Sunday, February 7, 2010
TV biopics, part 1: The Reagans
Back in 2003, CBS announced that they would be airing a mini-series about the lives of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. As the air date drew near, conservative groups railed at the show which only a few people had seen, complaining that it was a liberal hatchet job and inaccurate in its portrayal. CBS caved to the pressure and the movie was shown on the pay cable channel Showtime instead of on the free TV network. Note that when liberal critics complained about ABC's mini-series The Path to 9/11 a few years later because of its perceived conservative inaccuracies, the show aired anyway.
If you look at the box art and find yourself wondering "Why does it look like Ronald Reagan is married to Joan Crawford?", you have happily stumbled on the real reason for conservative complaint and the only thing that makes the commercial free three hours even remotely worth watching. The Reagans is a cheaply made mini-series with very little star power, but the best actor in the cast is Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan. Davis is a movie actress, best known for playing bitches in Woody Allen movies and the excellent Jonathan Demme comedy The Ref, while James Brolin, who plays Ronnie tolerably well, is mainly known for his TV work. His best roles on the big screen are in the cheesy Capricorn One and his finest hour playing Pee-Wee Herman in the movie-within-a-movie in Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure. All the historically interesting things mentioned in the mini-series happen to Ronnie. All the interesting scenes belong to Judy Davis as Nancy.
Network mini-series have been able to pull in good casts since the time of Roots, which makes the weak casting of The Reagans a bit of a mystery. After Brolin and Davis, the next best known actor in the cast is E.R.'s Zeljko Ivanek as Michael Deaver, a loyal worker for the Reagans since their days in California. The actor who gets the final billing after a long list of largely Canadian unknowns is John Stamos, who gets a few scenes as John Sears, the 1980 campaign manager who gets fired. There are many pivotal roles during the White House years, but the only actor this trivia champ even recognized was Bill Smitrovich as Al Haig, and Smitrovich is one of those "oh yeah, that guy" actors, nothing like an actual star. Possibly worse than casting unknowns is casting a lot of roles of known people with actors who don't look the part. For example, Smitrovich as Haig is a little too heavy, and likewise the actors playing Oliver North and Bud McFarlane are fat when North and McFarlane weren't. In the opposite direction, the actor playing the hugely fat CIA director William Casey is far too thin.
There are a lot of important events in Reagan's life, are many odd choices were made about what would be left in and what would be taken out. The story is about Ron and Nancy, so we meet him after he is divorced from Jane Wyman, which means it's also after his best years at Warner Bros. King's Row and Knute Rockne, All American are just fading memories and Bedtime for Bonzo and Hellcats In The Navy are in his future.
One telling incident from his movie days is left in. His big gig on General Electric Theatre is canceled when G.E. pulls out due to heat about the unscrupulous deal Ronald Reagan made with his agent Lew Wasserman. Wasserman was allowed to be a studio executive and an agent at the same time due to a waiver signed by Reagan as head of the Screen Actors Guild, which meant he could hire his clients and also collect the agent's fee. Eventually he was forced out of being an agent, but that early sweetheart deal helped Wasserman become the last mogul in Hollywood, running Universal for years like a plantation after the other studios had freed the slaves.
When Reagan becomes president, several embarrassing moments are left in. The laying of the wreath at Bitburg stays in because it is central to Deaver leaving the White House. Iran-Contra, the defining act of the end of Reagan's administration, had to stay in as well. His greatest triumph, the negotiations with Gorbachev and the beginning of the end of the Cold War, also get a few scenes. Several other events during his administration, like the Soviets shooting down KAL 007 in 1983, the Americans shooting down Iran Air 655 in 1988, the death of the Marines by a car bombing in Lebanon and the funding of the Taliban, are left out. George Bush and Tip O'Neill are mentioned in the script, but no actors were hired to play them.
As I said before, Judy Davis is the best thing in the film. For it to have been a better film, she needed stronger actors to play her main foils, especially the roles of chief of staff Donald Regan and daughter Patti. Canadian actress Zoie Palmer plays Patti, but it really deserved to be played by someone like Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman or Claire Danes.
If you look on imdb.com, you'll see Judy Davis had a three year lay-off after this movie. It may just be coincidence and she may have been working on stage instead of in film, but it looks more like Nancy Reagan's friends in Hollywood exacting a little revenge.
Another thing that could have made it better was if Ronnie was a completely fleshed out character, but he's a walking cypher. It may be that the writers had the same problem that Reagan's biographer Lou Cannon had, they looked inside Reagan and couldn't find anyone home. Sadly, it means it's only half a movie. If we think about a great mini-series like I, Claudius, we know the script made Livia a fantastic character, but Augustus wasn't chopped liver.
I can't give The Reagans my highest recommendation, but if you want to have some fun eating popcorn and watching camp and you've worn your copy of Mommie Dearest down to a nub, you'll definitely enjoy watching Judy Davis play the biggest bitch on TV since the glory days of Joan Collins, a tough as nails little fag hag hellcat who loves her astrologer almost as much as she loves her husband.