In a counter-intuitive but headline-grabbing piece of casting, it has been reported that Jane Fonda will play First Lady Nancy Reagan in an upcoming film. “The Butler,” a script written by Lee Daniels (“Precious”) and Danny Strong (“Game Change”), tells the true story of Eugene Allen, a White House butler who served seven Presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. Fonda will play a relatively small role in an all-star ensemble cast, which will reportedly include Forrest Whitaker as Allen, Oprah Winfrey as Allen’s wife, Liam Neeson as LBJ, and John Cusack as Nixon (!).
With people like Oprah involved, “The Butler” seems to be a safe, traditional piece of Oscar bait, but casting Fonda as Reagan is by far the most interesting element here. For those of you too young to remember, Fonda was a liberal, anti-war activist in the Vietnam Era. Like many of her era, she was outraged by the war, and she threw herself into the cause, admittedly before she had built up a strong knowledge base on the issue and certainly lacking in political experience. One of the biggest young movie stars on the planet, she brought a lot of attention to the issue – both good and bad. Most famously, she accepted an invitation to visit North Vietnam — as many others had done — and, during her visit, posed for a picture on top of an anti-aircraft gun, the kind used to shoot down American fighter planes. The picture went worldwide and became a negative symbol of the counterculture and the liberal Hollywood elite, indicating that activists from Hollywood are at best ill-informed and at worst traitorous. Dubbed “Hanoi Jane,” she was vilified by the right for sympathizing with the enemy and by the left for allowing herself to be so manipulated. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the “Hanoi Jane” picture was as elemental to the myth of the liberal Hollywood elite as the McCarthy hearings.
Now that “Hanoi Jane” has been tapped to play first lady to the president most revered by modern conservatives, we can expect a HUGE outcry from the right. In fact, it has already begun. The film will be judged before it is seen and dismissed by the right. By the time it is released, sides will have been chosen (as they were with “Game Change,” for example), and it will be difficult for anyone to keep an open mind.
But it’s a good, bold piece of casting that could really work. If the script and Fonda’s performance make Nancy out to be unsympathetic, the film will never be taken seriously and be labeled a polemic, whether it is one or not. If Fonda silences her critics and nails the role, however, it would be a huge boost for her and film. Fonda’s career is in need of a third act. It is not a coincidence that at the same time the New Right began to emerge, her career went on hiatus. Stay tuned to see if this gamble by the filmmakers and Fonda pays off and what it means to American politics.
See how the right is still using Fonda as a symbol of the left: