The remaking of a president
Richard Nixon is back – and he's ready for his close-up
Andrew Fleming knows there's no easier way to make a killing at the box office than to trot out a well-known villain. But the latest bogeyman the film director is bringing back from the dead isn't Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers or even Chucky.
It's Richard Nixon. And this time, the 37th president is getting laughs as well as shivers.
"Whenever we watched video of him, we thought it was both scary and funny at the same time," says Fleming, whose film "Dick" -- as in Dick Nixon -- will be released Wednesday. "He was just irresistible to us. There's just something comic about him, and we realized that no one had really treated him with humor."
The late ex-president, once described by his own image consultant as "a funny-looking guy," is in demand in Hollywood. Since his death five years ago, Nixon has appeared as a character in a half-dozen movies and TV shows, from Oliver Stone's dark-cloud biopic "Nixon" to the quirky TV movie "Elvis and Nixon." And increasingly, he isn't being portrayed as the brooding, cursing, emotionally crippled paranoid that became his public image after the Watergate scandal. Twenty-five years after being forced to resign his office, Nixon is enjoying a surprisingly upbeat - or at least good-humored - revival.
In "Dick," for example, Nixon (played by Dan Hedaya) turns to two ready-for-action teen girls for advice on the youth movement. The romp shows the former president in a whole new light: witty, thoughtful ... even sexy (one of the girls develops a crush on him). And the credit can't all go to Hedaya.
"Dan wasn't acting," says Fleming. "He was channeling. Dan was just the host."
The turning point for Nixon's Hollywood career appears to have been Oliver Stone's film. Closing the murky, ever-shifting circle he'd begun in his 1991 movie "JFK," Stone posited a far-out CIA/Bay of Pigs/Vietnam conspiracy link to the Watergate break-in. Anthony Hopkins, who would score an Oscar nomination for his grumbling, hunchbacked portrayal of the president, compared Nixon to Laurence Olivier -- not exactly a paean to the acting legend, considering that he described Olivier as a "driven, dark, satanic man."
Nixon's loyalists -- as well as many dispassionate historians -- were outraged.
"Oliver Stone wanted to show that there is this dark vein of evil and death and darkness in American culture and American government, so Richard Nixon was made into a victim and agent of those dark forces," says John H. Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Birthplace Foundation in Yorba Linda, Calif. "There's nothing in the Stone movie that is purely honest about President Nixon. It was all about Oliver Stone working out his own angst."
Not an objective opinion, to be sure, but also not a unique one. Stuart Fischoff, professor of media psychology at California State University at Los Angeles and a self-described liberal, says: "I thought Stone's movie was not very good, not very accurate, for a variety of reasons, though his Nixon was at least plausible in the broad strokes."
To Fischoff, however, complaining about historical figures being portrayed inaccurately on screen "is really kind of silly. Filmmakers make movies with dramatic license. They aren't wedded to historical accuracy; they're wedded to making movies that are entertaining to the public."
Whatever the degree of accuracy in Stone's movie, the high-profile psychological deconstruction seemed to jump-start what has become a mini re-evaluation of Nixon. The Nixon Library set the mood in 1995, the year Stone's film was released, with a "Nixon-palooza," a day-long celebration of music and the presidency that included a concert headlined by Roger Clinton. The message: When the tapes weren't running, Nixon could be relaxed, Nixon could be fun, Nixon could put a lamp shade on his head and really cut loose.
"President Nixon did draw a distinction between how one acts on the public stage and how one acts privately," says Taylor. "Around family and friends and aides, he was light and funny and very much at ease. Part of the problem is that there's a disconnect between what his generation sees of him and how he was."
This new Nixon, it must be said, has been slow to take form. After Stone gave us his crabby take on the former president, television viewers got to see the hardball politician in TNT's "Kissinger and Nixon," in which the president (played by Beau Bridges) and his scheming, Boris Badenov-accented secretary of state were shown trying to make a fraudulent peace in Vietnam. Once again, historians decried the movie's loose interpretation of the historical record.
More recently, however, filmmakers have put away their axes for a lighter touch. In movies like 1993's "Hot Shots! Part Deux," 1997's "Elvis Meets Nixon" and "Dick," we see no political agenda at all; Nixon is present merely for entertainment value.
"I think it's generational," says "Dick" screenwriter Sheryl Longin on the more irreverent portrayals of Nixon in recent films. "I'm in my 30s; I was a kid during Watergate. The filmmakers who came before were adults going through the horror of Watergate and the disillusionment of once thinking differently about our leaders. (My generation) has a different perspective, a more accepting attitude. It's all we've known about politics, and there have been so many scandals since then that we view it less emotionally."
Unlike writers who came of age during the Nixon years, Longin could look at Nixon as a historical figure, even with some sympathy.
"He's such a flawed and interesting character," she says. "He did so many impressive things, but he was his own worst enemy; he destroyed himself. He always viewed himself as an underdog, even when he was president. And there's just something very sad about that."
In short, he's great dramatic material.
"He was a big part of momentous times, and his fall was unprecedented," Taylor says. "And there's the tension where even (Nixon haters) admit, if grudgingly, that he accomplished a lot -- the beginning of the end of the Cold War, with his diplomacy with Russia and China, and domestically, accomplishments like the EPA and the war on cancer."
Fischoff agrees -- at least that Nixon's life was made for Hollywood.
"Nixon is a quintessential Hollywood character," he says. "In many ways, he's like a George Lucas invention -- he was Darth Vader and Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi all wrapped up in one. He had his dark side and his light side. He has a humorous, a dark and a tragic cache. Wherever a writer wants to put him, he fits."
Could a Broadway musical be next?
– By Douglas Perry, published in the Chicago Tribune, 1999
Richard Nixon has been a regular player in Hollywood ever since he retired from politics, appearing in more than a dozen feature films and TV movies. Here are five of the highest profile movies that feature the late ex-prez as a major character.
"Dick" (1999): The first Watergate comedy since G. Gordon Liddy's autobiography. Two teen girls (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) take a wrong turn during a White House tour and bump into President Nixon (Dan Hedaya), who makes them his youth advisers. "We imagined that Nixon was kind of lonely in the White House," says screenwriter Sheryl Longin, "and that these two 15-year-old girls are the only people he confides in."
"Elvis Meets Nixon" (1997): Nixon (played by Bob Gunton) is presented as dour and withdrawn, and Elvis (Rick Peters) is perpetually drug-addled. TV viewers stayed away, ending any chance for a series of "Elvis Meets . . ." movies.
"Kissinger and Nixon" (1995): What do policy wonks do on a date? They rent movies like this one. The TNT film, starring Beau Bridges as the president, focuses on the diplomatic efforts of Nixon and his secretary of state to achieve an "honorable" peace in Vietnam. It's every bit as exciting as it sounds.
"Nixon" (1995, starring Anthony Hopkins): Oliver Stone gives us the lowdown on Alger Hiss, Vietnam, Watergate, even inflation. The upshot: The CIA did it.
"Secret Honor" (1984): Philip Baker Hall is a drunk, obscenity-spewing Nixon who rants incessantly about Kennedy, Castro and other "enemies." By turns horrifying, sad and bizarre, this engrossing Oval Office yarn has everything except an intern.
– Douglas Perry