May 25, 2013
Allen Barra on ‘Frost/Nixon’
Posted on Dec 12, 2008
By Allen Barra
—Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon” (1995). Directed by Oliver Stone, “Nixon,” like “JFK,” is an overwrought, unfocused mess. Hopkins strives mightily to hold the film together, huffing and puffing and straining like the last man in a tug-of-war contest, but mostly all you remember is that he sweats more than even Nixon seemed to.
So strong has Nixon’s imprint on political movies been that many see Nixon in characters when he isn’t there. For years, it was believed that Cliff Robertson’s reptilian presidential candidate in Franklin Schaffner’s “The Best Man” (1964) was modeled on Nixon. Gore Vidal, author of the original stage play and the screenplay, has said he was not aiming for Nixon, but that doesn’t mean that Robertson didn’t play him that way. Anti-Nixon aficionados even claim to see a premonition of his Watergate unraveling in Humphrey Bogart’s “strawberries” speech in Edward Dmytryk’s “The Caine Mutiny” (1954).
In a sense, though, all actors, no matter how great, are at a disadvantage playing Nixon when compared to the man himself. What fictional Nixon could possibly contain the qualities of fake humility, forced pomposity and desperate longing for approval as Richard Nixon himself did? For purists, there can never be any real Nixon but the real Nixon. Richard Nixon was better in the role of Nixon than Laurence Oliver was as Hamlet, and he was never better than in underground filmmaker Emile de Antonio’s 1971 comedy, “Millhouse: A White Comedy.” You can see and hear most of Nixon’s biggest hits, including his breathtakingly self-pitying “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore” speech (after losing the 1964 California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown).
A marvelous bookend to de Antonio’s pre-Watergate documentary is the three-volume set of the actual David Frost interviews with Nixon, just released on DVD. They stand, perhaps, as his final monument. Nixon is everything you want Nixon to be: reflective, sober, semi-contrite, and more full of fake sincerity than a TV evangelist begging forgiveness from his congregation. Here, at last, the little door opens in Nixon’s head and the phrase by which he best deserves to be remembered pops out at a startled Frost: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.”
How much better America would be if every president were so candid.
Allen Barra writes about arts and sports for The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.
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