October 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Seven months ago, John McCain was within striking distance of the White House — or at least the Republican presidential nomination. Today, he has an even more impressive job — he’s the most important, and feared, politician in Hollywood.

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the Arizona senator has held hearings for the last month on the film industry’s marketing of R-rated movies to children. What he’s found, he believes, is nothing less than ”outrageous and egregious.” And what his committee may decide to do about it has many in Hollywood more rattled than they’ve been by Washington in years.

”We’ve had expressions of outrage from thousands of parents when they find out what these people have been doing,” the 64-year-old senator says of the movie industry. ”We’re talking about the marketing of violent materials to children as young as 10. We’re talking about R-rated focus groups with 10-year-olds. What they’re doing has to stop.”

But it’s his unspoken words that are even more unsettling to Hollywood: Or else.

Bashing the entertainment industry has become a quadrennial tradition in Washington. If it’s not Dan Quayle saving the Republic from Murphy Brown, it’s Bob Dole decrying big-screen immorality, or — more recently — Al Gore and Joe Lieberman deploring ”cultural pollution.” Usually, Hollywood yawns, confident that the issue will evaporate after the election. Usually, that’s exactly what happens.

But on Sept. 27, when eight of Hollywood’s top executives were finally dragged before McCain, it was clear that things were different. For more than two hours, McCain grilled the suits so thoroughly they practically had to be basted with lemon butter. ”Will you or will you not market movies rated R to children under 17?” he icily asked of each exec, expecting yes-or-no answers.

He didn’t get many. The Hollywood eight — representing Universal, Sony, Paramount, Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers, DreamWorks SKG, and MGM/UA — clearly hadn’t prepared for so heated a roasting. In fact, just two weeks earlier, industry honchos had blithely declined McCain’s invitation to a hearing, dispatching instead 79-year-old Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America and the film industry’s flack in D.C.

The brush-off still has McCain steaming. ”I wanted to hear from the people responsible for the actions of the studios, not from some lobbyist,” he all but growls. ”I thought it was strange that [Miramax’s Harvey] Weinstein found time to host a [Democratic] fund-raiser but didn’t have time to appear before Congress.” (”Before there was a word of testimony,” responds a studio spokesperson, ”Miramax was the first to put forth guidelines for parents, so it was odd that Weinstein was the only one whose personal schedule was called into question.”)

Valenti finally convinced the studio chiefs to jet in for a second hearing, but there was a surprise waiting when they landed in D.C. That very same day, The New York Times ran a front-page story leaking snippets of a Federal Trade Commission report on Hollywood marketing — a report sponsored by McCain and Lieberman after last year’s Columbine shooting — which revealed some pretty unsavory stuff. The piece detailed a focus group for Sony’s R-rated serial-killer sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer packed with children as young as 9, as well as kiddie-filled trailer screenings for Disney’s R-rated sci-fi rampage Judge Dredd and MGM/UA’s R-rated mutant-teen horror flick Disturbing Behavior.

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