Tricky List: Dick Nixon Goes to the Movies

President’s Day is just a few weeks off and I prefer to think of it as something more than an opportunity for car and furniture dealers to have President-themed sales spurred by tacky ads with local morons in stovepipe hats. Perhaps the most popular president in Hollywood has been Richard Nixon. You could probably write books about Nixon’s role in cinema, something I glossed over briefly in my review of Serpico. He’s such an enduring symbol of so many things- paranoia, loss of innocence, madness, irony, dishonesty, and corruption. Or perhaps it’s humanity. Like all of us, Dick Nixon was fallible. He made mistakes. In recent years, there’s been something of a movement to paint him as an Eddie Haskell-style lovable scamp. However you paint it, he’s all over the place in the movies- far more than his presidential peers. Here’s where good ol’ Richard M. has appeared in the movies.

Secret Honor (1984)
Robert Altman’s adaptation of Donald Freed’s play is not unlike watching Lewis Black read the Watergate tapes. Playing the role of Nixon is the venerable Phillip Baker Hall. He doesn’t look like him, really, and it’s a work of fiction, but Altman tells you that right from the outset. The irony in the execution of this schizophrenic one-man play is that Altman- the king of overlapping dialogue from multiple characters- is the director of a film that features only one actor. What he and Hall created was both fascinating and grotesque. And it possesses quite a memorable final scene. Spoiler alert and all that. Also, it’s not really SFW because of language:

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Frost/Nixon (2008)
The film lover in me appreciates how Ron Howard fleshes out the characters. The history geek in me loves the story. Frankly, I was very worried going in that the subject matter- a British talk show host interviewing President Nixon- would be insanely dry. But I have to tip my hat to Opie for avoiding that trap. Howard presents the two like a pair of sparring boxers, each with their own goals, each fighting to protect those goals, each maneuvering shrewdly around the other (despite taking a few liberties with what actually happened in the real David Frost interviews of Richard Nixon). Frank Langella does a fine job as the exiled president, and he captures the president’s jowl-infused baritone voice as well as anyone ever has in film.

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The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
It’s worth seeing strictly for the actors- Don Cheadle, Sean Penn, and Naomi Watts are three of my favorites working today. Nixon never actually sees the screen other than actual footage of his own speeches. In fact, Nixon is something of a macguffin here (if I’m using the concept of the macguffin correctly; if not, please correct me).

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Nixon (1995)
Oliver Stone’s vision of the man was surprisingly reigned in. While Stone had no qualms showing off Nixon’s tendency for alcoholism, Stone’s noted liberalism and penchant for conspiracy theories didn’t gore Nixon the way one might expect. I think this part is fascinating, though- according to the film’s Wiki page:

The studio did not like Stone’s choice to play Nixon. They wanted Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson — two of Stone’s original choices. The director briefly considered Gene HackmanRobin Williams and Tommy Lee Jones. Stone met with Warren Beattybut the actor wanted to make too many changes to the script.

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Dick (1999)
I haven’t actually seen this, but the descriptions I’ve found tend to play up the “Eddie Haskell” portrayal of Nixon that I referenced earlier. What’s shocking is the cast. Supporting Kirsten Dunst and Dan Hedaya (Carla’s ex-husband on Cheers plays Nixon in this film) is a group that includes Will Ferrell; Teri Garr, Anna Gasteyer; Harry Shearer; Dave Foley; and a young Ryan Reynolds.

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Forrest Gump (1994)

Nixon was one of several politicians to step in the path of Gump’s wacky lovable destruction. In the case of Nixon, he sets Gump up at a “much nicer hotel”- the now infamous Watergate- where Gump is awoken by the burglars’ flashlights. He then calls security and inadvertently ends the Nixon presidency.

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The Big Lebowski (1997)

It's a cultural yin and yang in perfect harmony, in the parlance of our times.

I love Nixon’s appearance here. You couldn’t possibly find a more opposite personality to Nixon than The Dude. And yet, there’s Nixon, immortalized on a poster in The Dude’s living room directly above El Duderino’s bar (wherein he makes his caucasians). And it says something about The Dude, you know, man? Like, uhhhh… even though Duder doesn’t dig Nixonian politics, he’s willing to put all of that aside for a little bowling, man.

Side note: I actually own this poster. It hangs in my office at work right next to a Nixon mask I got at a Lebowskifest. Occasionally, people who don’t know me all that well will notice Bowling Nixon and declare that I “must be a really big fan of Richard Nixon”. I never bother to correct them or point out that it’s Lebowski, not Nixon, that has earned my love.

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All the President’s Men (1976)
I haven’t seen this since I was a high schooler aspiring to a political science major. I can’t honestly say that I remember much about it, but it has an undeniable place in the Nixon canon. Like in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Nixon himself only appears via archival footage. The Nixon story is incomplete without the details of his downfall. And those details are incomplete without the tales of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two journalists who unearthed the details behind the Watergate break-in. Possessing the incredible star power of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at the tip-top of their game in the 70’s, methinks it’s time to give this movie a re-watch.

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The Nixon Mask (multiple appearances)
Several movie characters have donned the plastic, jowl-heavy, bulbous nose likeness of Richard M. Nixon. Among them: Wendy/Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm; one of the bank robbers in Point Break ; and a corpse in Men at Work.

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Where the Buffalo Roam (1980)
Hunter S. Thompson- the source material behind this fictional pseudo-biopic starring Bill Murray- famously hated Nixon. Thompson and Nixon were fire and ice. And so it’s no surprise that in the fictional world of Hunter S. Thompson, he’d accidentally meet Nixon. Here’s the scene:

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7 Comments

Filed under Movies

7 responses to “Tricky List: Dick Nixon Goes to the Movies

  1. Kelly

    I thought that photo of a bowling Nixon looked familiar!

    And as far as the macguffin question: I’m not sure it counts here, since he is the subject of the film. If I remember correctly, macguffins are ambiguous objects and unimportant to the plot, yet help drive the plot forward.

    • I think that’s where I get lost on it. You couldn’t have the movie without Nixon, because Nixon gives Penn’s character a chance to showcase just how insane he’s become. And footage of Nixon sort of paces the film. But I’m not sure that Nixon really had anything to do with Penn’s losing his mind (and I may just not be remembering right… it’s been a few years and hundreds of movies since I last saw that one).

      Macguffins made so much more sense to me in “Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2”.

  2. Phil

    I had forgotten that Ron Howard directed ‘Frost/Nixon’. I associate it more with the Peter Morgan/ Michael Sheen duo. I’m impressed that you have a bowling Nixon poster in your office! The Big Lebowski still gets funnier every time I watch it. No other movie is like that for me.

  3. Stone’s Nixon is a great picture. What makes it for me is the deleted scene with Richard Helms at CIA headquarters. It is so utterly bizarre that there aren’t words to describe it. Helms threatened to sue if it made the film so it became a deleted scene. It has taken me many years to grok what happens in the last two minutes of this. The falcon can’t hear the falconer. Anyway, here it is if you haven’t seen it.

    PS If Stone had a real sense of humor, he would have released the DVD with a banner on the front promising 18 1/2 minutes of “new material”. I’m just sayin’.

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