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Hollywood presidents have evolved to anything goes

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Posted: Monday, July 7, 2008 6:48 am | Updated: 10:57 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It's 3 a.m. A phone rings in the Oval Office. And the person picking it up is …

An aging white guy. Michael Douglas? No, it's an African American: Chris Rock. Take that back – it's America's first First Woman. Geena Davis.

When it comes to portraying our nation's leader, Hollywood has offered just about every possibility imaginable. As the presidential campaign enters its final phase (barring a bolt of lightning or another outburst from the Rev. Wright), it's an opportune moment to look at the POTUSes, both real and fictional, the big and small screens have given us over the years.

Vote for your favorite president on film

In the beginning, politeness reigned. Though there were plenty of presidential portrayals in Hollywood's golden age, they all tended toward the same tone: respectful awe.

"That approach paralleled the way we were taught American history at the time," said Variety writer Bob Verini, an expert on the history of American cinema. "It makes absolute sense that the movies, in their earlier days, would buy into that kind of mythology of the president as the wise and good leader. The ones who were buffoons didn't get dramatized."

Films such as "Yankee Doodle Dandy" were very respectful of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – so much so that his face is never seen onscreen.

"Our politics is always reflected in our cinema," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a self-avowed movie buff who's keeping the recent HBO miniseries "John Adams" TiVo-ed for future viewing. "And in those days, I think we wanted to keep the president on a pedestal."

"In the past, presidents have been portrayed with a certain reverence and positive light, but in some cases beyond what reality could ever justify," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher observed. "For example … Abraham Lincoln has been almost deified oftentimes in the movies, yet when he was alive he was the most hated president by many until the last few months of his life."

There was "a feeling of decorum" in old Hollywood portrayals of the president, film critic Leonard Maltin said. Even with fictional presidents, "There was great respect for the office and the stature of the man holding that office." Satirical or negative views of the presidency were relegated to the stage, Maltin noted, in musicals such as George M. Cohan's "I'd Rather Be Right" and Kaufman/Gershwin's "Of Thee I Sing." "Those shows were fine for a sophisticated New York theater crowd, but maybe the studios thought they were too touchy and irreverent to be made into movies."

The gold standard of the era – and the movie that marks the beginning of the end for worshipful depictions of our nation's leader – is "Wilson." The adulatory 1944 biopic of President Woodrow Wilson was a labor of love for studio producer Darryl F. Zanuck, and no expense was spared in the lavish production. But the film received only a lukewarm reception from audiences.

"Zanuck was a very bright guy who had great faith in the story, but it was a notable failure," Maltin said. "The film felt like trying to get people to take their medicine."

'60s BRING IRREVERENCE

The 1950s were a relatively president-free time in American movies – perhaps it had something to do with a rock-solid, inherently un-theatrical resident in the White House from 1953-61 But presidential portrayals changed dramatically in the 1960s.

"'Dr. Strangelove' – that was the turning point," Verini said. Director Stanley Kubrick's jet-black 1964 Cold War satire "is when American attitudes toward authority figures really started to shift. European New Wave cinema pointed the way."

"Strangelove" introduced the world to President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), a suspiciously Adlai Stevenson-like figure who was well-intentioned but completely ineffectual. "Muffley was right out of the Second City/Nichols and May school," Verini said. "He had a deadpan persona; absolutely clueless. But he's also a plausible character, so he's hilarious."

Verini pointed out that "The Best Man" and "Fail-Safe" also came out in '64. Both starred Henry Fonda as a fallible man – in the former a presidential candidate at a harrowing convention, in the latter a president forced to make a horrible decision. "They're both flawed people – there's a real sense here of getting away from the history textbook approach," Verini said.

Since the '60s, audiences have welcomed presidents of all stripes. Modern presidential character types fall into several predictable categories, Maltin and Verini agreed.

"We've had a lot of 'wish fulfillment' presidents in the last few years," Maltin said. He cited the apocalyptic "Deep Impact" as a classic example. "When you watch Morgan Freeman (as the president) deliver that speech, reassuring the nation, all you can think is, 'I'd follow this man anywhere. I'd walk into a burning building if he told me it was the right thing to do.'"

Maltin cited several other film presidents who fall into that crowded category: Harrison Ford's macho ex-military man in "Air Force One" (1997), Bill Pullman's gung-ho fighter pilot/president in "Independence Day" (1996).

