Last week, we looked at the odd casting of “The Butler,” an upcoming film about a White House butler who served seven consecutive presidential administrations. We have already fixed the casting problems with the Eisenhowers and the Kennedys. Today, we look at LBJ and the Reagans.
Who they Cast: Liev Schreiber
Who they Should Cast: Fred Thompson
This is an odd choice. LBJ was tall and physically imposing; so is Schreiber. But beyond that, there are no similarities between the intellectual stage and film actor and the coarse Texas career politician. Schreiber was raised by east coast liberal hippies; LBJ grew up in near-poverty in rural Texas. It’s almost as if the filmmakers have no idea who LBJ was.
In a way, it’s understandable; he was a tough guy to pin down. One thing that we do know about him is that he came from very humble beginnings and that he was often mocked for his small-town ways. He was a man of action but painfully sensitive to how he was perceived in Washington. The Kennedy clan came to refer to him as “Rufus Cornpone” behind his back, and it wounded him deeply. Schreiber has a history of playing tough guys both on stage (Ricky Roma in “Glengarry Glen Ross” and Barry in “Talk Radio”) and in film (“Defiance” and “X-Men: Wolverine”). It will be hard to see him as a man who was so wounded by what others thought of him.
Another reason LBJ is difficult to cast is that he was not an attractive man, and most professional film actors – though certainly not all – are good-looking people. And so I arrived at Fred Thompson not by going through Hollywood but by looking back to Washington. Thompson has had a varied career as an actor, U.S. Senator, lobbyist, and lazy presidential candidate. He has played the chief of the FBI (“Feds”) and the White House chief-of-staff (“In the Line of Fire”). He has been described by the New York Times as one who gets the call “[w]hen Hollywood directors need someone who can personify governmental power,” Perhaps no president was able to wield his power to accomplish as much as Johnson, who also bears an unfortunate resemblance to Thompson. They both have the same hangdog look, Southern twang, and no-nonsense attitude. As long as the conservative Thompson would not have a problem with LBJ’s dramatic expansion of the social safety net, this is a natural fit.
Runner-up: Brendan Gleeson
Who they Cast: Alan Rickman
Who they Should Cast: Christopher Plummer
We took a poll on this casting several months ago, and the results came out in favor of Tommy Lee Jones. At the time, I listed a few reasons why he would be a good choice, namely that he is the right age and has experience playing cowboys. But there is a huge difference between Reagan and Jones. Reagan was known for his grandfatherly warmth and his ability to connect; Jones’s persona is one of emotional detachment, as one who deliberately keeps others at arm’s length. He is so well known for these traits that, in recent years, he has even been willing to make comedy out of them (“Men in Black 3”). As fine an actor as Jones is, he could never muster the warmth and gentle kindness that Regan projected to the public.
Rickman is just an odd choice. Once known for his cartoonish villainy in “Die Hard” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Rickman’s performances have grown more subtle with age. This transition is reflected in his most famous film role to date, that of Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” films, a character whom – I’m told – starts out a villain and gradually becomes more complex and morally ambiguous as the franchise rolls along. Still, while Rickman has been rapidly approaching those grandfather roles that would be most analogous to Reagan, the physical differences between them will be too difficult to overcome.
Christopher Plummer came in second in our poll, and I’m taking editorial privilege to declare him the winner. Coming off of an Oscar win for “Beginners,” Plummer’s star power will never be greater than it is right now, and that star power is crucial to playing a movie star-turned-president. As an actor, he exudes gentility and warmth, but he can also project those qualities as a façade that hides something more sinister beneath. There is no telling how the film will frame Reagan – as the conservative icon lionized by current Republican leadership or as the president that destroyed the middle class, which is how liberals remember him – but either way, Plummer is the man for the job.
Who they Cast: Jane Fonda
Who they Should Cast: Glenn Close
In so many ways, Jane Fonda is a fine choice to play Nancy Reagan. She is a great actress at the right age with enough of a physical resemblance to pull it off. But in one major way, she is so wrong: her politics. There is probably no celebrity who is more associated with the “liberal Hollywood elite” than Fonda. Some of this is her fault; posing with a North Vietnamese missile launcher was certainly unwise. Fonda has owned up to her mistake, admitting that she was naïve at the time about how a female American movie star might be used as propaganda. But her apologies haven’t helped. Her name is still routinely trotted out when conservative talking heads want to blame Hollywood for America’s problems. Try as she might, she will always be Hanoi Jane to some, and the cognitive dissonance of Hollywood’s most famous liberal icon playing the wife of conservative America’s most prized hero would be far too distracting onscreen. Plus, it would give conservatives ammunition to destroy the film in the media before it is even released.
Glenn Close was once considered one of the best actresses working in Hollywood, and she has managed to stay relevant through middle age. She has been credible in the political roles before, playing a vice-president in “Air Force One,” a Supreme Court Justice in “The West Wing,” and a First Lady in (sigh) “Mars Attacks!”. While she usually plays roles that require more force and dynamism than we typically associate with Nancy Reagan, her restrained performance in last year’s “Albert Nobbs” indicates that she could play a First Lady, who is by definition relegated to the background, quite well.