Six Flicks on Tricky Dick (A Look at Richard Nixon in the Movies)

Here’s an image you can’t unsee; a picture of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) playing the piano, singing, and apparently trying to feel something.

Nixon was second only to Truman as a piano playing President; and he was fairly good — competent, anyway. It was his substitute for a personality, and I think it probably helped him a little politically, offsetting his image as a dry, somewhat ghoulish Cold Warrior and Law-and-Order advocate. You’ll find pictures online of Nixon accompanying the likes of Pearl Bailey (who was a Republican), or cutting up with Count Basie and his band, even while his justice department was harassing Civil Rights leaders and groups like the Black Panthers. And as we wrote here, his wife Pat had briefly been a chorus girl in movies. The pair had met while acting in a community theatre production.

Another lesser known, or lesser emphasized, fact about Nixon is that under his watch, the National Endowment for the Arts experienced its greatest period of growth and was probably the healthiest it has ever been. Created under Johnson, the NEA’s budget was about $8 million when Nixon took office. By the time his appointee as director Nancy Hanks left in 1977, the budget was well over ten times that. (For a digressive thumb nail history as to the NEA budget’s subsequent fortunes: Reagan considered abolishing it, but ended up standing pat. The agency’s budget sort of plateaued during the ’80s. It took serious hits during the Republican congress of the ’90s, losing about a third of its budget. The current budget is over $200 million, though adjusted for inflation I’m sure it’s a smaller national investment than it had been during the Hanks years. The full budgetary history is here.)

What’s this got to do with the price of tea in China, you may well ask? (Ha, I said “China” in an article about Nixon!) Well, I guess it comes under the heading of the “Hitler loved dogs” category of discourse. Prior to 2016, Nixon was America’s most reviled and widely loathed President. Reagan had also been divisive; if anything he was much more of an extremist than Nixon, and he legitimized a lot of the crackpot fringe politics that have led us to today. But it was not possible to demonize Reagan as you could Nixon. Reagan had Hollywood friends, and the Washington press corps, while generally opposed to many of his policies, seemed to like him personally. But only the weirdest of the weird could have claimed to have liked Nixon. For a modern analog to his seemingly inexplicable political success a good comparison would be Ted Cruz. Nobody liked him; his political allies merely approved of his willingness to be in the vanguard of heinous policies and take the heat for negative public reaction. The first time I ever heard the word “scapegoat” was in a Watergate context, the word being used to apply to some in the administration like John Dean, who went to jail for their roles in the scandal. But in a certain sense you could also make the case that Nixon was the scapegoat for the entire conservative movement of his time. Yes, his own misdeeds brought it about. But I’ll have to agree with Noam Chomsky that just about all the Presidents have done things about as bad in one way or another that the press (and/or public opinion) chose not to use as rope to hang them with. When conservatives get red in the face with “what aboutism?”, though most of them are too oafish to articulate it, this is what they had in mind. It’s why they came gunning for Clinton on the thinnest of pretexts. And though both Clinton and Trump were impeached, it is telling that neither were removed (hey, I’m convinced the latter should never have been sworn in.) But Nixon was certain to have been removed, and that’s an extraordinary thing, given the national resistance to doing that do an elected leader, even corrupt ones.

It’s Nixon’s birthday, and we just passed the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in a few months back. I was four years old when Nixon was sworn in and thus he is the first American President I have any memory of from back in the day. I remember his China and Russia summits (which were historic), and the endless, endless Watergate hearings, as well as his resignation and departure, all in real time. Later, because I’d only been a kid when these events went down, I somewhat obsessively read books on the topic by Woodward and Bernstein and others, and the Watergate transcripts themselves. (Actually, I had first attempted the latter when I was a kid as well. It was the first place I had ever seen the phrase “expletive deleted.”) The years 2016 through 2020 were horribly unprecedented in every conceivable way, but they did unavoidably evoke memories of a time a half century earlier when America had a President roughly as hated. The Trump years frequently had liberal people uttering backhanded complements about the Presidencies of Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes, because they all compared favorably in one way or another with 45. But it’s important to keep perspective: Nixon was an authoritarian domestically; he prolonged and even in some ways intensified the war in Vietnam; he backed Pinochet’s coup in Chile. He was a racist, and anti-semitic. I was a big fan of The Book of Lists in the late ’70s; Nixon made their top ten list of “Most Hated Men in History”.

