It will help if we radically reformulate the terms of our bemusement. The problem is not that the President of the United States, the Leader of the Free World, the Occupant of the World’s Loneliest Office, etc., used to be a movie actor, a creator of make-believe. The problem is that he used to be—probably still is—a movie fan, a consumer of make-believe, even an addict of it.
This is a disturbing conclusion. So much so that even bold Garry Wills, whose Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home leads one inescapably toward it, stops short of baldly setting it forth. And for good reason: it implies the most depressing things not only about Ronald Reagan, but about ourselves and our infinite capacity for delusion, political and otherwise.
Like the rest of us, Wills has learned to stop worrying and live with the idea of an actor-president. This is no small matter. It is, in fact, an aspect of one of the more interesting unremarked social phenomena of postwar American life: the general acceptance of the idea that acting is a profession, demanding of its practitioners a training, discipline, and sobriety comparable to that required of lawyers, doctors, and the other grown-up occupations.
To earlier generations, this notion would have been unimaginable, dumbfounding. But there it is. Three decades of journalistic and talk-show debates about The Actors Studio and The Method; a similar span of general concern about Marlon Brando’s integrity; the rise of graduate education in the theatrical arts and crafts, and the decline of the term contract in Hollywood, which freed performers to pursue highly personal projects at the same time they were freed to express themselves with impunity on public issues and, for that matter, private morals—all of this encouraged movie actors to take their work, and their duties as citizens, more seriously. And encouraged the general public to join them in this activity. It is ironic that Ronald Reagan, that least serious and least actorish of actors, a man no one ever really thought of as a major talent or screen presence, should be the chief beneficiary of this change in our attitudes.
This point, quite correctly, worries Wills: “On the one hand, some try to explain Reagan’s extraordinary success in politics by saying he gets by because he is ‘just an actor.’ On the other hand, we are told he was not even a good actor—which seems to make his political success more mysterious. Which is it to be? Is he just reading lines, following his script, using theatrical skills, as President? Or did a man lacking the depth for great roles in the theater somehow acquire a knack for filling the most responsible role in the world?” How pleasant it would be if one felt these questions to be apposite. For then we could fit the rise of Ronald Reagan into our standard explanation of success in America: natural talent, solid training, honorable conduct in an honorable line of work, and then, finally, the respect of peers and public, translated in his case into the greatest gift it is in our power to bestow.
Wills’ rhetorical questions are quite unanswerable as posed. Reagan was clearly not a distinguished actor, and though he was sometimes a respectable one, he was just as often an incompetent one. Similarly, it is hard to find any evidence that he possessed a genius for the political gesture that awaited unlocking by changing times and circumstances. No, you cannot get hold of this character with questions as convenient as those posed here by Wills. Reagan’s astonishing success, in not one but two careers that have defeated men with far higher gifts and far more ferocious ambitions, begins to make sense only if you view it in utterly unconventional, indeed in utterly on-American terms. This way.
He succeeded as an actor, in the theatrical sense of the word, precisely because he refused to act, in the general sense of the word. He refused to try to impose himself on events, to shape them to his uses. Rather, he succeeded because he correctly saw his movie career as a lucky opportunity proffered him by rich and powerful men, men much cleverer than he was, to live within one of the most delicious of American fantasies. All he had to do, as he saw it, was go along with them agreeably—show up on time, learn his lines, submit to the publicity process, and above all, not question the wisdom of their decisions about his career.
The result was little short of miraculous. In his rise, as Wills nicely puts it, he was “a winner, not a stunner; in his fall he was a fader, not a loser.” And when he had reached near-ectoplasmic status as a movie star, his mentors, having accumulated no grievances against him, had no reason to indulge the usually irresistible Hollywood habit to punish the weakened star for his past arrogances. Instead, they pointed Ron in a new direction, toward the political illusion, within which one may also succeed simply by showing up on time, learning one’s lines, etc., etc.
I do not wish to imply that Ronald Reagan was without gift. In fact, he was hugely gifted—as a fantasist. Which is an occupation that, until he showed us the way, no one had ever regarded as likely to lead anybody anywhere very exalted. But which now, perhaps, we might find a certain profit in re-examining.
