Aside from O.J., two mysteries engulfed America last year-and the nation is still trying to figure them out: First, how did an eager Southern boy with a weird name orchestrate a Republican takeover of Congress? Second, how did an eager Southern boy with a weird name take in more than $300 million at the box office?
Both answers are the same; the fates of Newt Gingrich and Forrest Gump are inextricably linked. Just as few in Washington forecast the Grand Old Party’s avalanche at the polls in November, few souls in Hollywood could have guessed the huge magnitude of Gump fever at ticket booths. In both cases, a heretofore taciturn slice of the American pie — call it a ’90s take on Richard Nixon’s silent majority — defied the pundits and cast a vote for a mixed message of candy-apple nostalgia and stern virtue. On screen, Forrest the soldier got into a scrape with a hippie. In real life, Newt declared war on ”counterculture McGoverniks.” Coincidence? You decide.
It may seem fatuous to say the homespun values of Forrest Gump rolled out the red carpet for Gingrichian populism, but consider the facts: In 1992, Dan Quayle took potshots at Murphy Brown, but in 1994, right-wing crusaders were quick to clear space on the Republican park bench for another fictional character, Tom Hanks’ heroic Alabama simpleton. While Gump began its surge from movie to movement, Crossfire host Pat Buchanan claimed Forrest as a mascot, and William F. Buckley’s crusty National Review exalted the hit as the ”Best Picture Indicting the Sixties Counterculture.”
Gump‘s coproducer Steve Tisch, no doubt concerned about his film being seen as a rightist manifesto in the liberal salons of Oscartown, tried to downplay the political association. ”I don’t think the film was a catalyst for a trend of any kind,” Tisch said a few days after the election. ”I don’t think this film is about conservative or liberal values, or even American values. The film is about human values.”
Whatever the connection, the sea change in Washington is likely to signal a metamorphosis in Hollywood. Ever since Easy Rider, conservatives have derided Tinseltown as a safe haven for counterculture types with fat wallets and loose morals. (It doesn’t help that stars and studio chiefs went all gooey for Bill Clinton.) Now that they’re in power, Republicans are wielding their cleavers at some of entertainment’s sacred cows. Whether this is the first big escalation of the ”culture war” remains to be seen. This much is true: For those who missed the message of Gump and Gingrich, the ride won’t be so easy from here on out.