So the show business community was not a fan. When Nixon ran for President the first time, in 1968, he made a famous appearance on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, uttering Judy Carne’s catchphrase “Sock it to me”. But appearing on the nation’s top comedy variety show did not win Nixon fans among comedians. His vulture-like visage and funereal personality were catnip to comics and impressionists. For every newsclip of Nixon I saw as a kid, I probably saw ten impressions of him on variety shows. David Frye was the Nixonian equivalent to Vaughn Meader, but many others had him in their repertoire. Some of the better Nixon impersonators have included Dan Aykroyd and Harry Shearer, both of whom achieved their fame after Nixon was in the rear view mirror. Back in the day, there was primarily Rich Little, whose impression was more cartoonish and less political (apart from his appearance in Bob Einstein’s 1972 Another Nice Mess, which was pretty countercultural).

Nixon was easy to make fun of, but, as has been increasingly acknowledged, also a complex figure, almost Shakespearean in his contradictions. A Quaker war-monger, an anti-Semitic defender of Israel, a Machiavellian politician who made the stupidest miscalculations, etc. Consequently, many straight actors have sought the challenge of portraying him on screen in dramas. There seems to be a genuine desire on the part of many to climb inside Nixon’s skin and try to sort out what made him tick, and to figure out his rationalizations. It’s like playing Richard III. Here are a half dozen famous cinematic depictions of Tricky Dick:

Jason Robards, Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977)

While Nixon obviously hovers as a presence over the Woodward and Bernstein hagiography All the President’s Men, the ABC TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors was the first real attempt to get the Nixon saga per se onscreen. It was very soon after the event; it aired the same year as Nixon’s interview with David Frost. Indeed it is so early that the whole thing was fictionalized just to cover everyone’s asses legally. Nonetheless it was based on a novel by one of Nixon’s top aides and advisors John Ehrlichman. Everyone knew the score. Jason Robards, with his five o’clock shadow, gravelly voice, baggy eyes, and miserable smile, was excellent casting as the Nixon stand-in, one “Richard Monckton”, with a top notch all-star supporting cast that included Cliff Robertson, Robert Vaughn, Stephanie Powers, Harold Gould, Lois Nettleton, Barry Nelson, Tony Bill, Andy Griffith (as the LBJ stand-in), John Houseman, Meg Foster, Allen Oppenheimer, John Randolph, Bonnie Bartlett, et al. It was a huge TV event.

Rip Torn, Blind Ambition (1979)

Not to be outdone, CBS entered the fray with a four part mini-series based on John Dean’s book. This one named names, and pulled no punches. Rip Torn was Nixon, with future “President” Martin Sheen as Dean, and a cast that included Theresa Russell, William Daniels, Graham Jarvis, John Randolph, Ed Flanders, William Windom, and Christopher Guest! It takes a lot of white men to make a movie about Nixon!

Philip Baker Hall, Secret Honor (1984)

Based on a play by Donald Freed and Arthur M. Stone and directed by Robert Altman, Secret Honor is a piece of solo theatre caught on camera, whose principal virtue is a tour de force performance by Philip Baker Hall, who just tears it up, keeps you rivetted for 90 minutes. Its invented premise is that the drunken ex-President essentially fell on his sword to foil the sinister ambitions of a secret cabal who made him Chief Executive. Thus (it posits) his ending of the Vietnam war was an act of heroism, and the Watergate blunder was a machination on his own part to get him out of his bind. The actual plot is cockamamie, but Hall really sells it.

Lane Smith, The Final Days (1989)

You may not recognize the name Lane Smith but a glance at the photo above may cause you to realize that you’ve seen him in a couple of dozen movies and TV shows. That dark scowl served the character well, eh? This TV movie was based on Woodward and Bernstein’s eponymous book, their follow-up to All the President’s Men which purported to reveal what was going on inside the White House as the Nixon Presidency came to end end. The supporting cast included Theodore Bikel, Ed Flanders, Richard Kiley, James Sikking (of Hill Street Blues), Gary Sinise, and David Ogden Stiers.