She’s Paying Her Way Through College
We can begin, prosaically enough, with Wills’ observation that Reagan was of the generation that came of age as the movies came of age. He was born the year the first studio opened in Hollywood; he was graduated from high school the year talkies came in. His crowd was the one on which the myth-making power of the movies shone with the piercing power of the new. He was also of a place (small-town middle America) and of a class (the lumpen bourgeoisie) that had a particular need for the transfiguring power of this mythology. In other words, the kind of glory-dreaming he has his whole long life indulged himself in was by no means unique to him.
What was singular about him was that he probably would have dreamed his dreams even if the movies had not been there to provide model scenarios for them. The evidence is that he possesses—is possessed by—a unique, even awesome capacity to project himself into fantastic narratives, to turn personal history into wish-fulfilling, and morally exemplary, fiction. And fiction of the precise kind that the movies, as he was growing up, were learning to conventionalize so that such stories could be easily read by the mass audience. And, of course, easily and endlessly replicated by moviemakers.
So powerful was this capacity of his—this urgent ability to create starring roles for himself in the genre movies that he wrote, produced, and directed for projection exclusively on his own brainpan—that it survived his rise within the moviemaking community, a process that usually generates the kind of cynical heat that eventually dries out most of the imaginations that devote themselves for very long to this line of work. Reagan’s capacity to stay fresh, delighted by the workings of his own easy-striding imagination, is one of his strengths. It is also, perhaps, the source of his remarkable youthfulness of manner.
Reagan somehow contrived to remain what he was long before he came to the movies: profoundly suggestible. We all know that he entered showbiz as a radio sports reporter for small stations in Iowa, where his specialty was, to use the polite contemporary word, “visualization” of baseball games. The facts of a game proceeding in far-off Chicago were telegraphed to him, and he was required to create, on the spot, a full word picture of the game, right down to little red-haired boys making spectacular catches of balls fouled into the stands.
In later years one of Reagan’s favorite anecdotes has the line going dead as a ball left the pitcher’s hand, leaving silver-tongued Dutch Reagan to improvise many, many foul balls—utterly untraceable in the next day’s box score—until service was restored. Harmless fun, of course, and arguably a service to the higher truth. That is to say, Reagan’s fictive embroidery did not distort the account of the game as it progressed-the hits, runs, and errors were all present and accounted for-and the rest was just entertainment. Also, possibly, good training in those on-your-feet skills requisite to the successful conduct of a Presidential press conference.
Knute Rockne—All American
In any case, as Wills observes, Dutch Reagan became in those years an uncritical admirer of that school of sports reporting—exemplified in print by the likes of Grantland Rice, on the air by a line of performers beginning with Graham McNamee and culminating in Bill Stem—who could not resist improving on the historical record, particularly if their inventions would lend an uplifting moral point to an anecdote. It was at this stage that Reagan began his fascinating lifelong association with George Gipp by retelling Rice’s basic “win one for the Gipper” legend on one of his radio shows. The story stayed with him so powerfully that he proposed it as a screenplay soon after signing his Warner Bros. contract and well before he was himself cast as the Gipper in Knute Rockne—All American. He was still telling it, essentially unchanged, when he received an honorary degree from Notre Dame in 1981.
A little research of the kind that White House staffs can easily command—and which, indeed, Reagan himself might have conducted at any point in his half-century’s obsession with the Gipper would have revealed a number of interesting points about his story. The first is that Gipp himself was a thoroughly undesirable character, a pool hustler who smoked, drank, played pro football on the side, and regularly bet on Notre Dame games in which he played. In life he was never referred to as “the Gipper”; and his death, before graduation, appears to have been hastened by his dissipations, which he never recanted.
