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SPOTLIGHT

For Reel Presidents, It's Always About Character

November 10, 2000|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

The day after the election, as the American people waited on the edge of their sofas to see who would be the next president, a major newspaper ran a cartoon with a woman in front of her TV complaining: "He's no Martin Sheen." It's safe to say more people got the joke than voted in Tuesday's presidential election.

In a nation in which controlling the client's image is as critical a job in politics as in Hollywood, it's no surprise that the movies and TV influence the political process even as politics helps shape the media. Their relationship is more entangled than the Hapsburg family tree.

With canny timing, CSUN is co-sponsoring a national conference this weekend on the images of American presidents in film and television. Taking place today through Sunday at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza in Westlake Village, the conference will look at how presidents have been depicted on screen and, more important, how movies and television are shaping the modern presidency.

CSUN staffer Patti McDaniel says she hopes the conference will address three questions that are much on her mind: Is today's political process mostly about image? Do TV and films influence election outcomes? And how do you determine what's real and what's spin in a climate influenced by Hollywood? (McDaniel helped organize the program for CSUN's College of Extended Learning.)

The conference will feature academics from the United States and abroad and filmmakers who will examine everything from the Oval Office satire "Wag the Dog" to how Teddy Roosevelt helped invent the Hollywood western. Susan Hellweg's keynote address Saturday night will be on the hot topic of televised presidential debates. Other sessions will deal with such intriguing subjects as presidential philandering and "How They Shoot Their Presidents," the musings of a professor from Germany on how popular American movies undermine political authority.

The conference was the brainchild of Peter Rollins, a professor of English and film studies at Oklahoma State University and the editor of the journal Film & History. Rollins also edited and contributed to the book "Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context."

Even Woodrow Wilson Was Movie Subject

The intimate relationship between the media and the presidency is not a recent phenomenon that developed only after Kennedy bested Nixon on TV or the election of former actor Ronald Reagan.

"Television creates--defines--reality today, so do movies," Rollins says. "But when you start going back, you see that Hollywood has always been interested in the presidency."

Silent filmmaker D.W. Griffith included images of Abraham Lincoln in his controversial epic "The Birth of a Nation." Presidents have been the subjects of dozens of biopics, including one of Rollins' favorites, the 1944 film "Wilson," which won five Oscar nominations but bombed at the box office and has all but disappeared from collective memory. Even such "lesser" presidents as Rutherford B. Hayes, Martin Van Buren, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison and Franklin Pierce have been portrayed on film.

Rollins recalls a personal moment when the celluloid presidency and the real one converged. He and his wife, Susan (who helped put together the conference), were standing in front of the White House when a limousine bearing the presidential seal pulled up. They were disappointed to learn that it was not President Clinton's limousine but a prop that was being used in the making of the 1993 film "Dave."

At that instant, Rollins says, "The real presidency and the reel presidency came right into our lives."

Although we tend to think of entertainment's influence on the presidency as something new, it's as old as the republic, Rollins points out. First President George Washington was a great fan of the theater--the Hollywood of his day--and appears to have applied lessons he learned from the stage to his public and political life.

The conference will deal with Hollywood's treatment of real presidents, but it will also look at TV and movies that feature imaginary presidents. One of Rollins' favorites of this genre is 1933's "Gabriel Over the White House," directed by Gregory La Cava. In this odd and fascinating film, a fictional president is converted from venality by an angelic vision and solves all the social and political problems of the Great Depression.

Rollins theorizes that Hollywood creates such imaginary presidencies when it is dissatisfied with the current political reality. As an example, he cites the recent Rod Lurie film "The Contender." Rollins argues that Joan Allen's character, a prospective vice president who refuses to soft-pedal her liberal views, reflects the agenda liberal Hollywood would like to see. "This is Hollywood frustrated over the Tweedledee Tweedledum character of Gore and Bush," he says of "The Contender."

Character Always the Big Issue

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