Anthony Hopkins, Nixon (1995)

I find it simply hilarious that on-the-nose Oliver Stone cast the guy who played Hannibal Lechter and the psychotic ventriloquist from Magic as his generation’s bete noir. Hopkins performance is interesting; like his two predecessors (Robards and Hall) he doesn’t attempt an impression, which is to the good, and naturally he is a terrific actor, but I do find him too overtly malevolent and creepy even for Nixon. I mean Nixon got elected SOMEHOW, and we don’t usually elect people who look like they just rose out of a casket. This movie also has an all-star cast — too many to list. You might be forgiven for having high expectations from a guy who made the anti-Reagan films Salvador (1986) and Wall Street (1987), the anti-Vietnam war films Platoon (1987) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and the anti-everybody on earth film JFK (1991), but Nixon proved to be a kind of downward turning point for Stone instead of any kind of climax or culmination. It’s kind of a forgettable movie, and sort of muddy, neither a take-down down nor a justification of the man’s career. It would be over a decade before he would find his groove again (sort of) with World Trade Center (2008), W. (2008) and the Wall Street sequel (2010). By that time there was also this:

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon (2008)

This is probably my favorite Ron Howard film, which I must tell you straightaway is a VERY low bar. I like it because of Peter Morgan’s script, and the performances, less than Howard’s direction, which, as always flinches at the idea of genuinely looking under rocks and finding the waterbugs that live there. There are little touches of sympathy for both characters that I found sort of cowardly, and frankly inappropriate. I do love David Frost, but he was of course an entertainer pursuing TV ratings in this instance. And as for Nixon? I mean honestly. I hated Clinton speaking at his funeral and I hate the warm and fuzzy note at the end of this movie that seems to want to redeem this evil man. You can make him 3 dimensional without making him the Easter Bunny. But Frank Langella’s performance is terrific, and he’s the only actor of the bunch who managed to incorporate an impersonation of the real Nixon, perhaps because he had a wider gulf to bridge. Young Langella was something of a sex symbol. Haha, here’s a twist. He was famous for making Dracula sexy; here he brings a little of the vampire to Nixon. Langella’s got a more expressive face than a lot of the others who’ve played this role. He’s always pouting, worrying, fretting, brooding. And then, when the moment requires it, he turns on his version of “charm”, a huge lift for him. Other than Secret Honor, this is probably the most thought-provoking movie about Nixon, since the others have tended to be paint-by-numbers run-downs of facts, as opposed to explorations of character. And here’s one more bonus movie:

Kevin Spacey, Elvis & Nixon (2016)

I watched this foolish thing about a month ago; it’s what gave me the idea for this post. Actually, Elvis’s birthday was yesterday, and I half contemplated doing a post on depictions of Elvis in the movies, but when confronted with it I decided it wasn’t worth it. Baz Luhrman’s Elvis movie nailed it on every level, and the others aren’t even worth talking about. I mean, the idea (and the reality) of Michael Shannon playing Elvis Presley is just ridiculous. I used to think he could do no wrong, but between this and the George Jones kick he’s on now, I am beginning to think he’s gone off his noodle. And Kevin Spacey is certainly loathsome enough to play Nixon, in fact he did this in the middle of the run of House of Cards, on which he played a similarly rogueish politician. But I hate him in everything, I think he’s a simply dreadful actor, full of cutie pie mannerisms and no interior life, so I’m not going to like him anymore in this. He probably wished he got to play Elvis. After all, he had the nerve to play Bobby Darin! Further, this movie is even more of a “mere anecdote” excuse for a movie than Frost/Nixon. The famous photo of their meeting is a hoot, the moment is an interesting footnote in both of the men’s lives. But if we’re to start making movies about footnotes, well, we’re going to be making more movies than anybody can watch. Come to think of it, though, that’s almost certainly where we’re headed. Not a promising development for one of the 20th century’s least telegenic Presidents!