Let us now praise famous women. In the 1964 film Kisses for the President, the camera pans across a crowd at the inauguration of a new American president, as the chief justice issues the oath:…’I do solemnly swear… faithfully execute… the office of the president…’
The camera stops at the beaming face of Fred MacMurray, then pulls back to show that a woman is taking the oath. Polly Bergen plays the first woman to be elected to the big job. MacMurray is her husband – the First Gentleman. The film is a comedy, which is what the idea of a female president was in 1964.
Bergen is the first fictional Madam President in American movies – and if the polls are correct, Hillary Clinton will be the first real one, with her husband Bill playing the role of first First Gentleman. Despite what we often hear, ex-presidents do not retain the right to be addressed as Mr President, or even President XYZ. So WJC will be The Honorable Mr Clinton – which carries its own irony, given that old Arkansas saying that was often applied to him: ‘He’s a hard dog to keep on the porch’.
Movies sometimes get there before the American public, in terms of radical choices. In the 1972 film The Man, the president and speaker of the house are killed in an accident and the vice-president has eight weeks to live. The next in line, the establishment realises in horror, is the President of the Senate pro-tempore, Senator Dilman, a mild-mannered professor. That makes James Earl Jones the first black fictional president. Yes, Darth Vader in the Oval Office… ‘Your powers are weak, old man’.
Politics and movies have always fed off each other but Hollywood’s reverence for the presidency is close to idolatry – at least in depictions of real presidents. There are hundreds of movies featuring an American president. Indeed, every president has been depicted in at least one movie or TV show, even if only in a bit part. There’s even a permanent White House set in a studio outside Toronto, with an Oval Office that can be decked out for any era.
No other country idealises its leader to anything like the same degree. E pluribus unum, says the Seal of the United States. Out of many, one – and they do mean One. ‘Buzzards’ guts, man,’ says Daniel Day Lewis in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), rising to his full height as he seeks the numbers to ban slavery. ‘I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.’
When the founding fathers were debating what to call their supreme leader, John Adams wanted the word ‘Majesty’ and indeed, that is how many presidents are depicted, as American Kings. Sitting presidents used to be immune from depictions while in office but no longer. Southside With You, opening in Australia later this year, depicts the first date of Michele and Barack Obama as young romantics; another new film, Barry, gives us the young lawyer who would become Barack O. How many films has Australia made about its prime ministers? There is a bare handful in the UK and France, too.
The precedent about sitting presidents changed in 1963, when Jack Warner personally supervised the production of PT 109, in which Cliff Robertson played a young Jack Kennedy at war in the Pacific. Joe Kennedy manoeuvred Warners into the production as a none-too-subtle way of kicking off his son’s re-election campaign for 1964. Given its purpose, the movie is almost understated in its depiction of Kennedy’s heroism. JFK had approval of Robertson’s casting and is said to have liked the movie – though he thought it could have been shorter. In the end, Kennedy became more famous for a much shorter film – that of amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder, capturing Kennedy’s assassination.
That’s the dark cloud over presidential films: some are about the way America kills its own. Even with all its faults, Oliver Stone’s JFK is a riveting story. Perhaps speculative fiction might be a better term: Stone’s mistake was to claim it as factual after he made up some characters. No film-maker is more obsessed with recent presidential history. He’s done Nixon, George W Bush (in W), and Kennedy’s assassination (though not his presidency). He even executive produced The Day Reagan was Shot in 2001.
What’s behind the love affair between the movies and POTUS? To a strong degree, the obsession follows a 19th century American desire to deify their leaders – from George Washington not telling a lie to Thomas Jefferson’s statesmanship to honest Abe Lincoln’s towering oratory. A new country needs heroes, and a new mechanical art form offered an even more effective way than the stage of promoting them.
In another sense, the link is simply organic. There’s no business like show business – except politics. It’s not hard to see Donald Trump’s career and persona as essentially an extension of the story of PT Barnum, with a large helping of Charles Foster Kane. This election, more than most, will provide an accurate assessment of whether there really is one born every minute. Trump’s whole pitch seems to be based on appealing to those who would ask, on reading Barnum’s most famous quote, one what?
If the films about real presidents are largely reverent, they’ve still made some good’uns, partly because the best presidents attract the best film-makers. There’s a brotherhood of achievement at work here when John Ford makes Young Mr Lincoln in 1939 with Henry Fonda and Stephen Spielberg makes Lincoln in 2012. Both Ford and Spielberg were at the top of their powers, just like any sitting president (by definition). I would need to work harder for a theory that explains the recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or the run of films about kick-ass action figure presidents, like Harrison Ford in Air Force One.
Fictional presidents might actually tell us more about what Americans really think of their leaders. One ideal is represented by a certain physical type, based on John Kennedy’s looks and the high foreheads of some of the first families of American acting. In The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin, Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd, a widower with all the romantic grace and stature Hollywood wants in a president. Martin Sheen plays his chief of staff. Sheen then becomes Sorkin’s choice for the top job in The West Wing – still the best series there has been about American politics (with an honourable mention for Kevin Spacey in House of Cards). A high forehead is not necessarily a prerequisite to become president, but it sure helps after those two guys.
At the other end of fictional presidents are some mad, bad and dangerous men, like Gene Hackman in Absolute Power or Jack Nicholson in Mars Attacks! Many are just weak, like Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove, or cowardly and craven, like Donald Pleasance in Escape from New York.
And sometimes, rarely, we get a frank glimpse of the reality of real presidents. In Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, a black man who serves eight presidents, in a story that overthrows any tendency to idealisation. ‘Gimme some of that prune juice Cecil,’ cries the famously constipated LBJ (Live Schreiber) sitting on the toilet in the White House with the door open, conducting business with his top aides as Cecil pours the prune juice.
We’ve only begun to hear what black film-makers might have to say about the office of President. The story of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, for instance; she was a slave in his house and bearer of perhaps six of his children. When are we going to see that movie?
Six of the best:
Lincoln – Not just good on Abe the man; it’s superb on the application of power in pursuit of policy. There is domestic politics too, as Lincoln tries to satisfy his grieving wife’s demand that he not let another son die in the civil war. Tony Kushner’s script revived the memory of great political oratory.
Hyde Park on Hudson – Bill Murray is terrific as a version of the eccentric but randy Franklin D. Roosevelt, having several affairs at once, while concealing from the American public that he’s in a wheelchair. How different the relationship between press and president once was.
The Contender – how dirty does it get? Jeff Bridges wants to appoint congresswoman Joan Allen as the first female vice-president. A cabal of conservatives, led by Gary Oldman, decide to ’gut the bitch’, in their words, with allegations of sexual misconduct. It’s fictional, but utterly prescient.
The American President – Not just for Michael Douglas’s charm, not just for Annette Bening’s comic timing, but for Aaron Sorkin’s pungent script. Shepherd’s take-down of his opponent Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) is a zinger. ‘He is interested in two things and two things only – making you afraid of it, and telling you who to blame for it. That ladies and gentleman is how you win elections.’
Thirteen Days – Roger Donaldson’s brilliant unpacking of the Cuban missile crisis. Jack (Bruce Greenwood) and Bobby Kennedy (Steven Culp) and their political adviser Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) battle Castro, Moscow and their own generals in a great film about the agony of making decisions.
Primary Colors – Okay, he’s not strictly a president until the last scene but this is such a good film about getting there. Jack Stanton rises from southern governor to the White House and betrays a lot of people along the way. Any resemblance to Bill Clinton is entirely intended. John Travolta makes you want to vote for him, even though he’s a scumbag.