The Brat Pack’s Moscow Mission : A Tale of the Politics of Two Different Hollywoods

<i> Ronald Brownstein, a contributing editor of this magazine, is writing a book about Hollywood and politics. </i>

DOUGLAS ROSS AND Bruce Toms, two aspiring young film makers, have never met Budd Schulberg. But you can’t fully understand the story of their encounter with the Soviet Union without understanding Schulberg’s. So it’s best to begin there--there being a Hollywood that’s as long gone as silent movies.

More than half a century ago, Budd Schulberg grew up, in his own words, as a “crown prince” in a Hollywood whose leading lights lived in a style royalty could only envy. His father, B. P. Schulberg, had been one of the industry’s fathers, an early partner of Louis B. Mayer (who went on to found MGM) and later head of production at Paramount. Young Schulberg’s best friend was Maurice Rapf, son of Harry Rapf, who stood third in line at giant MGM, behind the imperious Mayer and his legendary production chief, Irving Thalberg.

Schulberg and Rapf were young, smart and idealistic, and, like many who fit that description in the Hollywood of 1934, they were fascinated with the vast exertions under way in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. On their vacation from Dartmouth that summer, they visited the U.S.S.R. and were awed by virtually everything they saw. With its herculean construction projects and ambitious five-year plans, the Soviet Union seemed to them to be marching briskly toward the “better world” envisioned by progressives. They returned to Hollywood radicalized, believing that only socialism could lead the United States out of the Depression’s bondage. Within a few years, both joined the embryonic Hollywood branch of the Communist Party, which grew rapidly in the late 1930s on the strength of the belief that, alone among nations, the Soviet Union was building a better society.

Times change. In 1987, Ross and Toms toured the Soviet Union as part of an idealistic delegation of young celebrities--drawn from the cream of the film world’s “brat pack"--that went to record a video, a sort of polemic MTV clip designed to make U.S. teen-agers question their assumptions about the Cold War. Along the way, they saw something Schulberg and his contemporaries didn’t: a system that, instead of pointing toward the future, seemed to be teetering on the edge of collapse.


Shaped by his times, Budd Schulberg couldn’t wait to bring what he learned in the Soviet Union back to the United States; shaped by his times, Doug Ross just plain couldn’t wait to get back. By the end of the trip, Ross recalls, “every single one of us was so anxious to get out of there that we would maim.”


THE TRIP GREW out of efforts by Tom Siegel, then the fund-raising chief for SANE--a liberal disarmament group that has since merged with another arms-control lobby to form SANE / Freeze--to raise money in Hollywood for educational and lobbying programs. The more time Siegel spent plumbing Hollywood’s financial depths, the more he became intrigued with the industry’s cultural power. “I was trying to convince the group that the power of this medium to push a message was too powerful to ignore,” he says.

SANE officials developed the idea of taking a group to the Soviet Union, where it could examine the “evil empire” up close--and then deliver the group’s anti-arms-race gospel to young people more likely to listen to them than to the penitent physicists and military planners that arms-control groups usually send out on the road. Siegel began organizing the trip in fall, 1986. But his efforts went off track almost instantly.

Siegel’s problem was not attracting too few people; it was attracting too many. Hollywood’s youngest stars, and would-be stars, are probably its most politically effervescent element; many have their names on more letterheads than films. Among much of young Hollywood, the desire to bury the “brat pack” label under good works beats almost as strongly as the urge to graduate from John Hughes movies. Actress Mary Stuart Masterson (“Some Kind of Wonderful”), for one, thought that the young actors’ bratty image sent out exactly the wrong message to their fans--"that it was cool to be a bad boy, that it was cool to have an attitude, to not take things seriously. But the big thing these kids miss is taking themselves seriously and finding their own voice.”

Soon, Siegel had 50 or 60 people turning up at meetings, “in effect auditioning for the right to go on the trip.” He found himself engulfed by clamorous disputes over which young stars could attract the biggest audiences for the trip and which were the most seriously committed to political action. “Eventually,” he says wearily, “all that little back-stabbing got out of hand.” The project collapsed.

Months later, Siegel warily revived it. This time, he invited only a handful of mainstays from the original group. They brought in their friends: Masterson and Tim Ransom (a New York stage actor) asked Craig Sheffer (best known for “Some Kind of Wonderful”); Helen Slater (“Ruthless People”) called Erica Gimpel (the television series “Fame”). Judd Nelson (“The Breakfast Club”), Esai Morales (“La Bamba”), Helen Hunt (“Project X”) and several other entertainers and film technicians also signed up. Among them were Ross and Toms, who were there to direct the video.

