Hollywood’s presidential puzzle

A look at commanders-in-chief as a film focus

The nearly simultaneous arrival of “W.” and “Frost/Nixon,” two films about modern-era Republican heads of state, serves as a reminder of how infrequently real American presidents have figured prominently in Hollywood pictures. In fact, since D.W. Griffith reverently depicted Abraham Lincoln in “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, the 50th anniversary of the Civil War’s conclusion, actual commanders-in-chief have played leading onscreen roles in no more than a score of films–five of them involving Lincoln and three on Nixon. Given the dramatic material many presidents’ lives provide, there must be some reasons for this pronounced avoidance syndrome.

Oliver Stone, whose 1995 “Nixon” is, for all its virtues and faults, the most psychologically ambitious and acute of all presidential studies — as well as the first such study that dared to be critical of its subject — broke new ground with “W.” in several respects. Not only is the film the first of its type devoted to a sitting president, it’s the only one made about an American head of state while he and his entire inner circle are still alive. This factor contributes both to the film’s topical fascination and to its oddness and critical lack of perspective. Stone was able to cast Nixon in terms of a tragic Shakespearean figure thanks to the 20 years of hindsight. The Oedipal aspects with Bush encourage the director in the same direction here as well, but such an approach can’t be fully realized when the story has not yet finished writing itself.

Still, “W.” and “Frost/Nixon” get past the problem that hamstrung most of Hollywood’s earlier attempts to put eminent men on the screen: the respectful tendency to portray them as plaster saints. Griffith, the great American pioneer of historical filmmaking, must shoulder part of the blame for this due to his pageant-like presentation of Revolutionary War figures — Washington, Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere and so on — in his 1924 epic “America,” which came out just shortly before a similar, William Randolph Hearst-financed Marion Davies starrer, “Janice Meredith,” set in the same period. The commercial disappointments of these two giant productions unfortunately seem to have made the Revolutionary War box office poison for decades.

Griffith’s early sound 1930 biopic “Abraham Lincoln” sputteringly humanizes the Great Emancipator via vignettes from his life. John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” at the end of the decade, focuses exclusively on the Illinois lawyer’s formative years and is arguably a great film — very much the exception in this limited genre. A more conventionally solemn treatment, John Cromwell’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” quickly followed.

When you think of how many figures received the biopic treatment during the ’30s — Benito Juarez, Henry XIII, Louis Pasteur, Madame Curie, Rembrandt — it’s all the more amazing that the Founding Fathers were entirely ignored. How could a project not have been proposed about the most colorful of them all, Benjamin Franklin, when Charles Laughton was around to portray him? Why wasn’t the story of the brilliant Alexander Hamilton and the opportunistic Aaron Burr, with its climactic duel, ever undertaken? What about the United States’ first foreign war, led by Jefferson, against the Barbary Coast pirates? The list could go on and on.

Oddly, then, when MGM in 1942 decided to embark upon a presidential biopic, it perversely chose none other than the accidental 17th president of the United States, the man often ranked at or near the bottom of the all-time list of most effective chief executives, Andrew Johnson. “Tennessee Johnson,” directed by biographical specialist William Dieterle, is a film of utter obscurity, one unmentioned even in the otherwise comprehensive 2003 volume “Hollywood’s White House: The American Presidency in Film & History.” The subject was probably selected for its built-in dramatic ending — the nation’s first impeachment trial, in which the president prevailed by a single vote.

It was also the story of a little man made, if not great, then at least important, an illiterate Tennessee tailor who rode the coattails of Jacksonianism to an unlikely position on the Republican ticket in 1864, when Lincoln decided that a Southerner could be valuable partner in the eventual reconstruction of the Union. But then John Wilkes Booth put Johnson in the White House, where he was at the mercy of Radical Republicans in Congress with punitive intentions toward the South after the Civil War.

