Of course we all know Saint Ron the Divine from his days in the White House, perhaps his greatest movie role. He had a golden opportunity to hone his image while acting as the Governor of California from 1967-75. He was successfully able to play his tenure off on the public as one of unbridled success, but essentially he was a Goldwater Republican, having turned his back on the Democratic Party in the early 60s when it apparently became too liberal for his taste. No doubt this man changed the trajectory of politics in America, especially judging by all the reverence being paid him on the eve of his centennial. But, alas his Hollywood career was a more checkered one, noted more for his role in turning over “Communists” to the House Un-American Committee (HUAC) than for his acting. But, we do have to give him kudos for his role in The Killers, perhaps his one great screen moment.
It all started with Love is in the Air (1937), playing opposite June Travis. The role wasn’t too much of a stretch for him, as he played an “ace crime reporter for a radio station.” The Gipper first projected his magnetic voice for WOC – AM 1420 of Davenport, Iowa. Only he was broadcasting football games, not juicy crime stories. “Dutch” went on to recreate Chicago Cub baseball games for the radio before casting his eyes on Tinseltown.
I first became aware of him in Dark Victory (1939). He had a minor role in this Bette Davis film, and looked none too promising as Alec. But, after the fluff he had been playing in, such as Cowboy from Brooklyn, it was a serious turn for the young actor. He would have his defining moment in Knute Rockne All American (1940), lending him the nickname “Gipper,” as he played George Gipp, the legendary coach’s most valuable player. Needless to say, it was more Pat O’Brien’s film than Reagan’s, but O’Brien didn’t become governor, much less president.
Then came his notorious years as President of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947-52. He was married to Jane Wyman at the time, who apparently interested him in the SAG. He was quite the golden boy! These were the years of the “Hollywood Blacklist,” and Reagan had no qualms turning over fellow actors to the House Un-American Committee. Tricky Dick Nixon and Fighting Joe McCarthy terminated the careers of many promising actors, directors, and writers who were believed to have been Communist sympathizers. This seemed to be the “political awakening” of Dutch. He testified before the committee in 1948, feeling that the threat of Communists in the film industry was a serious one. As Holly Golightly would say, Reagan was worse than a rat. He was a “double rat.”
One would like to think this is why he got saddled with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo as he played a clueless “Father Knows Best.” It became his most endearing film, even if the chimp stole the show. He tried to toughen up his image in Hellcats of the Navy but it was hard to get past Bonzo. Too bad they didn’t franchise the film or make it into a television series.
Reagan seemed more interested in politics anyway, moving more and more into this arena. He was director again of the SAG from 1959-60. His last film was The Killers a television remake of the 1946 classic based on an Ernest Hemingway novel. He played along side Lee Marvin, Angie DIckinson and John Cassavettes so you probably don’t remember him. But, it was one of his best roles. That was until he became Governor of California, and the rest as they say is history. You have to envy Cassavettes for getting a shot at him, after Dutch belts Angie.
From 1967 onward we have to look at Reagan in documentaries. Either directly or indirectly, or in movies that alluded to him. Clint Eastwood set part of the action of Heartbreak Ridge in Grenada, one of Reagan’s “little wars,” ostensibly to free medical students from the evil clutches of a “revolutionary government.” The invasion was known as Operation Urgent Fury. Might as well have called it Hellcats of the Navy. This skirmish has long since been forgotten because of his nefarious activities in Central and South America, and the Iran-Contra affair. One of my favorite movies is Oliver Stone’s Salvador. You don’t see Reagan in this film but you certainly feel his presence when the nasty Salvadoran forces crack down on the rebels. Reagan also makes a cameo in Jonathon Demme’s The Agronomist, as he explores the tumultuous contemporary events in Haiti. Reagan left an awful legacy in Central and South America, which was carried on by his successor, George H.W. Bush, with his equally infamous raid on Panama to usurp Manuel Noriega, when the “drug lord” would no longer abide by US wishes.
Michael Moore couldn’t resist taking a stab at Reagan in Roger & Me, noting the wonders of Reagonmics in Flint, Michigan, which had left the auto manufacturing city pretty much destitute. Reagan’s advice to the good folks of Flint was pack your bags and find somewhere else to live where Reaganomics is better. It seems Reaganomics worked best for the upper 2%. The other 98% pretty much had to make out the best they could on their own, even if it meant raising rabbits for food. Above is Ron schmoozing with Michigan Governor William Milliken and Mary Petri.
There was also this oddity, The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001), by Cyrus Nowrasteh and produced by Oliver Stone. Richard Crenna played Reagan. Even with a punctured lung and his press secretary, James Brady, reduced to a paraplegic, Reagan wouldn’t come down hard on the NRA, deferring to his old buddy, Charlton Heston, on this one. There was also the 2003 television production of The Reagans, starring James Brolin and Judy Davis as Ron and Nancy, which was relatively tame.
Reagan has been a pretty hard guy to pin down, which is why they called him the man with the teflon suit. Even with all the scandals that plagued his administration ranging from his support of freedom fighters in Afghanistan to funneling money through Iran to support the Contras in Nicaragua, nothing seem to stick to dear old Ronnie. He was close to 80 when he completed his two terms of office, as popular as ever, even after the entire Savings and Loans bank system had gone belly up, leaving many Americans facing foreclosure.
He may not have been able to stop communism in Central America, but when the Berlin wall came down in 1989, Conservatives took it as proof positive that all that money we had blown on defense the past 8 years was worth it. The US had won the Cold War! Of course, this left Lech Walesa a little chagrined, as the Solidarity movement he led in Poland was the first sign that the wall was cracking, but US intelligence essentially ignored it, treating it as another “Prague Spring.”
The 23 years that have past since he left office have only cemented his place in American history. Conservatives want him on Mt. Rushmore and pushed for a resolution to do so in 1999, but were unable to muster the votes in Congress. The consolation prize was having a mountain in New Hampshire named after him. But, his official biographer, Edmund Morris, was flummoxed as to how to present dear Ron in a biography, and ended up resorting to fictional characters to fill in the gaps in Dutch, which similarly stymied reviewers.
HBO is premiering a new documentary this week. He has been the subject of a spate of documentaries in recent years, most of them lauding his achievements such as In the Face of Evil. Here is an earlier PBS documentary, viewable only to those who live in the US it seems. You can draw your own conclusions.Read less