Billy Wilder approached Oliver Stone at a dinner party and asked him what motivated him to make a film about Richard Nixon. Such a negative character, the legendary director observed.
Hollywood's resident iconoclast--a filmmaker who incurred charges of revisionist history with his controversial "JFK" and dredged up painful memories of the Vietnam debacle in the Oscar-winning "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Heaven and Earth"--didn't miss a beat.
"Nixon is the most important political figure in the second half of the 20th Century," Stone replied. "He tore the country apart and nearly presided over a civil war."
Still, those on the set this warm summer afternoon insist that Stone's character study of the 37th President is even-handed, almost compassionate. The three-hour film--tentatively scheduled for release by Disney's Hollywood Pictures on Dec. 20--paints the picture of a soul in torment, a man whose deep-seated demons played themselves out on the national and international landscapes with lasting and tragic results.
The film serves up a man lugging around the parochialism of his stern Quaker mother and haunted by the ghosts of two brothers who died in his youth. A Whittier College graduate plagued by feelings of inadequacy and rage at the Eastern Establishment who dulls the edges with alcohol and pills. A President whose lifelong quest for public acceptance is sabotaged by the 1972 Watergate break-in that, two years later, forced him to resign.
"I view the Nixon project as the bookend of 'JFK,' viewing the same era through a different prism," says the director, the son of a Republican stockbroker and himself a Nixon supporter until the early 1970s. "It's a 'Godfather II'-type film. The themes are grand, Shakespearean, in a sense."
Casting the Welsh-born Anthony Hopkins in a quintessentially American role was another twist and took even the actor by surprise. Heading for breakfast with the director in London last February, he was filled with trepidation. The script, he told Stone over kippers, had more dialogue than "King Lear." If the accent didn't get him, lapsing into caricature might.
"I thought I'd be nuts to take the part . . . and crazy to turn it down," says the Oscar-winning Hopkins ("The Silence of the Lambs") outside Stage 30 on the Sony Pictures lot. Brown contact lenses pick up the tone of a chestnut hairpiece. The look is embellished by a presidential tie clasp and an American flag pin. "In the end, I opted to ride the fear and anxiety. Courage is something I've always wanted to have."
Though Stone was asked to consider box-office draws such as Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks for the lead, the director says he's glad the project turned out this way. Gandhi and Patton were played by people who were character actors at the time, he points out.
"With a big name playing Nixon, you'd have one icon meeting another and a possible credibility problem," Stone says. "Though Tony has played kings and madmen, rulers of empires, he's a chameleon--a barrel-chested outsider whose accent is more mid-Atlantic than English. He grew up poor like Nixon and wrestled with his own demons, so he's made that journey on his own.
"Most important, he's willing to risk making a fool of himself--unlike most actors of his age. Tony trusts me . . . even when I'm wrong."
Joining Hopkins in "Nixon," which is produced by Cinergi Pictures, are James Woods as Nixon's chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, Powers Boothe as Gen. Alexander Haig, Ed Harris as Watergate conspirator Howard Hunt, Bob Hoskins as FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, E. G. Marshall as Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, David Paymer as press secretary Ronald Ziegler, Paul Sorvino as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, David Hyde Pierce as White House counsel John Dean and J. T. Walsh as top presidential aide John Ehrlichman.
It's the 12th and final week of principal photography and the 57-year-old Hopkins--before the cameras on all but seven of those days--shows little sign of wear. Eschewing the airs of many stars, he eats at a table with the rest of the crew, quotes Goethe to a bell-bottomed extra seeking professional advice and, between takes, tackles a crew-cut James Woods from behind.
"Jimmy started out with a small part--he was almost an extra," Hopkins quips, biting into the actor's neck. "I complained that I had too many lines--and he took half of them. They call him the panzer division."
If Hopkins signed on to prove to himself he was no coward, Woods viewed the part of Haldeman as a welcome relief from his usual diet of twisted souls.
"Though Haldeman was considered the Lord High Executioner of the White House, I play him as a loyal man of power," Woods says. "Though he was at Nixon's side almost 24 hours a day, the first time the President shook his hand in 20 years was the day he fired him. Nixon didn't even know the names of his kids."