On Oct. 10, 1987, a group of 17--armed with an Ikegami / Sony Beta Field recorder, five 8-millimeter video cameras and a Super 8-millimeter camera--took off from New York to Paris, where they boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

The group went to the Soviet Union with the implicit purpose of learning that its people aren’t ogres but “just like us,” and that’s inevitably what they discovered. They found the clubs where Soviet rock bands play. They met alluring Soviets of the opposite sex. They toasted fellowship with vodka. They displayed the requisite amount of righteous indignation about the foreign policies of the Reagan Administration. (Bundled up and bubbling over with studied outrage, Nelson explains on one piece of footage that he joined the expedition because “I strongly felt I had been fed a load of crap by my government.”) They wondered, with airy earnestness, why people can get along but nations can’t.

All par for this particular course, and probably not much different from what Schulberg and Rapf concluded more than 50 years ago. But the group that toured the Soviet Union also reached conclusions that Schulberg couldn’t have even imagined half a century ago.

First, they discovered that nobody in the Soviet Union dressed the way they did. People approached them in the street to see who they were. How could people tell they weren’t teen-age Muscovites? “We wore sunglasses and nobody else did,” says Ross, 27.

They discovered that in a nation where all lives are sublimated to the state, they couldn’t bear to sublimate themselves to a group for two weeks. Initially, the group toured Moscow together, following a rigid schedule laid down by their hosts, the Soviet Peace Committee. By the time they got to Leningrad, people began going their separate ways--a response both to the sterility of the official schedule and the impossibility of confining so many egos to one bus for two weeks.

On the way over, Masterson, 22, recalls, she had “sort of a romantic vision. . . . They would all be comrades, they would all be workers.” But the reality that she faced there shook her. “People are still holding on for that perfect society,” she says. “But they were getting sick and tired of waiting around.”

Nothing worked. Lines outside shops stretched toward oblivion. At the end of the trip, the group was fogged in at the Leningrad airport but couldn’t call Moscow about their connecting flight because no phone line was available. “The inefficiency was so frustrating: People don’t give a damn about anything because they get paid either way,” says Ross, who came home a born-again capitalist. “In some ways,” Masterson concluded, “it is a Third World country with bombs.”

When Sheffer, 28, probably the most skeptical of the entourage, asked one group of their Soviet counterparts about the treatment of Jews in the country, they recoiled and changed the subject. Even with glasnost , “a lot of things just weren’t talked about,” he says.Another eye-opener was the yearning to leave that they discovered among the young actors and musicians they met. “They still believe they can come to America and fulfill their dreams,” says Gimpel, 24, willowy and soft-spoken. “Especially the young actors want to come here so bad. I would talk to young actors and they would say, ‘Broadway, Broadway, Broadway.’ The goal for some of the actors was to get out--and that made me sad.”


MORE THAN 50 years earlier, Schulberg and many more of Hollywood’s best and brightest had seen in the Soviet system a model for the world. It was only at the end of the ‘30s, when the Communist Party tried to stop him from publishing his lacerating Hollywood novel, “What Makes Sammy Run?” that Schulberg questioned his faith. Repulsed by the banal cultural rigidity of the Communists at home and Stalin’s brutality in the Soviet Union--sensing that if he had tried to publish his novel in the Soviet Union he might have disappeared in Stalin’s obsessive purges, like some of the prominent writers he met in 1934--he quit the party in 1940. “It was,” Schulberg recalled in an interview, “extremely disillusioning.” Eleven years later, he became a friendly witness for the House Un-American Activities Committee, when it came to poke through Hollywood for Communists.

It’s difficult for this generation of Hollywood activists to imagine how their contemporaries half a century ago believed that the Soviets had the answer. To Ransom, a well-spoken 25-year-old actor who has organized his own small theater company in New York, the notion that someone might prefer living under that system to this one, even with its faults, seems almost inconceivable. “A better world? It’s not,” he says. “No way. Between the two, if I have a choice between this world and that world, this is a better world, no question about it.” When Sheffer returned to the United States, he “was ready to kiss the Tarmac.”

