Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Reel Facts & Opinions: Hail to the Chiefs

Playing the part of a famous person in history has to be a daunting task for actors, especially if the character has lived in the past 50 years, where their likeness, voice, and mannerisms have been captured by the magic of film…which means the actors have to do their homework. Famous persons usually have at least one great story to tell, and a good gold-mine for stories has always come from the men who have served as the President of the United States. This year alone, Kevin Spacey played Richard Nixon in ELVIS & NIXON, Bryan Cranston will play Lyndon B. Johnson in this year’s upcoming ALL THE WAY, and Woody Harrelson will also play LBJ in the upcoming LBJ. And today, the announcement came that one of the most popular Presidents in history will be returning to the big screen; Ronald Reagan.

Variety is reporting that actor Will Ferrell is set to play President Reagan in a film currently titled REAGAN. The story is to take part at the start of Reagan’s first term, when he falls into dementia and an intern is given the task of convincing him that he is an actor playing the President in a movie. The script is said to be one of the best on Hollywood’s famed Black List; an annual catalog of the top unproduced films in Hollywood.

Reagan, who actually started his career as an actor, has been portrayed on the big screen eight times beginning in 1982, when Rip Torn took the role in the comedy AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL. Other memorable takes on Reagan were Reginald Green in THE IRON LADY (2011), and the late, great Alan Rickman’s curious take on the character in THE BUTLER (2013).

Eight times seems like a lot, but it’s pale in comparison to how many times other Presidents have been adapted for the silver screen. Richard Nixon has been portrayed 11 times, which includes Frank Langella’s Oscar-nominated role in FROST/NIXON (2008), and Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s NIXON (1995). And those 11 appearances don’t count the CGI version Michael Bay used in his third TRANSFORMERS film, which actually worked.

After Nixon, George Washington has appeared 20 times, John F. Kennedy has been played 13 times, Franklin D. Roosevelt 11 times, Teddy Roosevelt 25 times (which includes three by Robin Williams), and Ulysses S. Grant 11 times.

But the champion of all Presidents on film belongs to the name of Abraham Lincoln, who has appeared a whopping 39 times since 1915, with the first appearance being in D.W. Griffith’s controversial (yet historic) film, THE BIRTH OF A NATION. Over the years, Lincoln has appeared in comedies such as BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989), and THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)…and as fictionalized versions in ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012). The definitive version of the 16th President belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance in Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN (2012), which should be considered a model for all future Presidential characters and films.

It seems unlikely that Will Ferrell will be studying up on the Day-Lewis method of acting in his preparation to play Ronald Reagan, especially since the little of the plot that’s been revealed indicates a lot of liberties being taken (although, who is to say that it didn’t happen that way?). The film has yet to sign a director or fill other roles, but it will be on Ferrell to make his President worthy of memorial or an impeachment. There is also the (ahem) minor matter of the film apparently poking fun at someone suffering from Alzheimer's (how will the Reagan family react?), and one has to hope the script as enough tact to be respectful to the 40th President of the United States.


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