“Tennessee Johnson” is a strange and disjointed film; it makes confounding jumps in time and, by attempting to suggest the entire arc of its subject’s life, can’t begin to achieve any complexity. Van Heflin gives it a decent shot in the title role, but the actor’s coincidental resemblance here to the late Jack Valenti creates an amusingly stubborn problem. On the other hand, there is one scene as electrifying as any in historical cinema, in which Jefferson Davis (a brilliant Morris Ankrum) takes the floor of the Senate to announce the South’s secession from the Union in words taken straight from the record.

The film predicts the small contemporary school of thought that regards Johnson an underrated president for his earnest attempt to follow through with Lincoln’s plan for peaceful reconciliation between the North and South under impossible conditions. One can scarcely be surprised that the film made no waves when it was released in the midst of WWII or that it has never been released either on VHS or DVD.

Similarly unavailable is Hollywood’s most ambitious attempt at a full-blown presidential biopic, this one an expensive flop and no wonder: Who, in 1944, who would sit still for Woodrow Wilson’s pleas for peace and the League of Nations when Hitler and Tojo had yet to be vanquished? “Wilson” was a labor of love for Darryl Zanuck and made the case at great length for the scholarly president who, after having sworn not to take the U.S. into WWI, did just that. Exquisitely crafted, the film is sincere, ponderous and wooden — the adjective is inescapable — another case of veneration superseding vital human drama.

After Columbia broke form to produce “The Howards of Virginia,” a colonial drama that featured Cary Grant in the foreground and Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry in the background, studio boss Harry Cohn put the kibosh on any more films with “men in wigs and knee breeches writing with quill pens.” Author Irving Stone came up with two screenplays about presidential wives, “The Magnificent Doll,” starring Ginger Rogers as Dolley Madison and, more intriguingly, “The President’s Lady,” about the purportedly bigamist marriage between Rachel Robards and future president Andrew Jackson; if done with boldness and realism, this story could profitably be retold now, as the poisonous gossip, innuendo and mudslinging involved outdoes that even of the current day and left Jackson a bitter, vengeance-minded widower on the eve of his elevation to the White House.

The young Jackson — once more portrayed by a muscular young Charlton Heston, as far from a hickory stick as you could get — reappeared as a swashbuckling soldier in “The Buccaneer” in 1958. Through the subsequent decades of repeated historical presidential diminishment, occupants of the White House appeared on the bigscreen with pronounced infrequency: There were the inspirational Franklin Roosevelt family dramatics of “Sunrise at Campobello”; founding fathers singing and dancing their way to the Declaration of Independence in another Broadway transfer, “1776”; FDR amidst more musicalizing in “Annie!”; and Truman and Nixon as the subjects of the filmed one-man shows “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” and “Secret Honor.”

The third president’s much-debated amorous inclinations provided a lamentably narrow focus for the misjudged “Jefferson in Paris,” and John Quincy Adams made a dramatic Supreme Court appearance in “Amistad.” JFK provided instigation for Oliver Stone and was the central figure in the Cuban Missile Crisis thriller “Thirteen Days.” Then there were the Clintons in all but name in the sly “Primary Colors.”

But it took until this year to realize what we’ve been missing all this time. The “John Adams” miniseries has been rightly acclaimed for many things, but for me its greatest accomplishment lay in making the American revolutionary period — and many of its participants — come fully and vibrantly alive for the very first time on a big or small screen. Beyond the show at hand, I could eagerly have watched six additional hours of Tom Wilkinson in a Ben Franklin series or Stephen Dillane in one on Jefferson. The people and the times were portrayed dimensionally, with flaws and idiosyncrasies plainly visible but defining virtues dominant. After any number of TV movies about presidents — they have focused on Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, the Kennedys and Reagan, among others — somebody finally got it right.

The series also indirectly revealed why Hollywood may have shied away from biographical treatments of Washington, Jefferson and others: Adams and his son were alone among the early presidents not to have owned slaves. To have ignored the reality of slaveholding by these Virginia plantation owners would have been outrageous (although “Tennessee Johnson” manages to present an 1820s Tennessee without a single visible black person). But to palatably dramatize an otherwise sympathetic and admirable slaveholder remains an exceedingly tricky challenge confronting the ambitious bigscreen biographer.