Hand-wringing over Hollywood’s failure to mint a new “leading man” is a regular feature of movie criticism. Where is that next warhorse capable of “carrying a picture” in the fashion of a George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, or Bruce Willis? Take a look at, say, any Vanity Fair Hollywood issue from the past ten years, and you’ll find familiar names but hardly anyone who exerts the sort of primal box-office force that a somewhat older generation of actors can. Fortunately for Hollywood, there are no term limits for actors. In the absence of a new generation, the movies simply turn to last decade’s model.
Not so with the presidency. We might still hear from Bill Clinton on occasion, but his name has been absent from the marquee for some time now. As Burton W. Peretti posits in his intriguing new book The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, the self-promotion and self-fashioning that define the movie industry are increasingly found in the presidency, but it is still only now and then that an individual political star emerges who melds the spirit of Hollywood with the spirit of Washington, D.C.
For Peretti, the repeated triumph of style over substance in politics is clearly regrettable, as he explains with nods to Daniel J. Boorstin, Christopher Lasch, and the whole panoply of justifiably depressive cultural critics. But while Peretti concedes that cinema has intensified the possibilities for shallowness, it’s impossible to pretend that celebrity — the process of image-making — was unknown to politics before the age of 24 frames per second. “With respect to the United States it is difficult to find a past golden era in which rational speech dominated and in which irrational depictions of leaders and issues did not warp political culture,” Peretti writes. Choose your own anecdote about candidate X’s being bought and paid for by Whig saloonkeepers who had one hand on the flask and the other in your pocket.