Can it really be 40 years ago this weekend that the bungled “third-rate burglary” at the Watergate Hotel marked the beginning of the end for a President of the United States?
Richard Nixon was already a polarizing figure when his efforts to cover up the White House-Watergate connection were first hatched. But his astonishing fall from power is the stuff of high drama—and it’s not surprising that to this day Hollywood’s most gifted actors seem compelled to take a shot at capturing his elusive character onscreen.
Just a couple of months ago, Harry Shearer played Nixon in a British TV play, Nixon’s the One. And in the coming months Nixon will arrive in theaters in the persons of John Cusack (The Butler) and Danny Huston (Elvis & Nixon).
Nixon wasn’t even President yet when French director Jean-Luc Godard named a character Richard M. Nixon in his 1966 film, Made in U.S.A. Since then no fewer than 50 actors have taken on the Nixon Challenge. Here are some of the more memorable ones (click on the highlighted text to see clips and trailers from each film):
Rip Torn, Blind Ambition (1979) The flurry of confessional memoirs by Nixon’s White House team resulted in a whole batch of TV and theatrical Nixons: Chuck Colson’s Born Again (1978) yielded Harry Spillman as R.N., and in Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy (1982), comedian/impersonator John Byner gave it a try (although I’ll always best remember Byner on the old Gary Moore Show, doing a Donald Duck-like character called Felix Fossididdi).
By far the most ambitious such project was this 8-hour CBS miniseries, based on a book by White House Counsel John Dean—the man whose Congressional testimony put the final nail in Nixon’s Presidential coffin. Young Martin Sheen plays Dean, but Rip Torn’s Nixon steals the show. Torn gets that Nixonian eye-flutter just right, and he has an uncanny ability to suggest that even as Nixon is saying one thing, he’s thinking something else entirely.
Philip Baker Hall, Secret Honor (1984) Director Robert Altman introduces us to something of an alternative-reality Nixon—it’s the late 1970s, and we find Nixon brooding drunkenly at his New Jersey estate, alternately ranting and whining his way through a monologue, spoken to a microphone on his desk. Hall gives a breathtaking performance—the film is really a 90-minute monologue. He doesn’t really try to imitate Nixon; Hall and Altman are really more interested in getting to the core of the man, and that leads to some pretty over-the-top moments. WARNING: Nixon was notorious for his salty language, and this clip really does that side of him justice.
James Maddalena, Nixon in China (1988) The Rise, Fall, Rise, Fall, and Rise of Richard Nixon is nothing if not operatic in scope, and this 1988 opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman remains one of the few late 20th Century operas that will probably still be in the world repertoire a century from now. The Houston Grand Opera premiere production was televised on PBS—with an introduction by Walter Cronkite. As Nixon, Maddalena’s first job is, of course, to fill the opera house with his full, resonant voice. But watch him as he emerges from Air Force One on the Beijing tarmac. See that broad, almost pained smile on his face. In preparing for the role of Richard Nixon, it’s clear that Maddalena studied a lot more than just his sheet music.
Lane Smith, The Final Days (1989) One of my favorite character actors (remember him as the D.A. in My Cousin Vinny?), Smith gives Nixon the internal benefit of the doubt in this TV movie based on the Woodward and Bernstein book. Smith’s Nixon is conflicted and sentimental, defiant to the end yet clearly aware that his downfall is his own doing. Of all the screen Nixons this is the one I would most like to spend a little time with.
Beau Bridges, Kissinger and Nixon, 1995 It was unusual for a cable channel to mount a major TV movie at the time, but TNT optioned Walter Isaacson’s book Kissinger and produced this star turn for Bridges, whose Nixon earned him an Emmy nomination. As Nixon, Bridges is a no-nonsense CEO trying to balance his political fortunes with Kissinger’s efforts to end the war in Vietnam. For once we get to see a Nixon unencumbered by Watergate, at the height of his poltical powers.
Anthony Hopkins, Nixon (1995) Two giants of the screen—Hopkins and director Oliver Stone —collaborated to create this quirky portrait of an embattled President who is his own worst enemy. Hopkins is an odd choice to play Nixon—he doesn’t even seem to work very hard to mask his Welsh accent. But he captures, perhaps better than anybody, Nixon’s mounting confusion as Watergate unravels; a brilliant but tortured mind trying to make too many decisions on his own, and more often than not making the absolute wrong ones.
Dan Hedaya, Dick (1999) “I got a way with young people,” Hedaya’s Nixon tells an aide. “They trust me.” By far the funniest Nixon of all, Hedaya personally takes two teenage girls (Kirstin Dunst and Michelle Williams) under his wing after they’ve stumbled on the Watergate burglary in progress. He tries to keep an eye on them by making them the official White House dog walkers, and everything unravels, of course. It’s all played for laughs, but Hedaya does effectively tap into Nixon’s unfathomable self-delusion that he was, somehow, viewed as a man of the people.
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon (2008) For this tale of David Frost’s historic TV interview with Nixon, director Ron Howard wisely stands back and lets the camera run for Langella’s towering performance. Maddeningly pompous, pitifully insecure, Langella’s Nixon smolders with the legendary mix of contradictions that defined the real RN. The veteran actor reveals more of Nixon than a library of biographies ever could. Watch as he walks to the interview set, realizing he has no choice but to fess up to his role in the Watergate cover-up, characteristically slouching but gradually, imperceptibly, drawing his shoulders back, pulling himself up to full height, like a king to his execution. It’s a performance that will rank with George C. Scott’s Patton and Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi.
Nixon News Photo: cyberpresse.ca
Blind Ambition: ioffer.com
Secret Honor: Criterion.com
Nixon in China: Kpbs.org
The Final Days: imdb.com
Kissinger and Nixon: msn.com
Dick: Columbia Pictures, Inc.