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Ronald Reagan’s Reel Life

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Ronald Reagan in a publicity still for the film, Law and Order, 1953

Did the movies ever matter? They did to Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was made by the movies—not just his career but his mentalité was made in Hollywood. As much as he had been a movie actor, Reagan was a fan—a true believer in what he saw, or imagined, on the screen.

My takeaway from several days of research in the Reagan Library—a Magic Kingdom shrine set on a Simi Valley hilltop—was the degree to which Ronald and Nancy Reagan regarded themselves as senior members of the Hollywood community. The presidency was fine but movie stardom was the supreme gig.

Reagan would tell many, Warren Beatty among them, that he couldn’t understand how anyone could be president without having first been an actor. A politician who built a career on a professional image, Reagan knew how to take direction and hit his marks. He intuitively grasped how a president (or a good Joe or action hero) is supposed to present himself.

It was second nature for President Reagan to project himself into current movies, to quote one-liners from Dirty Harry (1971) and Back to the Future (1985), appropriate tropes from George Lucas, and cite Rambo (1982–1988). The morning after screening E.T. (1982) in the White House, he had himself briefed on the US Space Program.

Movies were real. Reagan did not doubt that there had been a Kremlin-directed plot to take over Hollywood and retroactively cast himself as the hero who prevented it. The movies of the 1940s were never far from his mind, whether borrowing lines from State of the Union (1948), reliving scenes from Wing and a Prayer (1944), imagining his pet dog Rex was the subject of Lassie Come Home (1943) or that, as he once told Israeli leaders, his Culver City-based film corps had liberated a concentration camp.

As president, Reagan enjoyed revisiting his old movies. “It’s like seeing a younger son I never knew I had,” he liked to say of watching himself as George Gipp, the gallant, doomed college halfback in Knute Rockne, All American (1940). Reagan had a special fondness for Kings Row (1942), the small-town exposé, which not only provided him with his favorite dramatic role but also the title for his ghostwritten 1965 memoir, Where’s the Rest of Me?

It is by any standard, a curious movie. Adapted from a racy bestseller, Kings Row had a difficult time securing approval under the Production Code. Still, the script managed to keep enough sensational material—incest, suicide, murder, and torture, most famously the gratuitous amputation of the Reagan character’s legs by a sadistic doctor who resents his daughter’s infatuation with the man—to be one of the top-grossing films of 1942, nominated for best picture, best director, and best photography.

Sharp-featured and slightly feral as the town rake, Reagan plays off the blandness of nominal star Robert Cummings, his best friend who goes off to Vienna to study “psychiatry” and, upon returning, must come to grips with the town’s dark secrets. “Tranquilly accepting the many varieties of psychopathic behavior as the simple facts of life,” Pauline Kael wrote, Kings Row offers “the typical nostalgic view of American small-town life turned inside out: instead of sweetness and health we get fear, sanctimoniousness, sadism, and insanity.”

Kings Row has been compared to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), and a print was still in release so that Reagan could revisit it with a screening at Camp David over the same weekend that he ran Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). “I’d forgotten how really good that pic was,” he wrote in his diary, about his own film. Reagan’s lack of introspection makes his fondness for the film’s primitive faith in psychotherapy all the more fascinating. What was he thinking?

The question often arises when pondering the varied assortment of movies Reagan watched while president. How is it that he or someone, most likely Nancy, chose The Fan (1981)? A horror film in which a famous actress played by Lauren Bacall is stalked by a crazed admirer, it was heralded by trailers that attempted to distance it from the December 1980 assassination of John Lennon and opened to poor reviews less than two months after John Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan’s life. Bacall was neither a friend nor a political ally. Did the president not see the analogies between Hinckley and the movie’s monster? Or was it rather that, since the novel had been found by police in Hinckley’s hotel room, his curiosity was piqued?

Even more enigmatic is the choice of Being There (1979) as the first movie Reagan would watch after the assassination attempt. The protagonist Chance (Peter Sellers) is a simpleton who, having spent his entire life working in a rich man’s garden and watching television, becomes one of the most influential figures in America. Without losing his naiveté, Chance effortlessly plays the role of a TV personality and adviser to the president. What logic—or lack of same—caused this wildly inappropriate movie to be selected? Was it because Being There satirized Washington society and politics? Or simply because Reagan’s peer Melvyn Douglas—something of a political ally during the long-ago 1940s—won an Oscar for best supporting actor?

