Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Jackie

Jackie, Natalie PortmanChilean director Pablo Larraín has created a mesmerizing film (trailer) about 34-year-old former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy during the unimaginably painful three days between the assassination of our 35th President and the funeral she orchestrated for him. A chief virtue of the film is that, although it is deeply moving, it is free of typically sentimental Hollywood touches. For Americans who remember those days, the film will unearth many painful memories.

The film purports to recreate the interview between Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman)—caught as Rex Reed said “in the tragic headlights of history”—and an unnamed interviewer (Billy Crudup). In real life, the interviewer was prominent political journalist and historian Theodore H. White and, as in the movie, the interview took place only a week after the assassination for this issue of Life magazine. You can see his handwritten notes here.

Jackie appreciates the historical significance of her husband’s murder and is determined to give her husband his due. This is as much because she believes the office deserves it as it is to assure his legacy. She takes inspiration for the funeral from that of another assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln. In the midst of her grief, she embarks on an exercise in myth-making in which the interviewer (again, as in real life) is complicit.

She has had her own accomplishments, of course. She has restored much of the White House with historical accuracy and invited cultural icons for performances there. Her aim, she says, was to make everything in the People’s House “the best” it could be. In the three compressed days before the funeral, it is sometimes as if she is moving underwater through an ocean of grief. Yet much is demanded of her: planning the funeral and selecting the burial site, celebrating her son’s birthday November 25, preparing to move out of the White House, and supporting her children.

Natalie Portman well captures Jackie’s breathy delivery and Peter Sarsgaard Robert Kennedy’s Boston accent. Both give excellent performances, allowing you to set aside differences in physical appearance. As a result, Caspar Phillipson, who bears such a striking resemblance to Jack Kennedy, is startling in his brief role.

Larrain assembled a strong supporting cast—principally, Greta Gerwig as Jackie’s secretary, Nancy Tuckerman; Billy Crudup as the interviewer; John Hurt (whom I did not at recognize at all) as the priest called in to counsel the distraught widow; and Richard E. Grant as her design consultant.

Next November 22, it will be 55 years since the assassination, and still the loss of innocence, the loss of Camelot, haunts us. Though this idyllic association was inspired by Jackie and first popularized by White, it took root in Americans’ minds because it seemed so right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 73%.