From Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 film “The Immigrant” to 1990’s hit “Green Card” and 2011’s “A Better Life,” the story of Tinseltown has long been a tale of immigrants, whose lives are reflected back on screen.
Be it Jews arriving from — or often fleeing — eastern Europe, the Italians and Irish bringing their distinctive styles, or British actors landing plum roles in the latest blockbusters, the path is well trodden.
“Beyond the Jewish emigres, (the entertainment business) has benefited from all of America’s great immigrant tribes,” Tom Nunan, a film producer who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles told AFP.
These included “the black Irish humor, the Italian operas, the dance traditions of South America and Spain .. All influenced first Broadway, then our film and TV traditions,” he told AFP.
The list of foreign actors drawn by Hollywood’s bright lights is like a Who’s Who of Golden Age showbiz: Audrey Hepburn (British/Dutch), Cary Grant (English), Sophia Loren (Italian) or Zsa Zsa Gabor (Hungarian).
The link between immigrants and Hollywood goes all the way back to Tinseltown’s founding in the early years of the 20th century.
As waves of newcomers arrived, the early silent movies were the perfect entertainment for masses who didn’t speak the language, and had just enough spare change for the cheap seats.
The original Hollywood moguls were all Jews from central or eastern Europe.
Universal was founded by Germany’s Carl Laemmle; Hungarians Adolph Zukor and William Fox started Paramount and Fox Film Corporation; Russian Louis B Mayer launched Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, while the Warner Brothers hailed from Poland.
– Fleeing from Nazis –
Their arrival and achievements in their adopted land are detailed in “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gubler, a standard textbook on the subject.
“As immigrants themselves, they had a peculiar sensitivity to the dreams and aspirations of other immigrants and working class families … groups that made up a significant portion of the early moviegoing audience,” Gubler writes.
Later the steady trickle of Jewish writers, producers and others turned into a flood as Hitler’s Nazi regime took hold, forcing an exodus of actors and filmmakers including Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Marlene Dietrich.
Hollywood’s Jewish roots have led to the old anti-Semitic chestnut that Tinseltown is entirely controlled by Jews — a variant of which erupts into the news every so often, typically involving a drunken outburst from an actor.
“You would hear complaints about Hollywood, and sometimes it was just ‘it’s too violent, it’s too sexy’,” said Robert Thompson, media professor at Syracuse University in New York state.
“But often it was disguised ways of simply being anti-Semitic,” he told AFP.
Two areas of the world which have been under-represented in Hollywood are Africa and Asia, along with the story of African Americans within the United States.
Eddie Murphy famously made a speech about the lack of black Oscar winners at the 1988 Academy Awards, pointing out that there had only been three in the past six decades.
There have been breakthroughs: in 2002 Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won best actor and actress, in 2012 “The Help” secured a win for Octavia Spencer, while this year black British director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture and an Oscar for Kenyan-born star Lupita Nyong’o.
On the Asian front, Thompson said: “In the more modern era, over the past half century or so we’ve had various immigration waves from Asian countries.
– Globalization –
“That immigration wave has not been reflected very much in mainstream culture, which I always found kind of surprising,” he added.
Everything is relative, of course — Ang Lee, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan have made careers. And one thing is for sure: Hollywood is increasingly targeting Asia, and specifically China, as a huge market for its products.
Of course, a key influence on Hollywood in the last 20 years has been globalization, the force which has impacted every other facet of public and economic life in the late 20th and early 21st century.
Both actors and directors in Hollywood can now just as easily be from overseas.
The director pattern was confirmed at this year’s Oscars, where Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) became the fourth non-US filmmaker in a row to win Best Director, after Ang Lee (Taiwan, “Life of Pi”), Michel Hazanavicius (France, “The Artist”) and Tom Hooper (Britain, “The King’s Speech.”)
“It is a trend,” said Thompson. “Part of it has to do with the fact that big budget movies are made here. And when you rise to a certain place … Hollywood is one of the places that you go… if you want to make it truly big.”
Thus all those British and Irish stars making their names in Tinseltown including: Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, and Colin Farrell.
Other Europeans have joined them: French stars Jean Dujardin in “The Artist” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Omar Sy of “X-Men” fame, and Austria’s Christoph Waltz, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino.
Arnie, the Austrian muscleman turned A-list actor, made it so big here that he became governor of California — a rags-to-riches story that, some might say, could only have been dreamt up in Hollywood. -AFP