White House Hustle

Brian D. Johnson October 16 2000

White House Hustle

Brian D. Johnson October 16 2000

White House Hustle



Brian D. Johnson

Liberal fantasy thrives in The Contender and The West Wing

They had John F. Kennedy; we had Pierre Trudeau. The playboy president and the pop-star prime minister. Both got away with things that would never fly today, whether it was Kennedy trysting with Marilyn Monroe or Trudeau plucking a flower child three decades his junior. And both became cultural icons, figures from a time when sex, romance and politics merrily converged without dire consequence. Kennedy and Trudeau were statesmen who behaved like movie stars; their successors are more like bad actors trying to behave like statesmen. And now that the U.S. campaign is in full swing, with AÍ Gore and George W Bush auditioning on Oprah—both straining to show they have enough range to act human— Americans do not seem to be electing a president so much as casting him.

But it’s hard to compete with the professionals, with those who rule the White House in Hollywood fiction.

They are so much more... well, presidential. Neither Bush nor Gore will ever give a speech as inspiring as the one delivered by Jeff Bridges at the end of The Contender, Hollywood’s latest White House drama. And when it comes to Oval Office integrity, who could possibly measure up to Martin Sheen in The West Wing! The NBC show, which launched its second season last week on CTV after receiving nine Emmys, presents a variety of shining liberalism virtually extina in real politics.

“It’s a tricky balance,” observed Aaron Sorkin, the show’s writer and executive producer, in a Macleans interview last week. “You don’t want it to be a fairytale White House. You want it to feel like a backroom. But there’s a certain amount of wish fulfilment. In American popular culture, our political leaders are portrayed as either dolts or Machiavellian. In The West Wing, they’re neither; they’re heroic.” So is Sorkin ever tempted to tarnish his president’s virtue with a dab of adultery? “I’m not,” he replies. “Frankly, if I’m tempted to do anything it’s to have a young intern walk into the Oval Office and come on to the president and have him say, ‘Young lady, you’re not on spring break and this isn’t Fort Lauderdale. You’re talking to the president of the

United States. Leave this room and never come back.’ ”

While The West Wings presidential patriarch is above reproach, Hollywood movies tend to treat American politics as a less dignified form of show business. In Dave (1993), a look-alike (Kevin Kline) is hired to impersonate a president who has expired while bonking an underling. In The American President (1995), which Sorkin scripted, spin doctors work overtime while a White House widower (Michael Douglas) dates a lobbyist. In Wag the Dog (1997), a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) fakes a war to take heat off a presidential sex scandal. And Primary Colors (1998) presents a Clintonesque candidate (John Travolta) who can’t keep his pants on.

Now, The Contender asks the question: what if a woman in high office became the target of sexual impropriety charges? A somewhat farfetched but richly entertaining political drama, the movie features two of Hollywood’s most underrated actors. Playing her first lead role, the formidable Joan Allen {Nixon, Pleasantville) stars as Senator Laine Hanson, who is chosen to succeed the vice-president after he dies in midterm. The spirited Jeff Bridges {The Fabulous Baker Boys, Fearless) plays president Jackson Evans, who selects Hanson to be the first woman to hold the office. As she becomes the target of a conservative witchhunt, her confirmation hearings are rocked by allegations that she became a fraternity sex slave one night during her college years. Orchestrating the smear campaign is a diabolical politician, Shelley Runyon, who is brilliantly played by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman. Allen, Bridges and Oldman all deliver Oscar-worthy performances.

Writer-director Rod Lurie’s script has some fanciful overtones. The choice of a drunken gang bang for his heroine’s alleged imbroglio seems unduly lurid—the product of an overripe male imagination, even in this era of misplaced cigars in the Oval Office. And the dialogue is a virtual locker room of sexist slingshots. Lines like: “If there’s one thing you don’t want, it’s a woman with her finger on the button who isn’t getting laid.” Or: “What you are is a sex-crazed home-wrecking machine, a female Warren Beatty.” But even more implausibly, at one point during the confirmation hearings, Hanson proudly declares that she is an atheist. Huh? In the religiously correct clime of Ameri-

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can politics, a woman photographed having sex with an entire football team might stand a better chance of making vice-president than an atheist. “That’s where the film takes latitude,” Allen acknowledges. “It’s idealistic. I knew it was a very gutsy thing for my character to say. But I don’t think Americans could tolerate an atheist in that office.”

