Casting Suspicion: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan Provokes the Right

Take a liberal icon, cast her as a revered figure of the right, and what do you get? Actually, quite a predictable reaction.

With the news last week that Jane Fonda is the choice to play Nancy Reagan in Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler,” one commentator declared to Megyn Kelly on Fox News, “Hanoi Jane has no business playing Mrs. Reagan.”

The former first lady’s press secretary, Sheila Tate, called the choice “ludicrous.”

Variety’s Jeff Sneider, who broke the casting news, says he got nearly 200 irate emails, many unprintable.

When it comes to the Hollywood left’s foray into progressive politics, it doesn’t take much to trip an alarm on the right. Tap a liberal figure to play a conservative role, and, you’re hard-pressed to muffle the sound of sirens. Such casting controversies seldom have to do with performance, often start with very little information about plot, and ultimately don’t seem to impede success. Moreover, the attention they engender can raise a project’s profile.

In 2003, CBS’ plans to run miniseries “The Reagans” triggered such a furor that the network shelved it from its schedule and moved it to Showtime. Contributing to the controversy were suspicions over the casting of James Brolin as the Gipper, and the fact that he is married to another showbiz figure who doesn’t shrink from progressive stands, Barbra Streisand. The project still went on to win Emmy nominations for miniseries and Brolin and Judy Davis.

More recently, in the lead-up to “Game Change,” Julianne Moore argued that her portrayal of Sarah Palin was sympathetic, even as fans of the former Alaska governor zeroed in on the fact that the actress had contributed to Democrats. The film went on to be a success with critics, and drew 2 million viewers in its initial showing, the most for an HBO original movie in eight years.

There are some parallels in the case of “The Kennedys,” the miniseries produced by conservative Joel Surnow. The project was slammed on the left, and by some historians, and eventually shelved by History channel, but after finding a new life on Reelz channel, got some traction on the awards circuit, winning an Emmy for actor Barry Pepper.

In the case of “The Butler,” Fonda’s deal isn’t in place yet, and the movie is still in the final stages of financing, according to Sneider’s story.

A spokeswoman for Nancy Reagan had no comment on the casting, other than to say that they are not participating in the project and were not aware of it until last week.

The former first lady herself was a polarizing figure when she was in the White House, “a lightning rod,” as she noted in her 1989 autobiography, “My Turn.” She wrote that Robert Strauss, a Democratic party elder statesman, told her, “When you first came to town, Nancy, I didn’t like you at all. But after I got to know you, I changed my mind and said, ‘She’s some broad!’ ” She replied, “Bob, based on the press reports I read then, I wouldn’t have liked me either.”

Reagan is not the central character in the film. Rather, it’s based on Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post story about Eugene Allen, a White House butler from 1952 to 1986. In that story, which the Post ran shortly after Barack Obama’s election, Allen was actually quite flattering to Reagan and her husband, noting that the First Lady invited him to a state dinner for West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. “I believe I’m the only butler to get invited to a state dinner,” Allen told Haygood.

But with Fonda in the role, it likely makes no difference what the movie says about the former first lady. As Kelly noted on Fox News, “there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get emails about Jane Fonda.”

Fonda still is active in abortion rights and women’s rights issues, and appeared at an antiwar rally in Washington in 2007, yet participates in nowhere near the type of stir-the-pot activism of yesteryear. She’s apologized several times for being photographed on a Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun in her trek to Hanoi 40 years ago, and last year wrote on her blog that she would “regret to my dying day” the incident, offering a lengthy explanation of the trip. She also wrote that she was well aware that she’s long been a “convenient lightning rod” for conservatives, maybe even a means to energize their base and raise money.

In other words, if the makers of “The Butler” weren’t expecting blowback, they better get ready for it.

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