Still more interesting: no one ever heard of his deathbed request—that Rockne invoke his name sometime when a Notre Dame team was in need of inspiration—until the coach brought his weakest team into New York for the Army game of 1928. He spent the evening before it with Rice, trying out this preposterous inspirational yarn on the sportswriter before feeding it to his team the next day. This may have been Rockne’s biggest whopper, but it was by no means his only inspiring invention. For this most sacred icon of the American sports pantheon, this legendary builder of youthful character, was a congenital liar, or (if you prefer the politer term, suitable to presidents as well as folk heroes) a mythomaniac. But, as the Leader of the Free World himself inquired at Notre Dame, “Is there anything wrong with young people having an experience, feeling something so deeply, thinking of someone else to the point where they can give . . . completely of themselves?”
Well . . . er . . . urn . . . gosh. One wonders: Are these higher truths, arrived at by climbing a ladder of smaller untruths, really worth the cynicism they will inevitably engender? And how high, really, are these higher truths? They are not exactly Olympian in their richness, are they? Not exactly the sort of legends around which you would want to organize your life or your society. At best, they are fables for a high school sports banquet.
You’re in the Army Now
But Reagan has a million of them, and he goes on telling them to this day. One favorite has a World War II B-17 pilot ordering his crew to bail out after their plane has been crippled by anti-aircraft fire, then finding one of his gunners wounded and immovably trapped as the plane starts to spiral earthward. The boy is frightened, but the pilot cradles him in his arms and says, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” The Leader of the Free World likes to use the story as evidence of how our political system creates a morality superior to that of the Communist system. Terrific. But if the only two witnesses to this exchange indeed rode their crippled plane down together, who survived to recount their dialogue? Is it from some old war movie the rest of us have forgotten, or a radio drama or a pulp story? No one seems to know, and the tale’s provenance is a matter of curiosity nowhere near as speculatively compelling—or as enigmatic—as the sources of Reagan’s fondness for it.
Be that as it may, one does feel confident in observing that his taste for these slices of life according to Reader’s Digest has obviously had an influence on his autobiographical impulse. His life, as he likes to retell it, is at every stage illuminated by similarly shapely and instructive dramatic sequences. For example: he is playing football for Dixon High School and at a crucial juncture in a game commits an infraction undetected by the officials but protested by the opposing players. One of the zebras puts it to young Dutch—did he or didn’t he perpetrate a foul? Alas, “truth-telling had been whaled into me,” so Reagan fesses up, apparently costing his team a chance for the touchdown by which it ultimately lost the game. We owe to the relentlessly researching Wills the information that no game with an outcome of the kind Reagan describes took place while he was playing for Dixon.
As he grows older, the line between provable and improvable truth grows ever more blurry—and, possibly, ever more important in evaluating his character and his “performances.” Another example: he has honorably served his country in war, abandoning his screen career just as he was making the transition from B pictures to A’s. “By the time I got out of the Army Air Corps, all I wanted to do—in common with several million other veterans—was to rest up for a while, make love to my wife, and come up refreshed to a better job in a better world.” Right. Unexceptionable sentiments. Except that they imply lengthy service far from the comforts of home. But Reagan passed the war entirely in Hollywood, assigned to “Fort Roach” (normally Hal Roach’s Culver City studio), where he worked on Air Corps training films. He went home to wife Jane Wyman every night, except for a period when she was away on a bond-selling tour. Indeed, her wartime duties likely took her away from home for a longer period than his did.
And now memory grows even loopier. It is 1983, and President Reagan is entertaining the Prime Minister of Israel and implies, or seems to imply, that he was part of a Signal Corps unit filming the Nazi death camps as they are liberated. Moreover, he moreovers, there was this one particularly moving piece of footage that he felt he ought to sequester, because he felt someday people would question the authenticity of the Holocaust and—sure, sure, that’s the ticket—one day someone did exactly that in his presence and he had this footage and…
Mr. Shamir was duly moved and impressed. So were Simon Wiesenthal and Rabbi Marvin Hier when they visited the White House and were treated to the same story. It was only after it was repeated in the Israeli press, and people here and elsewhere started checking on it, that Reagan’s staff had to launch the most strenuous “containment” effort of his presidency up to that time. Ahem. Cough-cough. You see. What he meant to say was. And perhaps the visiting dignitaries misunderstood Reagan; after all, English is not their native language. Obviously, if Reagan passed the war entirely in Hollywood it would have been a little difficult for him to be with a Signal Corps unit as the camps were freed. “Bill Stem the Colgate Shave Cream Man is on his way…”
Outrageous, on the face of it. Yet neither Wills, collecting and recounting these stories, nor I, fascinatedly reading them, can quite summon the appropriate outrage. For we recognize in Reagan something we indulge in ourselves and in our friends. It is our not-entirely-conscious, not-entirely-unconscious desire to reshape the maddening ambiguities of reality into the form of an old-fashioned movie: narratively neat, psychologically gratifying, with a beginning, a middle, an end, and above all, a central figure we have no trouble rooting for—ourselves.
