everything he did — everybody loved him.

That’s why in the book I bring up Ghostbusters. That movie is not all that funny. It’s not all that good. But people’s response to it was so over the top. It really filled some need for audiences. Just like Reagan.

So he had another great year after that; going into the summer of 1985, you get Back to the Future, another triumphant Reagan movie. It’s not really until 1986 that some of the bloom is off the rose and that you get movies that aren’t really feel-good movies, that are more subversive. Gremlins [from 1984] is the first. Terminator has some of that. Certainly Aliens. And The Fly. And then later, Robocop. These are comic book movies; they could have been thought of as kids’ movies. They use the same methods as Spielberg or Lucas. But they have very different, disturbing content, with social satire built in, too. So I see those as kind of a reaction.

There were other things happening, like Oliver Stone. He is what he is. But he was figuring out how to make movies that were critical [of American politics] at the time. They’re a mess, but he did it.

Toward the end of Reagan’s term, it all starts to fall apart. The movies are no longer interested in him, but they don’t know what they’re interested in. There’s a lot of Vietnam movies that are made from different perspectives.

Alissa Wilkinson

Sort of like anti-nostalgic movies. The good old days weren’t so good.

J. Hoberman

Yeah, and a lot of ’60s-style horror films came out.

Christians Protest Premiere of The Last Temptation of Christ
Fundamentalist Christians protest the release of director Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ” outside Paris movie theaters. The film, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, starred Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel.
Patrick Robert/Sygma/CORBIS/Sygma via Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

In the book you also point out that the end of Reagan’s presidency is when the “culture wars” really picked up, embodied in the huge battles that happened when Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988. Filmmakers got death threats, there were protests.

J. Hoberman

And that really comes into its own with Bill Clinton — the incredible hatred of Clinton.

Alissa Wilkinson

But it makes sense those battles erupt at the end of Reagan’s presidency, with these more subversive movies showing up.

J. Hoberman

Yeah. That’s an early indicator. And you know what? It’s ironic because it shows, as I like to say, that filmmakers can make movies, but they can’t make them as they wish, because the temper of the times and other pressures will always intrude. In a way, The Last Temptation of Christ is a real ’60s-style movie. Scorsese read the book in the ’70s and it just appealed to him. It presents a hippie Christ. It was a passion project for him. But when his movie version finally came out, it landed right in the lap of the revitalized evangelical right, which Reagan had brought along.

Alissa Wilkinson

He definitely benefited from fanning those flames.

J. Hoberman

He fanned the flames. And you know, it’s interesting: Like Trump, he was not overtly religious.

Alissa Wilkinson

He was divorced, too.

J. Hoberman

He was divorced, and he didn’t go to church that often. He believed in the Shroud of Turin and astrology. But none of this mattered [to the religious right].

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. You’d have thought those sorts of things would disqualify you in religious conservative eyes.

J. Hoberman

It was a real shock to Scorsese and the filmmakers how Last Temptation was received.

Alissa Wilkinson

I talked to Paul Schrader [who wrote the Last Temptation screenplay] about this last year, when his movie First Reformed came out. Whenever movies like First Reformed or Scorsese’s 2016 movie Silence come out, they’re a little worried they’ll face protests of the magnitude of Last Temptation. I just don’t think you’d ever get a reaction of that magnitude today.

J. Hoberman

No. And also because movies are just not that ...

Alissa Wilkinson

... they’re just not major cultural events anymore, right? Not in the same way, at least.

J. Hoberman

That’s right. I wouldn’t say that movies ceased to be significant events after Reagan, but I think much less. Goodfellas was a hit. People liked it. It made money. But it didn’t have the same [cultural] impact as The Last Temptation of Christ, nor did any of Scorsese’s subsequent movies.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s surprising to me how different the movie landscape has become in such a short period of time. There are more movies now, but I know that’s not the whole answer. It’s just that “event” movies are things like Avengers, which have no real political point of view or anything particularly provocative to say.

J. Hoberman

Yes. This doesn’t make me sorry that I’m no longer reviewing movies.

Alissa Wilkinson

I find it can be hard, with big movies, to feel like there’s anything worth saying at all.

J. Hoberman

It’s true. It’s not that interesting movies aren’t being made, because they are. And I think the response to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is interesting: People are so grateful that there’s something to talk about — love it or hate it. There’s something you can work on there.

But there are very few of those sorts of movies. The interesting movies are independent movies or foreign movies or documentaries. There’s not a mass audience for those. So you’re dealing with an artform [in cinema] that was once supreme [in the culture] and no longer is.

Alissa Wilkinson

In some ways TV has taken its place, as far as what drives people’s conversations.

J. Hoberman

But TV is also about to get bumped. It’s going to be supplanted by the internet. And TV has already lost its hegemony [in the culture].

Ghostbusters
“That movie is not all that funny. It’s not all that good. But people’s response to it was so over the top. It really filled some need for audiences. Just like Reagan.” - J. Hoberman
Columbia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

That leads to something interesting in the book: The role that critics actually play in helping people understand how movies or TV reflect the culture they’re living in. You’ve been a prominent critic for decades, and you were writing for the Village Voice during Reagan’s presidency, so you quote yourself in the book. That’s great; it shows how reviews really are kind of a “first draft” of the eventual critical analysis of a movie, which can take years to develop.

But it was surprising to read how many times critics missed how a movie reflected the political or social context of the day. That struck me as especially interesting, since it seems that critics are expected to pick up on political and social subtexts today, or to talk about how a movie fits into today’s politics.

