“Leading Men” is taken from a work-in-progress, The Collected Works of Ronald Reagan: How Movies Changed The World.
THE FIRST CINEMATIC PRESIDENT
In September 1896, in a short film called Major McKinley at Home, the U.S. presidential candidate William McKinley (under the direction of G. W. “Billy” Bitzer) walked across his front lawn while pretending to read a telegram informing him of his nomination for the Republican Party. The film was first shown in New York City at the Olympia Theater just before the election, along with Joseph Jefferson in a Scene from Rip Van Winkle and Upper Rapids of Niagara. When the images of McKinley appeared on the screen, audience members began cheering and waving American flags. Subsequent screenings provoked similar outpourings of emotion. A reporter from the New York Dramatic Mirror described the moving image of the man who would become the president of the United States as being “remarkably clear and free from vibration.”
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
In the fall of 1915, President Woodrow Wilson held a pre-release screening of Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffiths’ epic movie celebrating the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House. It was the first time a feature-length film had been screened for a president. Wilson praised the movie and called it “writing history with lightning”; his only sorrow, he said, was that the whole thing was “terribly true.” His remarks became part of the promotion for the film and are the first instance of celebrity endorsement of a movie. Edward White, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who rode with the original KKK, also held a screening in Washington for senators, congressmen and Supreme Court justices. American film critics declared Birth of a Nation the greatest film ever produced, and the NAACP picketed openings of the film and tried to have it banned wherever they could. Within the next five years the KKK enlisted 100,000 new members. Griffiths said that he could not understand how anyone could hate a film that so openly and daringly told the truth. William Fox, founder of the Fox Film Corporation (later to become 20th Century Fox), in emulating Griffiths’ success, produced The Nigger, a movie based on a play by Edward Sheldon, who said in an interview, “the negro problem is in my belief due largely to bad whiskey. There is hardly one of the ‘usual crimes’ of the Southern negro, for which the penalty is usually lynching, that has not had alcohol as an underlying cause.”
ADVENTURE IN IRAQ
John Loder, the son of a British general, was educated at Eton and the Royal Military College and during World War I served with the 15th Hussars in Gallipoli, where he was taken prisoner. As World War II broke out, Loder left England for Hollywood, where he became a well-known “B” actor and the husband of Hedy Lamarr, who was billed in Hollywood as “the world’s most beautiful woman.” Loder took the role of Mr. Torrence in Warner Brothers’ Adventure in Iraq, a story in which Torrence and his wife Tess crash-land in the devil-worshipping wastelands of the Iraqi desert and are held captive by Satan-worshipping Iraqis and their leader, Sheik Ahmid (played by a Cambridge-educated Caucasian man named Paul Cavanaugh). Ahmid apologizes to the Torrences for their impending execution and brags about the money he will receive for supplying Hitler with oil to feed the Nazi war machine. Tess is taken away and washed by the women of the harem, who tell her that Ahmid has fallen in love with her and plans to kill Torrence in order to marry Tess and have her bear his son, who will eventually rule the world. The Torrences are saved by the arrival of Captain Bill Carson of the USA, who drops bombs on the Iraqis and declares that it is the policy of the American government not to bargain with gangsters.
VIETNAM AS FILM INDUSTRY
Jack Valenti was offered the position of president of the Motion Picture Association of America while working at the White House for Lyndon Johnson. Valenti had been a few cars back from President Kennedy in the motorcade when Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Later that day, when Johnson was sworn in as acting president, Valenti was appointed his top special assistant. Johnson made a speech to Congress four days after the assassination and quoted Kennedy’s words, “Let us begin,” to which he added, “Let us continue.” Johnson then escalated the war in Vietnam. In a 1991 interview with the Washington Post, Valenti said, “The predicament Lyndon Johnson faced, as the generals recommended greater and greater troop strength in Vietnam, was like a guy making a movie. You got a budget of $20 million. Suddenly they say the movie is going up to $25 million. Do you stop the movie or do you bet the next $5 million but you don’t know if it’s going up to $35 million. So you’re stuck. And most of the time you say, hell, let’s go on with the movie. And that’s what we did. We went on with the movie.”
In a letter to President Lyndon Johnson, John Wayne compared the Vietnam war to his 1960 movie The Alamo, and suggested that if Mao Tse-tung were to gain power in Vietnam, he would soon be attacking Texas. Wayne asked the president to help him make The Green Berets, a film that he believed would prove to Americans why it was so important to keep fighting in Vietnam in the same way that Davy Crockett had kept fighting at the Alamo. LBJ’s aide, Jack Valenti, persuaded him to supply Wayne with the military support he needed to make the film. Wayne was given the use of Fort Benning military base, as well as arms and equipment to a value of $1 million. The original script, based on Robin Moore’s best-selling novel, was then vetted by Pentagon officials, who removed all references to covert operations in Laos, torture specialists and a diaphragm-toting Green Beret nicknamed “the famous Hungarian pussy specialist.”
