It was recently announced that liberal activist Jane Fonda will play former first lady Nancy Reagan in “The Butler,” an upcoming film that tells the true story of Eugene Allen, White House butler to seven presidents. Some have suggested that this is a simple case of stunt casting, and the conservative media have already decried the film based on this casting alone. People forget, however, that Fonda was once a serious actress who made serious films, and this is a great challenge and opportunity for her to overcome public perception and demonstrate her acting ability.
Still, a bigger question remains: who will play the Gipper himself? This choice will either confirm or deflate conservative fears that “The Butler” will have a strong liberal bias. I would contend that it is nearly impossible to make a film based on true events that involve seven presidents without imbuing it with some sort of partisan perspective, but the choice of who will play Reagan will go a long way towards determining whether the film specifically intends to have a liberal perspective or portends to be neutral.
Here are the best choices, along with some pros and cons:
1. Tommy Lee Jones
He’s just a great actor, liked by those on both sides of the political aisle, and is the right age to play the Gipper. He’s also been known, like Reagan, to play a cowboy from time to time. Although he is not active in politics, he’s got a bit of a pedigree: while attending Harvard University, his roommate was a young Al Gore.
2. Warren Beatty
Having been absent from film since 2001’s “Town and Country,” this is the kind of rich, high-profile role that could lure Beatty out of semi-retirement. While Beatty has the right kind of easy-going charisma to play Reagan, his politics might get in the way. He was very active in Democratic political campaigns during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, particularly in his friend Gary Hart’s 1984 run for the presidency. Casting him and Fonda as the Gipper and first lady would probably make some heads explode on the right.
3. Christopher Plummer
Not exactly a cowboy, but Plummer conveys just the right gentility to match Reagan’s public persona. Reagan was the grandfather you wished you had, likeable and trustworthy. Plummer has these qualities in spades, as well as the soft voice and easy, natural grin. Plus, coming off of his recent Academy Award for “Beginners,” he is a known and wanted commodity.
4. Kevin Costner
Here we start to get into the long shots. Costner certainly does not look the part and is not known for transformative acting, but he is the same kind of movie star that Reagan was: good-looking, generally likeable, and completely vapid. Costner is the kind of blank canvas that an audience can project themselves onto; it’s certainly not the kind of acting that garners admiration, but it does the job. Reagan had a similar quality, which is crucial to all politicians who are successful at a national level: people saw what they wanted to see in him. Plus, Costner has done the whole cowboy thing, too (“Silverado,” “Dances with Wolves”).
5. Tom Wilkinson
He might not have the star quality that the casting of such a figure usually requires, but he can act circles around pretty much anyone. If the movie addresses the onset of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s that some (including Reagan’s son) have suggested began as early as his first term, Wilkinson is the man for the job. He has played several characters who are in the process of losing their grip on reality. His Oscar-nominated performance as the mentally unstable defense lawyer in “Michael Clayton” is probably the best corollary.
6. Tom Selleck
He’s not the greatest actor in the bunch, but he has one thing going for him that the others don’t: conservative bona fides. He has a warm, likeable presence, but more importantly, casting a conservative would pacify those on the right who are up in arms about seeing Fonda as the First Lady. And if you’re casting a Hollywood Republican, your choices are pretty limited. If it comes down to Kelsey Grammar, Gary Sinise, or Tom Selleck, I’d pick Selleck.
Now, tell us who you think would be the best choice to play our 40th president.