Which brings us to an amusing pair of questions. Does this represent a basic human need in search of a form that the dreamy movies kindly provided? Or did the suddenly pervasive movies propose for us the kinds of transformations we had never before known we wanted or needed to make? Who can say? What we can say (though Wills does not) is that this is one of the forms that modernism takes at the popular, unself-conscious level—and that Ronald Reagan is obviously, if astonishingly, one of the masters of modernism, in his way the equal of Picasso, Joyce, and Gertrude Stein.
Maybe the name we should actually be evoking here, for purposes of comparison, is that of a post-modernist, Andy Warhol, whose background class and geographic background is not dissimilar from Reagan’s and who, like the President, just sort of seemed to dream himself to fame and fortune. As with the late foreman of The Factory, Reagan created a wonderfully seamless, and seemingly unconscious, join between life and imagery, self and works. Learned exegetes of both Reagan’s and Warhol’s work endlessly debate the question of whether or not it is art. How consciously did they shape the products that bear the stamp of their personalities? It is curious also to observe the similarity of the stances both men took toward their work: modestly amused by the fuss it has caused, unegocentric in their claims for it—and innocently delighted in how much fame they achieved with so little apparent effort on their own behalf. Indeed, Reagan seems to see his Hollywood career very much as Warhol saw his career as an artist: it was a swell movie that he was lucky enough to star in.
Ronald Reagan did not break a sweat breaking in. He was out covering the Chicago Cubs’ spring training season on Catalina Island, off Los Angeles, when he took a few hours off for screen tests and obtained for himself the modest Warner Bros. contract that was to be his first step on the road to the White House. He seems to have found life around the studio fun, and both his own accounts and those of others show him in these days to be a young man of no temperament and no image of himself as actor at all. This would be his salvation, of course. For Warners, in the days of his apprenticeship, was a-roil with rebellion. James Cagney (Reagan’s latter-day pal), Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, even, yes, Joan Leslie were in constant noisy conflict with Jack Warner, seeking better parts, more money, a role in the choice of their roles.
Not young Ron. He unassumingly did leads in program features, small parts in a few A’s. He established himself most usefully as Brass Bancroft, in the four pictures comprising the Secret Service of the Air series that Brynie Foy’s B picture unit ground out. These pictures, Wills hints, prepared Reagan emotionally for his later role as a real-life FBI informer against suspected Communists; Brass did a bit of undercover work in his time. Wills also suggests that the Bancroft series may account for Reagan’s devotion to the Star Wars concept. In the last of these pictures Brass must defend from enemy agents the “Inertia Projector,” a device capable of knocking enemy planes out of the air from a distance of four miles. Life may occasionally imitate art for everyone, but it did so repeatedly in Ronald Reagan’s career.
In any event, he had no cause for complaint. His career was moving ahead at a nice, but not unnerving pace. It did not cost him sleep or recreation time—loss of which are known to make him cranky, even now. He got his good showy bit in Knute Rockne and immediately thereafter an excellent second lead as George Armstrong Custer vying anachronistically with Flynn’s Jeb Stuart for de Havilland’s hand in Santa Fe Trail. The thing was not at all the Western it sounds, but rather a preparedness preachment, in which the two are in pursuit of Raymond Massey’s John Brown, who is made to stand in for Hitler, with good men being urged to stand up to his raving bigotry before it is too late. Santa Fe Trail was also, about half the time, a romantic comedy, with Flynn playing the smooth seducer and Reagan playing Custer as the one thing he surely was not, an amiable goof, the butt of Flynn’s jokes and schemes, and ultimately the loser to him in their contest for the girl.