Reared on trendy disenchantment, many of those in the SANE delegation “came back with a more generous view of this country,” as Toms, 27, put it. “We are really unaware of how lucky we are as a country,” Slater says. “It reaffirmed my belief that I’m happy where I live, and in the freedom that I have,” Sheffer says. After a few days of listening to their Soviet counterparts condemn the commercialism and shallowness of Hollywood, and mostly nodding sympathetically, they even found themselves doing the unthinkable: defending the ability of crass, bottom-line-driven Hollywood to produce art amid the slasher movies. “I became somewhat indignant (about the criticism) even as I thought, ‘I don’t like it all either; it’s not all good,’ ” Masterson says.

Everyone took their own lessons from the trip; some seemed to never break through the simplistic cliches they had packed with their parkas. But most returned with respect but no envy, a heightened sense of the possibility of a more peaceful coexistence and an intensified appreciation for American values.

That’s not too different from the synthesis Ronald Reagan has arrived at as he leaves office. That may seem an irrelevant comparison: These were, after all, neophyte actors and activists, not political theoreticians. But their conclusions, even if superficial, may be more representative of the subtle changes in our prevailing assumptions about both countries. If a group of young liberals unconsciously share such key assumptions with a septuagenarian conservative President most of them loathe, it suggests that the urge to wind down the Cold War has quietly penetrated American society, obscured by the gales of partisan disagreement about how to do so.


WHEN THEY got up after kissing the Tarmac, the group discovered that its assumptions about activism and Hollywood were mistaken too.

The Hollywood that Schulberg and Rapf returned to in 1934 was a small town. It was not long before their heresies reached the ears of the studio elders. “ ‘Send them to Thalberg’ was the cry,” Schulberg told an interviewer many years later. “It was like ‘Go to the Wizard.’ Thalberg was sort of the high priest of Hollywood and the producers, especially Mayer, felt he could straighten us out.”

Production chief Thalberg, only 35 himself, sat the young men down and spoke to them gently. He was not alarmed. With wisdom beyond his years, he reminded them of the old axiom: Anyone who is not a socialist at 21 is a fool; anyone who remains a socialist after 21 is a bigger fool. He told them to forget their youthful enthusiasms, to study hard and to come back and assume their rightful places when they finished school. The studios, he said, took care of their own.

Unlike Schulberg, the brat-pack delegation was met not with outrage or bemused paternalism but with indifference.

In the Soviet Union, the group shot piles of film; Ross and Toms figured that to convert that mass into an accessible video would cost $75,000. They assumed that SANE would pick up the cost. They were wrong; SANE had its own financial problems and couldn’t pay.

Last January, the group met at Helen Hunt’s house and decided to assume control of the fund raising. “People seemed to think they had enough contacts in the industry so that if it was well divided they could raise the money,” says Toms.

Wrong again.

The group assumed what liberal political candidates everywhere assume: that for good progressive causes the well in Hollywood never runs dry. Or, as Ransom put it, “I had this thing in my head, that there were all these producers with money.”

There are. But they don’t part with it easily. After a few weeks, Ross and Toms, who had assumed primary responsibility for the fund raising, learned what most candidates eventually do: Hollywood is more fond of giving advice than money. “We’d go to see an actor, and they would say, ‘You should go to the producers, they’ve got a lot of money,’ ” says Ross. “The producer would say, ‘No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Everybody would say, ‘This is a really good project--here’s who should be helping you.’ ” In Schulberg’s day, power in Hollywood had been compressed and centralized; 50 years later, Ross was learning that Hollywood had grown so large, so disconnected, that there was no center.

Some Hollywood figures, including Robert Redford and director Roland Joffe, did step up to help them, as did Varitel Video, a post-production facility. But most of the industry leaders--besieged by requests from other causes--wouldn’t even talk to them. They ended up depending on their contemporaries, younger people just breaking into the business, and older, veteran activists such as Norman Lear, Stanley K. Sheinbaum and Peg Yorkin.

The video, a combination history of the arms race, travelogue and plea for peace, edited to a Sting and U2 back-beat, has now been virtually completed. Ross and Toms expect to begin showing it to its target audience of high school students shortly. A deal to syndicate it to local television stations is also under discussion. But as the project has dragged on, some of the participants--so fired with enthusiasm when they got off the plane--have drifted back to their lives and careers.

“To a certain extent,” says Siegel, who has left SANE and is now director of development for a medical center, “the project was very enlightening and a little discouraging, and people separated themselves out from it because . . . they were disillusioned a bit by the process.”

Ross and Toms, who have stuck with it, don’t seem disillusioned, only chastened. It has been, in every respect, immensely more difficult than they expected to put the vision in their heads onto the screen. “We never anticipated a two-year ordeal,” Ross says. For someone embarking on a career in Hollywood, getting used to that may be the most important lesson of all.