Hail to the chiefs
US screen presidents have a long and varied history. Some, like Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln or Will Ferrell’s Bush, reflect their times. Others exercise far more executive licence. TARA BRADYcasts her eye over the ballot
WE GET THE PRESIDENT WE DESERVE
US movie presidents tell us more about America than a State of the Nation address ever could. Hell, even the fake presidents are pretty revealing. Lincoln – Steven Spielberg’s intriguing disentanglement of the backroom deals and decidedly undemocratic shenanigans required to rid the US of slavery – offers a defence of occasionally dictatorial leadership.
Whether its intentional or not, the film works as a kind of apologia for Barack Obama’s less popular, unconstitutional measures and as a reminder that the movie-verse invariably gives American audiences the president they deserve and/or need.
In this spirit, the Depression Era required strong, silent type Francis X Bushman to essay George Washington in 1927’s sentimental, uplifting The Flag: A Story Inspired by the Tradition of Betsy Ross, the conservative 1950s gave us the equally conservative Charlton Heston playing Andrew Jackson in The President’s Lady (1953), the crazy Cold War years put Peter Sellers in charge for Dr Strangelove (1964), and the increasingly showbusiness politics of the 1990s saw presentable sorts John Travolta (Primary Colours), Bill Pullman (Independence Day) and Martin Sheen (The West Wing) all take office.
NOT BORN IN THE USA
According to Lincoln, the role of Commander-in-Chief will ultimately bounce from one honorary Irishman (Daniel Day Lewis’s Honest Abe) to another (Jared Harris’s Ulysses S Grant). See also Cabra-born Michael Gambon’s LBJ in Path to War (2002), Aidan Quinn’s Grant in Jonah Hex, Kenneth Branagh’s FDR in Warm Springs, and Wexford-born Dan O’Herlihy in MacArthur (1977).
The oddest thing about the history of American presidents on screen is how few of them are actually American. The earliest movie president was Canadian Joseph Kilgour’s George Washington (who played the role four times between 1909 and 1915). He was soon joined by fellow Canucks Walter Huston (Abraham Lincoln, 1934), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1940), Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, 2000), Dan Ackroyd (My Fellow Americans, 1996) and William Shatner (Swing Out, Sweet Land, 1970).
When in doubt, Hollywood invariably reaches out to America’s former colonial masters: Nigel Hawthorne’s Martin Van Buren in Amistad, Donald Crisp’s Ulysses S Grant in The Birth of a Nation, Ben Kingsley in Dave, and Alan Cumming in Reefer Madness to name just a few.
DESENSITISING THE MASSES
Many cultural commentators have noted the frequency of fictional African-American presidents – Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact, Dennis Haysbert in 24, James Earl Jones in The Man, Richard Pryor in The Richard Pryor Show – in the years before Barack Obama’s presidential triumph.
The so-called “Huxtable Effect” – named for The Cosby Show – has no near equivalent in terms of gender equality. Lady presidents are almost always played for laughs: Patty Duke in TV’s Hail To The Chief, Christina Applegate in Mafia!, Loretta Swit in Whoops Apocalypse and Joan Rivers in Les Patterson Saves The World. (Mind you, we would still salute any flag Ms Rivers wishes to run up a pole.)
Oddly, the only confirmed gay US president, James Buchanan, is rarely depicted. And Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed – the two shared a small bed for four years – has only ever made it onscreen as a gag on American Dad.
NATURAL BORN MOVIE LEADERS
Some actors are born to play presidents. There’s just something convincingly commanding about former screen leaders Gregory Peck (The Blue and the Gray), Frederick Marsh (Seven Days in May), Donald Pleasance (Escape From New York) and Philip Baker Hall (Secret Honour).
Special mention should go to repeat offenders: Glenn Close holds the distinction of being the scariest screen VP (Air Force One) and the scariest First Lady (Mars Attacks!); James Cromwell has played a fake president (The Sum of All Fears) and two real ones (Lyndon Johnson in the incoming Flying Into Love and George HW Bush in the underrated W); ditto Henry Fonda, the Commander-in-Chief of Young Abraham Lincoln, Fail-Safe and Meteor.
The ultimate screen prez, however, must surely be Hal Holbrook, who played Lincoln in the 1970s TV series of the same name and again in North and South. He was also a fake president in Under Siege (1996). Appropriately, he pops up in Spielberg’s Lincoln as Republican peace-monger Francis Preston Blair.
Anthony Hopkins, meanwhile, has twice scored Oscar nods playing presidents. He was shortlisted as Best Actor for Nixon (1996) and Best Supporting Actor as John Quincy Adams for Amistad (1998). He didn’t win on either occasion. In fact, no actor has ever won playing a historical US president. Can two-time winner Daniel Day Lewis break the curse?
UNNATURAL BORN MOVIE LEADERS
Leaving aside the grand old Saturday Night Live tradition of idiotic US presidents – Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton, Will Ferrell’s George W Bush – there are plenty of TV and movie presidents we’d really rather pass on. We won’t be voting for Earth President Richard Nixon’s head in a jar as voiced by Billy West on Futurama any time soon. Or Charlie Sheen in the upcoming Machete Kills. Or Ken Kercheval’s Cliff Barnes in that weird final episode of Dallas. And as for Weird Al Yankovic in The Aquabats! Super Show! If only we’d put an x beside Leslie Nielsen’s name when the Scary Movie franchise gave us the chance.
Lincoln opens next Friday