Reagan hated the way Flynn kept upstaging him, but Santa Fe Trail established once and for all the young player’s viability in big-budget pictures. Two years later he got his best role, the one that stays everyone’s critical hand in the attempts to evaluate his acting career, that of Drake McHugh in Kings Row. His next good part, and his last before entering the service himself, was again with Flynn and Massey in Raoul Walsh’s Desperate Journey, in which he was a Yank in an RAF crew, downed in occupied Europe and trying to fight its way back to England. Much of the film was played as knockabout comedy, and rather refreshingly so. Aside from This Is the Army, for which Warners was able to borrow him back from the Air Corps to play the romantic lead, that was it for Reagan until1947 and Stallion Road.
Santa Fe Trail
Reagan’s prewar movies repay study. They are the ones that define the limits of the untutored talent that, once he had asserted it, he did nothing to develop or refine. (Again the analogy with Warhol suggests itself.) Obviously, Kings Row is central to this consideration, for though it must tiptoe around the incest theme that was crucial to the success of the best-seller on which it was based, and though poor, bland Robert Cummings was a hopeless leading man, it was an energetic and memorable picture, with good character people like Claude Rains and Charles Coburn interestingly cast, a wonderful look to it (the joint creation of cinematographer James Wong Howe and production designer William Cameron Menzies), a grand Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, and the always adorable Ann Sheridan deliciously present and down to earth. Above all, it gave Reagan what everyone pretending to movie stardom must somehow obtain, a riveting scene, with a line as unforgettable as his “Where’s the rest of me” when he wakes up to discover that a sadistic doctor has needlessly amputated both his legs after an accident in a rail yard.
In his reading of this movie, Wills, I think, errs seriously. He wants to take even this one small thespic triumph away from Reagan, and so he insists that his big scene is really Sheridan’s (and Korngold’s). But ran it over and over the other night, and it is just not so. To be sure, the preparation for it is all Sheridan’s. The camera is long on her as she anxiously awaits Duke’s awakening from shock and anesthesia and his discovery that he has been crippled. But once she responds to his first cry, mounts the stairs, and enters his room, they share the scene equally. She has three close-ups, he has two, and there are three two-shots, two of which distinctly favor him. Moreover, he does his famous line unimprovably: anguish and panic in his voice, in his facial expression, in his thrashing movements under the covers. And one gets no sense that the director, Sam Wood, had to cheat to cover for Reagan. Hard to ask for anything more from any actor.
No, Reagan’s problems in Kings Row occur earlier, when he is called upon to represent himself as a careless womanizer and ne’er-do-well heir to a small fortune. He is supposed to provide the contrast to Cummings, who plays an earnest, idealistic medical student. At this stage of the movie Duke McHugh is not a nice guy, and Reagan is visibly uncomfortable, straining, in these passages. He does not exhibit the born actor’s relish at playing a heel; he exhibits the born politician’s discomfort at being mistaken for one. He has no technique to help him get under this character’s skin. Or to distract us from his own discomfort. Before he loses his legs, Duke loses his inheritance, and that returns Reagan’s character to the emotional range where he was—and is—comfortable in reality. It is the only realm where he ever learned to live persuasively, on the screen.
His other work in the period reinforces this point. Take his Custer, for example. The relationship with Jeb Stuart is not the only anachronism in Santa Fe Trail. Reagan plays his role as a modem youth unprobably dressed up in a 19th-century soldier suit, and though he is kind of funny sometimes, he is kind of jarring, too. Things work out for him a little better in Desperate Journey. He is supposed to be a breezy American kid who, under interrogation by Massey (playing a Gestapo officer), resorts to jive talk in order to evade awkward questions, and he is genuinely funny in the scene. Timing was the experienced studio performer’s strong suit, his only reliable technical skill, and he used it to good effect here. As for This Is the Army, he was straight man to a vast troupe putting on a soldier show. As the movie’s only male romantic interest, he tries to evade Joan Leslie’s advances on the ground that it was irresponsible to marry while there was a war on and he might be killed—yes, that one. But again, the part was comfortably within his modest range.