The morning after The Contenders première last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, Allen was sipping tea in her hotel room. She’s an imposing presence, with strong cheekbones and wide blue eyes that betray a wary intelligence. She is also about six feet tall, which may help explain why she’s had trouble landing roles in a world of diminutive leading men such as Tom Cruise. (“Isn’t it interesting,” muses a publicist later, “how the actors are usually shorter than you expect, while the actresses are taller.”) For a middle-aged woman, the sexual politics of Hollywood may be no easier to navigate than those of Washington. “Breaking through at this age is more difficult,” allows Allen, who is 44. “One thing that really bothers me is the discrepancy between older men and younger women on screen.” Allen once declined to play a love interest opposite a star 25 years her senior. “He was a wonderful actor I adore and admire,” she says. “But I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘It makes me feel creepy.’ In this male-dominated industry, studio executives divorce their first wives for younger women—then project that onto the screen. I don’t find that acceptable.”

Those same studio executives found Allen unacceptable when Lurie first tried to cast her in The Contender, although he had written the movie specifically for her. The director, 38, once a film critic with the Los Angeles Times, was not terribly popular at the studios to begin with. Warner Bros, banned him from their screenings, he says, after he referred to actor Danny De Vito as “a testicle with arms.”

Lurie now admits he was “not a good film critic.” But with The Contender, he has begun to redeem himself, as a filmmaker. He was moved to write the script last year after presenting Allen with a best supporting actress award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. “I went home that night and turned on my computer,” he says. “I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write. But I knew it had to be a role she couldn’t say no to. A lead role.” When Lurie shopped his script around Hollywood, he adds, “the major studios would consider doing it only if I replaced Joan with a bigger actress.” Sharon Stone’s name came up. But the director stuck with his star and made the film for $ 15 million, a pittance by Hollywood standards. Then, after it was shot and edited, he got a call from DreamWorks mogul Steven Spielberg, who bought the film and helped him re-edit it.

In the cutting room, when they arrived at Allen’s big speech—defending reproductive choice, opposing the death penalty, and talking and praising “the chapel of democracy”—Spielberg suggested laying in some music. “I said I don’t think we should do that because we’d be en-

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dorsing what she’s saying,” recalls Lurie. “He turned to me and said, ‘What’s wrong with endorsing what she’s saying?’ And he was absolutely right.” While The Contender is very much Joan Allen’s movie, Jeff Bridges almost steals it with sheer force of personality. In his supporting role, Bridges makes a swell president, a savvy manipulator with heart—he has a hilarious habit of disarming his adversaries with offers of food from the White House kitchen. And his climactic speech makes you want to run right out and vote for him.

But to meet Bridges, it’s hard to imagine how he could strike such a powerful pose on-screen. With surfer hair spilling over the collar of a Hawaiian shirt, he looks more like the Dude from The Big Lebowski, and talks with a sense of cosmic wonder about “the whole thing being held together by a huge amount of grace.” The actor says his father, Lloyd Bridges, served as a role model for president. “He had this wonderful, contagious joy. He loved what he was doing.” Asked if being a politician is more and more of an acting job, Bridges reflected for a moment. “I wonder if it’s always been like that,” he says. “It’s funny, acting comes into all our lives even if we don’t think of it as acting.”

Although the line between politics and show business seems more blurred than ever, they still require acting skills of a different order. Ronald Reagan showed that a mediocre actor can be become a convincing president, but a major star would have a hard time winning credibility. “As celebrity-driven as our culture is,” says Sorkin, “as much as our movie stars are worshipped, if you take them out of that arena, no one listens to what they have to say.” When Warren Beatty was flirting with running for president, “he gave a very well-received speech at the Beverly Hilton Hotel,” Sorkin adds. But [former White House communications director] George Stephanopolous commented that, as great as it was, you couldn’t help feeling this was someone playing the part of an actor thinking about running for president.”

Maybe if he’d seen the speech in a movie, it would have sounded like the real thing. ESI