Verini thinks the macho-ness displayed by movie presidents is usually carefully tempered. "It's not macho for its own sake. They're personifying American strength. They always have their family and their country uppermost in their mind."

The tough-guy prez made sense beginning in the '90s, Sanchez said. "There was a new fear with respect to terrorism. That only increased after 9/11. We wanted the president to be a John Wayne type of hero."

Rohrabacher differentiates between film presidents who seem tough but realistic and those who are merely action figures sporting a presidential seal.

"Movies like 'Independence Day' are all about fantasy, whereas 'Clear and Present Danger' and 'The Sum of All Fears' have a much more accurate portrayal of the presidency. Having worked in the White House for a great president and actor, those movies are the most realistic that I've seen."

A contrasting Hollywood trope is President as Regular Guy.

"Dave" (1993) is a good example: Kevin Kline's low-key temp agency manager actually does a pretty good job when his resemblance to the risible POTUS (coupled with a fortuitous presidential health issue) lands him in the White House. He's helped by his schlubby accountant, Bernie (Charles Grodin), who takes a bite out of the national debt with some level-headed bookkeeping.

Chris Rock's "Head of State" (2003) fits nicely in this pigeonhole. Rock plays Mays Gilliam, a scrappy Washington D.C. alderman who is picked by the Dems to run for president when the party's candidate dies in the middle of a campaign. Initially he's set up to fail, but with the help of his sly-fox brother (Bernie Mac), Gilliam outwits the Washington elite.

"I think that kind of (portrayal) was ushered in by the Clinton presidency," Sanchez said. "I've met (Clinton) many times, and he really is that 'Let's go down to McDonald's and have a burger' kind of guy."

Two other presidential personas have dominated movies of the last decade.

One is the clown who somehow ends up in the Oval Office. Verini cites Robin Williams' "Man of the Year" in this category (although Williams' glib TV comic, who vaults into the lead of a presidential race because of a computer glitch, doesn't attain the White House). Maltin points to Dennis Quaid's boob-ish President Staton in "American Dreamz." "There's something irresistible about the 'president as idiot' idea," Verini said. "It appeals to that sense of American irreverence."

The other emerging category is president as hottie. Rob Reiner's "The American President" is the reigning Romeo of this genre. Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd, a popular leader and widower whose developing relationship with a lobbyist (Annette Bening) quickly turns into tabloid fodder and water-cooler gossip around the nation.

"I think women definitely liked that film better than men," Sanchez said. "When he comes out and defends her at the end, it makes him strong, it humanizes him."

Other films have played up the sexy side of the president: "The Contender" (2000) featured Jeff Bridges at his most charming. "The Rat Pack" (1998) delved into JFK's active sex life. John Travolta played the "fictional" Jack Stanton in "Primary Colors" (1998), a charismatic Southern governor (a thinly veiled Bill Clinton) whose way with the ladies is on embarrassingly constant display.

NO MORE DEMI-GODS

The most controversial development in presidential portrayals is the evil or Machiavellian president: Gene Hackman's murderous Alan Richman in "Absolute Power" (1997) and Gregory Itzen's conniving Charles Logan in the Fox series "24" are two prime examples.

Even though Richman and Logan bore no obvious resemblance to a real Commander in Chief, those kinds of presidential portrayals go too far for Sanchez.

"I guess it's maybe a reflection of what the public wants and an indication of how much we can tolerate now, but I don't want to see the president in that light. It makes me uncomfortable."

Maltin thinks that given the present mood of the country and Hollywood's prevailing political leanings, the trend may continue. "The gloves are off where Hollywood is concerned, and anything goes now when depicting a president. We've seen (evil presidents onscreen) a lot in the last eight years, and it will no doubt happen again."

Verini, on the other hand, thinks the "demonic president" genre will remain small. "I don't think people want to see that too much these days. People are comfortable with the idea now that the president has a human side, but I think they want to believe that he ultimately wants to help the country."

Still, we'll want our screen presidents to be realistic, Verini thinks. He believes the strong response to HBO's "John Adams" is telling. "It showed a portrait of a flawed but smart and good person. (The portrayal) was incredibly layered and detailed. We'll never return to the old figure of the presidential demigod. We know too much about psychology and human nature now to find that believable – or even very entertaining."

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