Looking back on this work, we see clearly—was it ever clear to him?—that he lacked the art to transform himself through art. He was trapped within himself on the screen as well as off. Real actors are in essence escape artists, or maybe quick-change artists. It is the opportunity to strut that gift that provides such fascination and payoffs, the thing that makes a difficult and frustrating business occasionally worthwhile. It is also, of course, the thing that goads actors, makes them difficult, hard for the studio manager to manage. They are, in effect, junkies ever in search of their fix, their passage out of entrapping reality.
For Reagan, lacking the gift of transcendence, acting could only provide an extension of reality, not an escape from it. Like the rest of us “non-pros” (to borrow Variety‘s old, contemptuous term), he had to rely on private fantasies to make his way out of the quotidian. And as with the rest of us, his dreams were fed, polluted perhaps, by mechanized dream works, by movies of the very kind he unimaginatively worked in. And by the movie-like fantasies that the rest of the media provided sportscasters, political commentators, storytellers of every “non-fictional” kind who had mastered the basic American movie trick, which is to tell whoppers in a realistic-seeming manner, tell whoppers of the kind Reagan is still genially telling and believing. Oh, yes, absolutely believing, as Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter discovered to their delight. They looked like old-fashioned heroes to him, and so they could tell him just about anything and make him believe it—especially spy stories that must have sounded a lot like movie treatments as they outlined them to him, keeping them brief and punchy, the way Jack Warner used to like them.
It was not so important back before the war, this limit under which he worked. He was a cute guy, and young. And, as noted, a pleasant relief from all those artist types yearning to breathe free. After the war, though, it was different. He wasn’t so young anymore, and the movies were changing. Genre films, the conventions of which had done a lot of the actors’ work for them, were losing their hold on the public. Now you had to bring something of your subtler awarenesses of self and world to the party up there on the screen. Hard for everybody, especially hard for Reagan.
His wife of the time caught this drift early. “Button-Nose,” better known as Jane Wyman, came from a background similar to, and not more tony than, Reagan’s. When they were courting she was making B’s at Warners too, and she fit in chipperly with the gang of Midwestern transplants, non-pros the lot of them, with whom Reagan ran socially—mostly to the beach and (odd for movie folk) to the movies, where they paid their money and took their place with the other non-pros in the audience. But instinctively, the starlet sniffed the profession’s possibilities for healthy escape from self and the quotidian. By 1945 she had The Lost Weekend, by ’47 her first Oscar nomination (for The Yearling), a year later the big prize itself, for Johnny Belinda. Hubby was left behind to make a bitter quip, that he should name Belinda as co-respondent in his divorce action. In other words, Wyman had found and entered the country of the imagination—one feels like writing “the healthy imagination” —that Reagan could never locate.
They tried to help him, the people who ran the town. Unlike most of the other actors, he had always treated them politely, gratefully, according them the respect he had never been able to grant his alcoholic father, the shiftless shoe salesman who had more than once shamed him. He had been loyal to Jack Warner. More important, he had remained faithful to the only agency he had ever had, Lew Wasserman’s increasingly powerful MCA. They all saw him as an actor who had to stay within himself—these people really are not stupid about their business; it’s all they ever think about. Basically, that meant light comedy and romance, contemporary stuff. It also meant perpetual youth, which is actually easier to maintain and project in real life (and on television, where presidents star) than it is on the cruelly magnifying big screen, which makes all the wrinkles and wattles loom large.
For a while he could get away with it. In later years Bedtime for Bonzo served him as The Horn Blows at Midnight served Jack Benny; it was a funny-sounding title around which gag writers could cluster deflationary jokes about his career, the film that put ironic quotation marks around his “stardom.” Also, of course, liberals and other cruel people could use it as a symbol of his fundamental lack of seriousness. (“Doesn’t it bother you,” asks a stoned journalist in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, “that this straight man to a chimp is gonna be the next President?”) Actually, Bonzo is an agreeable farce, and he is expert as the professor of behavioral psychology trying to maintain his dignity while raising a baby chimp as a human baby.
