Hand-wringing over Hollywood’s failure to mint a new “leading man” is a regular feature of movie criticism. Where is that next warhorse capable of “carrying a picture” in the fashion of a George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, or Bruce Willis? Take a look at, say, any Vanity Fair Hollywood issue from the past ten years, and you’ll find familiar names but hardly anyone who exerts the sort of primal box-office force that a somewhat older generation of actors can. Fortunately for Hollywood, there are no term limits for actors. In the absence of a new generation, the movies simply turn to last decade’s model.
Not so with the presidency. We might still hear from Bill Clinton on occasion, but his name has been absent from the marquee for some time now. As Burton W. Peretti posits in his intriguing new book The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, the self-promotion and self-fashioning that define the movie industry are increasingly found in the presidency, but it is still only now and then that an individual political star emerges who melds the spirit of Hollywood with the spirit of Washington, D.C.
For Peretti, the repeated triumph of style over substance in politics is clearly regrettable, as he explains with nods to Daniel J. Boorstin, Christopher Lasch, and the whole panoply of justifiably depressive cultural critics. But while Peretti concedes that cinema has intensified the possibilities for shallowness, it’s impossible to pretend that celebrity — the process of image-making — was unknown to politics before the age of 24 frames per second. “With respect to the United States it is difficult to find a past golden era in which rational speech dominated and in which irrational depictions of leaders and issues did not warp political culture,” Peretti writes. Choose your own anecdote about candidate X’s being bought and paid for by Whig saloonkeepers who had one hand on the flask and the other in your pocket.
Cinema may take a bright candidate and enhance his sheen with Technicolor, or it may deepen the shadows cast by a demagogue, but it doesn’t create those characters. Nor does it inevitably cast all presidential aspirants into such simple roles. It may be plausible to explain Kennedy or Nixon in terms of cinema celebrity, but what about Carter or George H. W. Bush? Or Romney or Obama?
Step back for a moment. The links between cinema and the presidency likely date from earlier than you imagined. Studio-boss extraordinaire Louis B. Mayer (you remember him from The Aviator and Mommie Dearest) was a good friend of Herbert Hoover, a movie fan. William H. Hays, of Hays Code fame, was postmaster general during the Harding administration before he went west to ensure that movies didn’t become too fun.
In fact, the pioneering cinematic presidency was Franklin Roosevelt’s, when the medium was still nascent. Roosevelt was heard rather than seen in his fireside chats and other radio events, but when he was seen, careful mise-en-scènes intended to disguise his reliance on a wheelchair drew on photographic expertise and older, simple traditions of stage setting. Cinema obviously integrates rhetoric, to which radio lent itself, and the power of the image as captured earlier by photography.
Then there was Eisenhower, no one’s idea of a fluid public speaker, who received help from actor Robert Montgomery when it came to lighting, make-up, attire, the heights of cameras and lecterns, and the question of how much the president should smile during addresses. By contrast, Richard Nixon was an experienced actor, having appeared in every production at Whittier College during his undergraduate years. In his career as a public official, he had two breakout improvisational successes: the Checkers speech and the “kitchen debate” with Khrushchev. Props were clearly present (Checkers, Pat Nixon, Khrushchev, a box of SOS), but it was the force of Nixon’s performance that carried both occasions.