We’ll be holding our elections in the U.S. tomorrow. It’s not quite a choice between John Jackson and Jack Johnson, but the campaigns haven’t been particularly inspiring this year. It’s been a vicious cycle of empty platitudes from the candidates, followed by absurd political anger from voters. It’s not much fun. But movies are fun. Let’s talk about movies, and real US presidents in the movies. Where can you find some U.S. presidents on screen?
I’m not sure any president has been represented on screen more than Tricky Dick. There’s Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984); Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon from 2008; Oliver Stone’s biopic, Nixon (1995); Dick from 1999; a brief appearance in the Hunter Thompson biopic, Where the Buffalo Roam (1980); and he even serves as the impetus behind The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) and All the President’s Men (1976).
Teddy Roosevelt has only barely cracked the silver screen. The most prominent example comes from 1927’s silent The Rough Riders. More recently, he was portrayed by Robin Williams in the Night at the Museum films. Like FDR, he also makes an appearance in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).
John F. Kennedy
The three most notable examples of JFK on screen occur in wildly differing ways. The first was when Cliff Robertson played Kennedy in PT 109 (1963). The second happened exclusively through the grisly archival footage of his assassination in 1991’s JFK. And similarly, the third was in the digital world of Forrest Gump (1994). The bulk of the rest of JFK appearances have been in several tawdry TV mini-series.
America’s first president is wildly unrepresented in film. The overwhelming majority of films featuring George Washington are early silent films, like America (1924), Betsy Ross (1917), and The Battle Cry of Peace (1915). He was also represented on screen in The Patriot in 2000.
The obvious place you can find Lincoln will happen later this month when Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Lincoln will hit theaters. There’s also Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940); John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which stars Henry Fonda in the titular role; and D.W. Griffith’s early talkie, Abraham Lincoln (1930). He’s also made appearances in less serious places, like the Bill and Ted series, Happy Gilmore (1995), and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012).
Jackson is the flip-side of George Washington- a president who has appeared much, much more than you would expect. The list of Jackson films includes The Buccaneer (1938); Old Hickory (1939); The Fighting Kentuckian (1949), which starred John Wayne; Lone Star (1952), when he was played by Lionel Barrymore; The President’s Lady (1953), when Charlton Heston played Jackson; and even a re-make of The Buccaneer in 1958, where Heston reprised his role.
Clinton’s only been portrayed a few times on film. The best example is non-direct, when John Travolta took on Clinton as the fictional Governor Jack Stanton in Primary Colors (1998). Clinton was also spoofed on screen several times in the 90s in movies like Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996) and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994).
Ironically enough given his Hollywood background, Reagan has been surprisingly sparse on the big screen as president. He’ll play a part in The Butler during 2013, when Alan Rickman will take on the role. Beyond that, Reagan has only notably appeared in The Iron Lady (2011) and was spoofed in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR will get the Bill Murray treatment later this year when Hyde Park on the Hudson receives a wide release. He has also appeared in Michael Bay’s turd sandwich, Pearl Harbor (2001); last year in J. Edgar (2011); and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), amongst others.
William McKinley and Grover Cleveland
For some strange reason, the mid-to-late 1930s saw a run on McKinley and Cleveland movies. McKinley appeared in A Message to Garcia (1936) and This is My Affair (1937). He was portrayed by John Carradine in A Message to Garcia. Cleveland popped up in The Oklahoma Kid (1939) and The Monroe Doctrine (1939), portrayed by Stuart Holmes each time.