He was 40 the year it was released. And it was obvious to him, if not to anyone else, that he could not perpetually sham youth. He needed to do grown-up roles, roles without jokes. He loved the outdoors, was proud of his skills as a horseman (that would be director Allan Dwan’s chief memory of him), and from youth, and like just about every other male of his age, he had wanted to encompass the Western myth, internalize and then project it. Maybe he could rescue his career as another aging juvenile had done, by embodying that myth onscreen. But though he now had the crags to match the landscape’s, Ronny Reagan was no Jimmy Stewart. Watch him in Cattle Queen of Montana. He lacks the gravitas one expects of the classic westerner. He seems to float above this countryside, unrooted in it or in its history. Above all, he is innocent of that radical self-sufficiency that is the essence of the heroic westerner.
It is the same way with most of his other attempts to break away from the selfhood that he was at last beginning to see as a professional imprisonment. Maybe he should have played more soldiers and sailors. Hellcats of the Navy, the picture now famous because Nancy was his co-star in it, is interesting not merely because it reveals what prevented her from becoming a star—coarse jawline—but as a signpost on a road not taken by him. Somehow, in a uniform, going by the military book, he is granted an authority, a maturity, unexpressed in his other postwar roles. This costume does a job for him that westerner’s garb cannot. For to borrow from David Reisman, whose terms were much on everyone’s lips in those days, a military man is classically other-directed (like Reagan himself), while a westerner is classically inner-directed (utterly unlike him).
In any event, a trip to the corner video parlor will demonstrate to anyone that off-casting was not the answer for him. His last picture, The Killers, was his most ludicrous. He’s supposed to be this mysteriously crooked businessman, keeping Angie Dickinson, hinting at off screen sadism in his relationship with her while he plots the mail heist that will bring him the wealth with which he intends to buy respectability. But he cannot project menace in 1964 any better than he could project sexual banditry in 1941 as Drake McHugh. The Killers offers him only one scene within his range. For purposes of plot he has to dress up as a cop and direct traffic away from the scene of his crime. He has to be chatty, amiable, as he misdirects motorists, and he is as relaxed and agreeable as can be. A nice and totally believable liar. In short, he is positively presidential in the scene. Presidential, that is, as he has redefined the term in recent years.
By the time he made The Killers, solutions to the Ronald Reagan problem were in sight. He had made his own significant contributions to this effort. In showbiz the unions are generally presided over by either has-beens or never-weres, people who take themselves seriously and thus seriously feel it when they are denied proper stages on which to assert their gifts. Reagan was not a dynamic Screen Actors Guild prexy. In Doug McClelland’s useful compilation of eyewitness accounts of his rise and decline in the business, Hollywood on Ronald Reagan, Olivia de Havilland is quoted thus on his leadership: “What comes to mind is his affability and his gift for conducting Screen Actors Guild meetings with adroitness and good humor. I think he was always an instinctive politician, and a genial one.”
Yes. Sounds right. He was finding a way to play a president that was within his range. He was not taking charge of that presidency any more than he could be said to have taken charge of his subsequent governorship or his larger presidency. He was substituting agreeableness for authority, letting the mantle of office—the generic conventions of the role, as it were—substitute for true characterization. It is the Hellcats of the Navy illusion writ large.
There is, piled up in Wills’ book, a huge body of evidence that Reagan’s grasp of the complex issues confronting SAG was no more subtle than it was in the White House. Talking with a paid union staffer, Reagan wonders why they need to go on insisting on a union shop in their negotiations with employers. He thought the union was so popular, and doing such a good job, that it could prosper as a purely voluntary organization. We know, of course, that Reagan vastly simplified—recast in starkly melodramatic terms, B movie terms, if you will—the whole issue of Communist penetration of the unions. We know, too, that he was instrumental in granting the SAG waiver that permitted his own agency, MCA, to enter film and TV production, thus facilitating its rise to its present eminence as the most powerful—and stable—institution in the moving-image industry. We know that ultimately it was MCA functionaries who arranged the real-estate transactions that provided him with the wealth to run for the presidency.