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
When he was thirteen years old, Robert Redford shook hands with Richard Nixon at an awards ceremony celebrating sports at his elementary school. Twenty-two years later Redford began filming The Candidate, without a script but with the simple theme that American political life was being destroyed by Richard Nixon and his hollow people. Redford completed the film in time for the 1972 presidential election, and Nixon fought unsuccessfully to have it banned. While promoting The Candidate on a whistle-stop tour that mimicked the actual Democratic primaries, Redford heard the news that police had arrested five men for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Redford’s second Nixon-inspired movie, All the President’s Men, told the story of the two reporters at the Washington Post who uncovered the Watergate scandal and persisted with the story until Nixon resigned in disgrace. Upon the release of the film, House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill pressed Warner Brothers for prints to use at fundraisers for the Democrats, but Redford fought to have non-commercial use of the film limited to raising money for a coalition of consumer and environmental groups. Critics hailed the film as a political masterpiece and the actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan said that the success of the film allowed Carter to defeat Gerald Ford to become the thirty-ninth president of the United States. All the President’s Men was the first film Carter screened at the White House. Twenty-seven years later, during the lead-up to the televised debates between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, Carter revealed that Robert Redford had personally coached him for his presidential debate against Ford: he had used movie clips of the Nixon-Kennedy debates to show Carter how to avoid looking as dour as Richard Nixon.
JOHN HINCKLEY, JR.
At the age of twelve, Jodie Foster landed the part of the young prostitute Iris Steensma in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a film inspired by the 1972 shooting of the anti-Civil Rights presidential candidate George C. Wallace. John Hinckley, Jr., watched the film fifteen times during the summer of 1976 and began to mimic the character Travis Bickle as played in the movie by Robert De Niro. Bickle plans to kill a presidential candidate but instead murders Iris’s pimp, along with one of her johns and the manager of the hotel where she turns tricks. During the 1976 presidential campaign Hinckley flew to New York, where President Carter and Ronald Reagan were campaigning, and he was arrested by airport security for having three handguns in his suitcase. He was fined $62.50 and released. He saved his money and bought two more guns, which he took to Washington, D.C. He wrote a note to Jodie Foster on the back of a Ronald and Nancy Reagan postcard asking her if she was still a virgin. He had with him a video copy of Taxi Driver, five photos of Jodie Foster, a box of exploding tip devastator bullets and a small card on which was printed the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, outlining a citizen’s right to bear arms. In 1981, on the day of the fifty-third Academy Awards gala, he shot Ronald Reagan (who was now president) outside Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Reagan watched the Academy Awards on a small television set at the foot of his hospital bed. Robert De Niro won the award for best actor for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. De Niro thanked his mother and father for giving birth to him and his grandparents for giving birth to them, and he even thanked Jake LaMotta’s brother Joey, who was suing the filmmakers for taking too many liberties in translating his life into film.
LOVE IS ON THE AIR
Ronald Reagan perfected a type of radio announcing known as the ticker tape play-by-play, which consisted of Reagan spinning wild tales of suspenseful sporting events based on the tiny bits of information supplied by ticker tape. Years later in a political speech, he reflected on his time as a radio announcer by saying, “I once learned the hard way that whether you have anything to say or not, keep talking.” Reagan’s experience in front of the microphone led to his first Hollywood role, as a sports announcer in Love is On the Air, and to his testimony at the congressional hearings on the menace of Communism during the McCarthy era, and then on to political speeches promoting the Republican Party. Every important aspect of Reagan’s life was in some way channelled through a microphone. So it was in front of a live microphone before his weekly radio address in August 1984 that Reagan cleared his throat and announced, “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” His aides moved quickly to issue a disclaimer stating that Reagan did not know how to use a microphone and had had no idea that it was live.
O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN
In 1985 Sylvester Stallone, who had played the role of John J. Rambo, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, in First Blood, was welcomed to the White House with the military honours bestowed on real-life holders of the medal. He dined that night with President Ronald Reagan and other celebrities who had been invited to honour Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore. The previous evening Palestinian terrorists had hijacked an Italian cruise ship with American civilians on board. When asked by the press how he would handle the situation, Stallone replied, “I’m an action actor so I’d like to have a little action.” When asked about a report that the captain of the ship had made a radio plea that no action be taken, Ronald Reagan replied, “We don’t know if that was really the captain.”
THE FORCE IS WITH US
In 1985 Lucasfilm Ltd., producers of the Star Wars movies, sued the advertising firm that created an infomercial for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as Star Wars, for copyright violation. The infomercial featured crayon drawings of a peaceful American home, a flapping American flag and an animated sun that frowned at the mention of strategic vulnerability and smiled when the Star Wars defence shield was activated in black crayon to deflect nuclear missiles. District Judge Gerhard Gesell ruled against Lucasfilm; he found that the term star wars was within the public domain and could be used by the president of the United States to describe a ballistic missile program. Gesell opened his official memorandum by stating, “Not so long ago, in a studio far, far away from the policymakers in Washington, D.C., George Lucas conceived of an imaginary galaxy where fantastic creatures and courageous knights battled an evil empire with space ships, blaster guns and light sabers.” All of which, concluded Gesell, was a separate world from the official programs of the United States government.