Reagan could be a sensitive movie-goer—he was concerned that Clint Eastwood’s death at the end of Honkytonk Man (1982) would distress Nancy, whose stepfather had just died. Being There is filled with things that Reagan might have found disturbing, ranging from the incapacity and death of the Douglas character to the scene in which his younger wife (Shirley MacLaine) propositions Chance and, misunderstanding his statement that he “likes to watch,” masturbates to climax on a bearskin rug beside his bed. Nor is this the only instance of potentially embarrassing sexual behavior depicted: there are two scenes in which the president is shown as stressed out and impotent.

Trying to fathom Reagan’s reaction is like trying to figure out Chance. Still, the movie made an impression. At one point, Chance draws on his horticultural experience to advise the president: “As long as the roots are not severed all is well and all will be well in the garden. In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, then we have fall and winter, then we have spring and summer again.” In February 1983, in a speech at a Chrysler plant in Missouri, the president explained that “economic recovery is like a seedling. For a while, it grows underground and you don’t see it above ground. And then it shoots up and seeds are sprouting all over the place.”

For Reagan, movies were a source of knowledge. He waxed enthusiastic over WarGames (1983), in which a teenage hacker inadvertently sets off the nuclear codes. He was impressed by Firefox (1982), in which Clint Eastwood, a heroic bomber pilot fluent in Russian (!), is recruited to steal a Soviet fighter jet controlled by telepathy. Firefox inspired government research into a form of enhanced jet-fighter command controls based on an “ocular attention-sensing interface system,” perhaps the subject of the phone call Reagan placed to Eastwood after seeing the film.

Another instance of movie-empathy preceded Reagan’s determination to visit the Bitburg cemetery was a response to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s blubbering reaction to being left out of the 1984 D-Day commemoration extravaganza. After seeing the Oscar-nominated German-made wartime submarine drama Das Boot in 1982, the president mused in his diary that it was “strange to find yourself rooting for the enemy.”

Understanding that movies were information for Reagan, aides suggested that he screen Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1981) before his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev (who was evidently briefed to ask him about Kings Row), but there was another movie on the president’s mind. Reagan flummoxed both the Soviet general-secretary and his own staff with this departure from script by advancing the notion that extraterrestrial invasion would trump national differences and cold war rivalry. But national security adviser General Colin Powell recognized that the proposal was inspired by the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still.

I confess that my own sense of Reagan was formed by his last movie, Don Siegel’s 1964 remake of The Killers, which I first saw in 1969, a year after spending the summer in Berkeley. It would be difficult to overstate my loathing of Governor Reagan, whom I regarded as a personal enemy. For me, Reagan’s supporting role as the movie’s criminal mastermind was an inexplicable bit of self-revelation. 

In fact, it was a blunder. “I don’t think that Ronnie fully appreciated until he saw the film that he was really the most evil person in the picture,” Siegel would recall in 1980. At the same time, Siegel praised candidate Reagan’s political instincts:

After all he is an actor… He’s not going to be frightened when he’s having debates with anybody. He feels that he’s in better shape than they are, and he is. It’s not easy to get up on your own and look out at a sea of faces and mikes sticking up and, God knows how many millions of people are going to be looking at it. It doesn’t bother him at all.

As president, Reagan provided the nation with a new collective memory and a new representation—as well as a representative—of the national past. His last leading role would be his greatest. By the time, thirty-six years later, that another professional entertainer was elected, Reagan was imagined by many as the greatest American president since Franklin Roosevelt.

Hollywood was founded on the proposition that scenarios that are naturally hegemonic and usually reassuring will appeal to the largest possible audience. Seamlessly merging the concept of “Freedom” with the gospel of “Entertainment,” Reagan was Hollywood incarnate, the embodiment of happy endings and uncomplicated emotions, with a built-in Production Code designed to suppress any uncomfortable truth.

Reagan’s movie was America as America imagined itself. Trump’s reality TV show is Trump, as America imagines him. The Killers was revelatory, after all, just not in the way I’d thought.


Marking the publication of J. Hoberman’s book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, the series “Reagan at the Movies: Found Illusions” starts June 30 at Metrograph.