But the real payoff was both more subtle and more immediate. His agents looked upon his performance as SAG’s leader and saw that it was good. If it played for an audience of professionals like de Havilland, it would play for a broader, less demanding audience. Reagan did not object or disbelieve. These men had been so good to him for so long, had been so, well, fatherly (in a way that his own father never had been), so gently undisruptive of his dreamy ways—why should he not follow the drift they pointed out for him now? Why not give up the exhausting effort to be something other than himself, which is what his late screen career kept demanding of him? Why not relax back into the old simple, perpetually youthful self he had been so contented playing in his earlier movie days? Obviously, they had the right of it. Reagan’s too-temperate naturalism, his lack of imaginative fire, may have limited his screen career, but these very deficiencies had, his agents could sense, limitless possibilities in different venues. TV hosting, for starters. And after that…
No. Not even Lew Wasserman is that smart. He was clearly a great agent in his day—who else can we imagine getting a million-dollar contract for Reagan out of Jack Warner?—but not even he could have imagined that politics was about to become a branch of television in a wink of history’s eye. Or imagined this agreeable second-string client of his as the man who would seal that deal. Showbiz is not Mann’s Dr. Faustus. It is a novel by someone named Irving.
This much, however, Wasserman knows, Reagan knows, everyone in showbiz knows: “Yesterday they told you you would not go far . . . Next day on your dressing room they’ve hung a star.” In other words, the art of showbiz survival consists largely in riding the ups and the downs patiently—gracefully, if you can manage it. Look at Joan Collins. Look at Dennis Hopper. Look at Jane Wyman, for heaven’s sake. While her former mate was getting elected to all kinds of things, she couldn’t—or maybe wouldn’t—get elected to The Love Boat. It is said she now gets $150,000 an episode for Falcon Crest. That’s the harum-scarum way of it.
Now, of course, Reagan got and-how lucky. Until a couple of minutes ago. When it was rather forcefully borne in on him that, once in a while, Presidents really must behave presidentially. What a rude and puzzling awakening. For most of his adult life, he had operated under the unspoken, but very firm, agreement that rules the relationship between “talent” and its agents and managers. It holds that the former is to be spared all the unpleasant details of career management. The idea is to free creative people from those distractions that might dilute or divert their creative energies. Or from just having fun or dreaming along, enjoying one’s fame and fortune, if, as it was with Reagan, creativity was not a high priority—or, truth to tell, much of a possibility.
The business types like this arrangement. They are pleased to think of their clients as willful children in need of practical guidance. And they are inclined to believe that when these clients mix too assertively into business affairs they blunt the creativity of the deal-making process. Modern movie stars tend to get a bit scratchy with this arrangement, but a lot of old-timers like Reagan got used to it. One imagines him feeling he could leave things to Don Regan the same way he used to leave things to Lew Wasserman. One imagines Reagan even less prepared for characters like Poindexter and North, with their hidden ideological agendas, not to mention the starring roles they were intent on playing in the phantasmagoric spy movies running in their heads. Showbiz agents, the good ones, do not have hidden agendas—not where their clients’ interests are concerned.
One is saddened. To be awakened so close to the end of this long-running dream work of Reagan’s, and to have the instrument of his awakening be the yawping and baying of the press, which Lew and his crowd had always been so good at tranquilizing. No movie fan—and who among us is not?—can be anything but touched by his plight as he stands, at last, outside the theater, blinking at the light, trying to recapture the sweet cheats he had so long and happily enjoyed inside. My God! At last he looks, and acts, his age.
Still, he has a mighty consolation. His picture ran longer and prospered better than any our minds’ eye ever contemplated. And none of us had plot devices to match the boldness of his: a mental movie in which the star becomes a real movie star. And then President! He is to this form of dreaming what Alexander Portnoy was to another, less dangerous, and less interesting kind.