GUTS AND GLORY
During the phone call in which he was fired by Ronald Reagan in 1986, Oliver North was told by the president that his story would make a great film. In 1987 North opened his congressional hearing by saying, “I came here to tell the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly,” in the confident and arrogant manner for which he soon became notorious. North’s secretary Fawn Hall got word to Mike Robe, a film director, that she would very much like to play herself in the movie version of the Iran-Contra scandals. On the first day of shooting Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North, the actor David Keith stood, as Oliver North, outside the Jefferson Memorial and tried to persuade the cinematic Major General Richard Secord to participate in a secret plot to sell arms to Iran in order to raise money for the Nicaraguan Contras. As that scene was being filmed, the real Oliver North sat at the defence table in Federal District Courthouse, having been charged with crimes that included and began with the very crime being re-enacted a few blocks away. In supplying arms to Iran and funding an undemocratic coup in Nicaragua, Oliver North had subverted the constitution of the United States by interfering with foreign policy. He had also become the most watched man on television and the personal hero of David Keith, who hoped to meet the real Oliver North at some point during the filming at the courthouse.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the attacks on the United States, Bruce Willis walked down 5th Avenue in New York City and was confronted by a New Yorker who wanted to know where in hell was Willis’s terrorist-killing character John McClane now that he was really needed? Willis vowed to fight harder in the movies after that day and to play action heroes only. He then took parts playing a World War II POW who gives his life to save his country, and a Special-Ops Navy seal commander who risks his life to save the lives of innocent Africans. After the American invasion of Afghanistan and during the American invasion of Iraq, Willis became so enraged by Hollywood celebrities speaking out against the war that he tried to enlist in the Navy, Army and Marines, and was turned away by all of them because he was too old. He then phoned George W. Bush and asked for special permission to enlist, but the president of the United States declined Willis’s request and told him that he could best serve the war on terrorism in other ways.
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
After the September 11 attacks on the United States, the actor David Keith said that nothing would hold him back from accompanying Behind Enemy Lines aboard the USSVinson, which, he noted patriotically, was the first ship to send Hornet fighter planes to Afghanistan, and which was manned by the same crew he had befriended while playing Master Chief O’Malley in Behind Enemy Lines. O’Malley is a tough-talking officer who prods his grumpy superior to take action in rescuing a stranded pilot who is in danger of being killed because of the incompetence of NATO. Before the USS Vinson sailed to Afghanistan, Keith spoke to the crew and said, “You are our fists to smash their mouths, and our teeth that rip off their throats. People in America want you to bring hellfire and damnation to those sorry SOBS who did that to us.” Keith was then permitted to load a 500-pound bomb onto a Hornet. The bomb was scheduled to be dropped on Afghanistan. Keith autographed it with a private message to Al Qaeda, from him and his buddies in Tennessee.
THE GREAT FUROR
Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, Warner Brothers postponed the release of Collateral Damage, a film in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a fire fighter whose family is murdered by international terrorists. Two years later Schwarzenegger commissioned a bronze bust of Ronald Reagan for his office in Beverly Hills and announced his candidacy for governor of California, as Reagan had done thirty-seven years earlier. In his campaign speeches, Schwarzenegger told Californians repeatedly that he would make “a great leader,” a phrase that embarrassed the Austrian press covering his campaign (Schwarzenegger was born in Austria) as the word leader could only be translated into German as fürer. Once he was elected governor of California, Schwarzenegger praised George W. Bush for his resolve in the war on terrorism, and in 2004 campaigned with the president in Ohio, the swing state that narrowly won Bush the 2004 election. George W. Bush had suffered the largest drop in popularity of any president in American history because of his decision to invade Iraq. Michael Moore’s documentary on the subject, Fahrenheit 9/11, became the best-selling documentary movie of all time. Moore invited President Bush to screen the film with him in the president’s hometown—Crawford, Texas—but the invitation was declined. Bush had at one time been a director of company that financed the 1983 slasher flick The Hitcher. His favourite movies are Blackhawk Down and Saving Private Ryan. Within his administration the president is known to enjoy mimicking the character of Dr. Evil from the film Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. After ordering the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush praised the art-house film Osama, about a young girl who pretends to be a boy in Afghanistan under the Taliban. He said that the film communicated the need to invade Afghanistan better than he ever could.
Late in 2001, Osama Bin Laden’s half-brother Sheikh Ahmad Mohammed said on CNN that what had happened on September 11 was terrible but that he didn’t think his loving half-brother could have been involved in the murderous events, which were often described by the media as resembling a movie. As a child Osama had often escorted Sheikh Ahmad to see karate films in Beirut. “He is my brother, I know him,” said Ahmad. “I know how much he fears God.” He also said that if Hollywood were to make a movie of Osama’s life, he would be happy to play the role of Osama.