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Oscar Is One Award the Gipper Earned but Hasn't Won--Yet : Hollywood: The President who was proud to be an actor deserves the academy's notice.

March 18, 1994|JEFFREY LORD | Jeffrey Lord, a White House aide from 1985-88, is a writer in Washington.

Here we go again. Oscar time approaches and there is no hint of recognition for a man regarded by some in the film community as simply a B-movie star from the 1940s and '50s. Not only did he never win an Oscar for his acting, but he actually played straight man to a monkey.

Then, of course, there is his politics. In an industry decimated by AIDS and dominated by influential men and women who were intensely liberal on the Soviet Union, the air-traffic-controller's strike, the U.S. defense buildup, economics, abortion and Central America, the mere mention of his name causes seething tempers.

The very idea of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarding an honorary Oscar to Ronald Reagan does not appear to have the slightest support from the Academy's members.

That's a shame.

With the ascendancy of the Clintons to the White House, liberals in Hollywood looked forward to the opportunity for more involvement in Washington politics. "We're in!" exclaimed a jubilant Barbra Streisand at the inaugural gala. Surely it was disconcerting for the Hollywood activists to find themselves under attack a few months later--not from conservatives but from liberal journalists and politicians. The reason was blunt and had to hurt: Streisand and company were only actors. They might have fame and cash--always helpful in a campaign--but the election was over, policy was being discussed and actors have no business in the debate.

"I'm proud of having been an actor," Reagan told his biographer, Lou Cannon. Ironically, the former President has so thoroughly dominated the political and policy landscape of America for so long that his involvement with the motion-picture business is now generally relegated to footnote status. Long since forgotten is this gem from Democratic Gov. Pat Brown in a 1966 campaign TV commercial titled "Man vs. Actor:" "I'm running against an actor, and you know who shot Lincoln, don't you?" That was only one line of a chorus that, as Streisand and her liberal colleagues have now rediscovered, is used repeatedly by professional politicians and policymakers to insinuate that successful work in Hollywood somehow disenfranchises an otherwise qualified citizen from participating as fully in the national debates as, say, a computer salesman from Dallas.

The whole tiresome line is meant to imply that actors are dumb, spoiled and useful only as cash cows for infinitely more knowledgeable and serious people. Reagan never hesitated to stand up against this notion, going out of his way as President to bring both actors and movies to the White House. Reagan happily hosted non-supporter and Oscar-winning director Warren Beatty for a White House screening of his epic film "Reds."

In Reagan's 40-year movie career, he made 53 motion pictures, including "King's Row," his favorite, and "Knute Rockne, All American," in which he won the nickname "Gipper" for his portrayal of dying Notre Dame football star George Gipp. He was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild seven times. Reagan served as a co-host of the Oscar ceremony (with Bob Hope) in 1952.

The Academy's treatment of the only actor President is particularly puzzling when looked at through a Washington lens. Like Hollywood, Washington reveres its stars, understanding that the best of them make the system work by forthrightly holding to their honorably held views. Reagan is permanently fixed in Washington's 200-year-old "star system" alongside names like Webster, Calhoun and Clay, Lincoln and Douglas, Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

All of these people spoke out fearlessly for what they believed was best for the country in their time. Sometimes it was at the price of their lives, a price Reagan himself almost paid at the hands of a deranged movie fan. "When the battle is over and the ground is cooled, well, it's then that you see the opposing general's valor," Reagan said of John F. Kennedy at a fund-raiser for the Kennedy Library at Ted Kennedy's home in the mid-1980s. "Many men are great, but few capture the imagination and the spirit of the times. The ones who do are unforgettable."

It could perhaps be said that Reagan, who also captured the imagination and spirit of his times, has received so many honors that recognition by the academy would be superfluous. Still, it is too bad that, at 83, this former SAG president, governor of California and President of the United States won't receive an award that may seem superfluous to many, although probably not to him.

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