In the beginning, there was Life: the messy but ultimately successful campaign by a morally ambiguous southern governor to become president of the United States. Then came Art Imitating Life: a shadowy writer known only as “Anonymous” slapped a veneer of fiction on the story and retold it as Primary Colors, the 1996 novel that became a surprising best-seller. After that there was Life Imitating Art Imitating Life—Monica Lewinsky became a household name and the President’s realtime existence was engulfed by the kind of “bimbo eruption” that plagued his campaign and spiced up the novel. This week, things get even more complicated. It’s time for, yes, Art Imitating Life Imitating Art Imitating Life as Primary Colors, the movie based on the book, opens across North America. Already the pundits are asking: Will it hurt Bill Clinton? Will it help him? Where does fact end—and fiction begin? And can anyone tell anymore?
The book was a not-too-thinly-disguised assault on Clinton and the tortuous path that brought him to power. Anonymous was eventually unmasked as political writer Joe Klein, then of Newsweek, now of The New Yorker. He created Jack Stanton, the seductive, slippery survivor from an unidentified southern state, and his Hillary-like wife, Susan. Primary Colors was no paint-by-numbers job, but figures drawn from real life abounded. Gennifer Flowers, the sometime lounge singer who claimed a 12-year affair
with Clinton, became hairdresser Cashmere McLeod; Democratic strategist James Carville appeared as trash-talking Richard Jemmons; Betsey Wright, the Clinton ultraloyalist whose job as campaign “dust buster” was to clean up Bill’s moral messes, came disguised as raging lesbian Libby Holden. Primary Colors made Klein rich: propelled by the who-wrote-it guessing game, it sold 1.2 million copies —and counting.
Primary Colors the movie— which opens on March 20—is making him even richer. Director Mike Nichols bought the idea for an initial $2 million and a deal that could net Klein even more. But is the movie, a $90-million production, as tough on Clinton as the novel? Some believe not—and the President’s cozy relationship with Hollywood suggests some of the reasons. Nichols and his script-writing partner, ex-wife Elaine May, performed at a 1992 Hollywood fundraiser for Clinton. Nichols and his current wife, Diane Sawyer of ABC Television, hobnob with Bill and Hillary during summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Billy Bob Thornton of Sling Blade fame, a strong Clinton supporter, agreed to play the Carville/Jemmons role only after clearing it through fellow Arkansan
Harry Thomason, one of the President’s closest friends, who in turn checked with the White House. “I would never do anything to hurt him,” Thornton told an interviewer. “He’s been so good to me.”
But what really fed the notion that the President’s Hollywood cronies had managed to turn an anti-Clinton book into a softfocus pro-Clinton film was the curious relationship between the White House and John Travolta. Nichols signed Travolta to play Stanton before the actor had ever met Clinton. Last April, they came together at a meeting on volunteerism in Philadelphia, and the President apparently worked his magic. As Travolta has recounted the story, Clinton knew exactly what button to push: he offered to help Travolta in his campaign against the German government’s alleged persecution of Scientology. Travolta, a devoted Scientologist, was smitten—even more so when Clinton arranged for the actor and several other Scientologists to meet with his national security adviser, Sandy Berger, at the White House in September. At the height of the Iraq crisis last month, Berger found himself being asked on national television: was it all part of a plan to make sure the movie paints a favorable picture of the President?
Of course not, Berger replied. And intrigue aside, the real unknown is how a movie that shines a bright light on Clinton’s seamier side will be received now—as a true-life scandal that is barely into Act 2 unfolds in Washington. In the novel, Jack Stanton as sketched by Klein was a mesmerizing but repellent character. The best that could be said of him was that he was doing what had to be done to get where he wanted to go. “Only certain kinds of people are cut out for this work —and, yeah, we are «of princes, by and large,” he tells his young campaign aide, Henry Burton, who is seduced politically by Stanton and physically by his wife (played by Emma Thompson) in a scene that was filmed, but in the end not included in the movie.
It’s not a pretty picture—but the logic of fiction meant that readers had to imagine Stanton, and that opened up space between the character and Clinton himself. The movie, whatever its creators intend, may close that gap in a way that sets off shudders in the White House. Travolta streaked his hair grey, put on almost 20 lb., and studied tapes of Clinton on the campaign trail to get the role right. On screen, the actor mimics the President right down to his lust for apple fritters. The question is: will viewers warm to this pulp fiction and the man it portrays, or be further repelled by the pulpy reality it so uncomfortably echoes? □
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