11.08.2016

The Romance of American Liberalism

  • Eileen Jones

Grading a century of liberal film presidents.

Illustrations by James Clapham

bellamyFranklin Delano Roosevelt 
Ralph Bellamy: Sunrise at Campobello

Realism
Well, he really did have polio. Sentimental portrait of a dynamic FDR struggling to revive his political career after crippling illness.

Gravitas
When crutching his way bravely up to the podium at the end, you’re ready to sing “Hail to the Chief.”

Cynicism
No, just charming political savvy like people used to admire.

Hair
Tawny and patrician.

Sex Appeal
Given that Bellamy was known for playing the comical loser at love — not bad!

Lovability
Polio changes him from haughty rich guy to champion of the people.

Casting
Terrific. Bellamy gets the overwhelming sunny confidence down pat, and in wire-rim glasses even looks like FDR.

Acting Flourishes
Starchy upbeat Roosevelt voice. Excellent chin work, keeping it aimed at the sky.

Snap Comparison
Dudley Do-Right.

Grade
A (for Admiring FDR)

murray

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Bill Murray: Hyde Park on Hudson

Realism
Totally accurate portrayal if Bill Murray had had polio and mistresses and the presidency of the United States in the 1930s and ’40s.

Gravitas
Lots of Great Man poses in reverent light.

Cynicism
Lies to all the women in his life, but only because he’s got a lot on his plate.

Hair
Thin, full of pathos.

Sex Appeal
Let’s just say the scene featuring FDR getting a hand job is something we could all live without.

Lovability
Off the charts. It’s Bill Murray.

Casting
Just go with it. Pretend it makes any sense at all to see Bill Murray’s Irish mug representing FDR’s long WASPy face.

Acting Flourishes
Murray stays poker-faced while being carried around, bride-style, by a male attendant.

Snap Comparison
FDR’s just like Bill Murray.

Grade
B (for Bill)

voight

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Jon Voight: Pearl Harbor

REALISM
Ha!

Gravitas
All attempts at a serious portrayal undone by Voight’s monstrous chin prosthetics that double the length of his face.

Cynicism
There can be no cynicism about WWII.

Hair
Toupee.

Sex Appeal
Jabba the Hutt is sexier.

Lovability
Nil. It’s weird.

Casting
Insane. Voight’s a cold-eyed humorless Tea Party conservative freak, and so-so acting ability can’t overcome utter lack of FDR appearance or qualities.

Acting Flourishes
Voight does an unexpected slapstick comedy routine as wheelchair-bound FDR totters to his feet, sways like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, to show doubtful military brass that anything is possible.

Snap Comparison
Frankenstein’s monster’s politically successful brother.

Grade
F (for F&*# This Casting)

sinise

Harry S. Truman
Gary Sinise: Truman

Realism
The usual presidential hagiography, but admits Truman got his start working for a corrupt political machine.

Gravitas
More than you’d think.

Cynicism
Not Give ‘Em Hell Harry, who always tells it like it is!

Hair
It’s on his head.

Sex Appeal
Nah.

Lovability
Seems like a nice man. Was sorry about those A-bombs.

Casting
Good — Sinise may be a loony reactionary, but he’s also a fine actor who can do short and doughty with hidden depths.

Acting Flourishes
Braying Missouri accent.

Snap Comparison
George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life — put-upon regular guy but it turns out everybody loved him after all.

B (for Better Than Expected)

John F. Kennedy
Cliff Robertson PT 109

Realism
Heroics of young naval officer JFK in the war of the Pacific, vouched for by Kennedy himself, with Robertson approved by the president personally. Movie still seems fake as hell.

Gravitas
Entirely too much.

Cynicism
None. All generic WWII manliness.

Hair
Nowhere near as luxuriant as young JFK’s crop.

Sex Appeal
Bizarrely low. Nobody bothered to look at the old snapshots of startlingly handsome, shirtless JFK in the Navy? (Google ‘em.)

Lovability
Meh.

Casting
Should’ve tried harder to persuade Jackie Kennedy’s choice for the part: young Warren Beatty.

Acting Flourishes
None. Robertson refuses to do Kennedy’s New England clam chowdah accent or flash his toothy grin or take his shirt off.

Snap Comparison
I don’t know, some boring guy.

Grade
D (for Dull)

greenwood

John F. Kennedy
Bruce Greenwood: Thirteen Days

Realism
JFK’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis seen through the eyes of his worshipful friend and political consultant Kenneth P. O’Donnell, played by Kevin Costner (who manages to interfere with realistic effects wherever they get a foothold).

Gravitas
Bruce Greenwood’s JFK as one tense mass of gravitas in a nice suit.

Cynicism
RFK handles that.

Hair
Awesome.

Sex Appeal
So many erotic black-and-white shots of JFK conferring intensely with RFK by White House pillars, it’s quite dizzying.

Lovability
We’re not doing lovable JFK here. This is serious.

Casting
As good as we’re ever likely to get.

Acting Flourishes
Keeps that jaw clenched throughout.

Snap Comparison
Dream Man of ten thousand TV commercials.

Grade
B (for But He’s So Good-Looking)

wilkinson

Lyndon B. Johnson
Tom Wilkinson: Selma

Realism
Dubious: LBJ simplistically portrayed as the villain, trying and failing to thwart Martin Luther King’s leadership in the struggle for black voting rights.

Gravitas
Shaky.

Cynicism
Not enough. Where’s the wily, formidable LBJ?

Hair
Slicked back villain-style.

Sex Appeal
God, no.

Lovability
Zilch.

Casting
Odd. Tom Wilkinson is a fine British actor but conveys none of the brute vitality of LBJ.

Acting Flourishes
Querulous voice shakes when angry (always).

Snap Comparison
Irritable businessman from Anytown, Texas.

Grade
D (for Dubious)

Bill Clinton
John Travolta: Primary Colors

Realism
Seems like they got Bill Clinton’s number. Travolta needs no padding to play that pudgy, lyin’, cheatin’, cornpone-eatin’ sumbitch whose huckster charm got him into the White House despite scandals popping up all around him.

Gravitas
Nope.

Cynicism
Off the charts, oozes it like bacon grease.

Hair
Dyed silver, with eyebrows frosted to match.

Sex Appeal
Nowhere evident, in spite of all the adultery.

Lovability
Every character in the film succumbs to it. Audience, not so much.

Casting
Travolta has no Southernness to him, but he’s got pudgy charm, and who else could’ve done it any better?

Acting Flourishes
Cries copious tears.

Snap Comparison
Southern-fried Pillsbury Doughboy.

Grade
B (for Bubbalicious)