J. Hoberman

That’s something that I think people started doing eventually. I started doing that in the ’80s, as a response to Reagan.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you think it was happening much before then, or no?

J. Hoberman

On the fringe. Certainly, if you look at what people wrote in the ’60s in the alternative press, you see this kind of political analysis. But that was more on the fringe, though it certainly was not unheard of.

In my case, I kind of had to do it. I had been very happy as the second-string critic at the Voice, because when I was reviewing I could do whatever I wanted and make my own agenda. Then the first-string critic [legendary film critic Andrew Sarris] fell ill, so I had to fill in for him, and I also had to make this interesting for myself. So that’s when I got into reviewing these movies that I really hated.

Alissa Wilkinson

Like the big blockbusters?

J. Hoberman

Yeah. It’s funny, when he recovered, I still incorporated that into my beat. I mean, Andrew Sarris — why would he want to review Rambo? Or any of these things? He didn’t care about that stuff.

But I was glad to review them, mixed with other movies, because I could vent. I could be outraged, in a way. I enjoyed that.

I think that after Reagan, it became more evident that movies had a political content. I touch on this in the book, but it’s worth noting when I wrote these long essays on Reagan for the Voice, the front-of-the-book political writers really hated that. They were really angry. They thought it was nonsense that I was reading Time and Newsweek to see how they were reporting on things and combining what I read there with movies.

Frankly, I didn’t care.

By the 1988 election, it was very normal to do that. The two main writers at the time of the 1988 election were Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. He had been a theater critic and a movie critic; she had been an entertainment journalist. They were covering the election, and it made a lot of sense. Their coverage was very good.

Now, it’s just a given. People realize the fact that politics is part of our popular culture. But that was not evident to people in 1980. And in fact, the idea seemed really abhorrent to a lot of serious people.

Alissa Wilkinson

Ironically, though criticism is often political today, Hollywood movies mostly seem to try to actively avoid politics, probably to make sure they can rake in as much money as possible. What happened with the cancellation of The Hunt is a good example: People got angry about it for political reasons and the studio didn’t want an expensive misfire on their hands.

J. Hoberman

That’s true. And there certainly are other ways to analyze movies. When I used to teach practical film criticism courses, certainly, I had no problem with people doing political analysis, but that was not what I was teaching people to do or even encouraging them to do. You have to take what’s there and figure out a way to talk about it.

As an exercise, I used to send my students to see the worst movies. I said, “You have to come back with one thing in this movie that you think is worth talking about.”

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s hard.

J. Hoberman

It’s hard. But that’s why, in my case, I got so deep into the politics of some of these things.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. Because even in an assiduously “non-political” film, choosing to ignore politics is a political choice.

J. Hoberman

But a lot of the movies going into the 1990s were very boring. Die Hard, movies like that. There was nothing there, I thought.

Alissa Wilkinson

I feel like the more all of those properties get rebooted, the less there is to talk about. It’s just more of, literally, the same.

J. Hoberman

Yeah. In the ’90s, they’re turning SNL characters and old sitcoms into big movies. It’s terrible.

Alissa Wilkinson

Near the end of the book, you say something about how Reagan was Hollywood, but Trump is Hollywood’s successor, like reality TV. And the comparison between the two of them is everywhere in this book.

J. Hoberman

When I started writing this book, Obama was president. He might even have been at the end of his first term when I started it. But by the time I was in the home stretch, Trump was president. And so I was thinking about him all the time. All the time.

I had written something in response to the 2016 election, but started right away saying how he isn’t Reagan, despite that they both have stars on Hollywood Boulevard.

Reagan could turn America into a Hollywood movie, to present it as this happy movie. And Trump doesn’t do that at all. But Trump is ... I don’t want to call him a genius, but he’s a very, very gifted demagogue.

Alissa Wilkinson

He’s certainly very savvy at something.

US-VOTE-REPUBLICANS-TRUMP
Ted Wright holds a foam campaign prop from 1980 of former US President Ronald Reagan prior to the final campaign event of US Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump and running mate Mike Pence at Devos Place on November 7, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty Images

J. Hoberman

Yes. And he understands the media. I have to say, I did not see him coming. The reason for that is my view of him was totally formed by the Village Voice, by seeing him as this conman and blowhard and racist. I never saw him on TV. Not on Fox, not on Celebrity Apprentice, none of that. Not in wrestling.

So I had no idea what the rest of America made of this guy. And then, during the campaign, it was like he would go to these events and do these Andrew Dice Clay-type standup routines. I just could not get it. I didn’t get it.

In retrospect, I see that his understanding of reality TV, that’s understanding a kind of narrative, just like Reagan understood Hollywood movies. He knows that.

And Reagan was passive; he acted in movies. Trump has a more active role in his own reality TV. He knows how to shape things. There’s the brilliance of combining TV and Twitter. He’s not the the first do that; Lady Gaga did it, other pop stars did it. He’s not the first one. But he was certainly the first person to do that in politics.

It’s this horrible, unwholesome combination, a new totality, based on cable TV, or reality TV, and social media. And it’s confounding to people. I wish I knew which politician could defeat this.

Alissa Wilkinson

He knows how to turn his own version of reality into actual reality, because he convinces people that it is reality.

J. Hoberman

The only thing is that it only works for like 40 percent of the population — which is an enormous amount, but it’s not everybody.

And he’s so concerned with ratings. I think that, in his mind, he doesn’t really care that a 40 percent approval rating is lousy for a president. Because it’s a fantastic Nielsen rating.

Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan is available from booksellers now.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.