President Evil? Fictional US presidents on screen

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Frank Underwood  (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…

Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).

 William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)

Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs.  Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however.  Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.

President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)

Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?

President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)

“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.

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Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)

Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won.  Quite a tame film by modern standards.

Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)

Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.

President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)

Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.

President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)

The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.

Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)

Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.

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Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)

A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)

One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.

President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)

Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.

President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)

Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)

There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.

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President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)

It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)

You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.

Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)

Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.

President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)

Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.

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President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)

Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.

President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)

Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.

President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)

Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)

Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.

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Great Oscar disasters …explained!

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Every year since 1928, the American Academy has awarded a Best Picture Oscar to the movie deemed to have been judged “Best Picture”. Sometimes they have got it right (Casablanca, The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire). Sometimes they have got it wrong. Hugely dramatically wrong. Here are some of the worst foul ups and some possible explanations for them…

1941: How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley is bad. It’s just that Citizen Kane is supposed to be the greatest film ever made. The young Orson Welles’ performance in the lead role as Kane himself is peerless as is his direction. Witness Kane’s convincing transformation from a charismatic young idealist into an embittered old man. The innovative use of light and shadows. The scene in which Kane’s marriage declines from untroubled romance into weary silence in the space of a few shots. Citizen Kane transformed cinema forever. Why didn’t it win?

The simple answer is that by basing Kane on the real life newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (who was still very much alive in 1941), Welles assured the film’s critical and commercial failure. The journalist’s quest to uncover the secret of “Rosebud” (the name of Kane’s childhood sledge and the character’s last word) in the film alluded to Hearst’s own private nickname for his mistress’s (ahem) private part.

Hearst was hugely powerful and buried the film amidst hostile reviews just as Rupert Murdoch would do if a similar film were made about a thinly disguised malevolent Australian TV and press baron today. The genius Welles who had read the complete works of Shakespeare before he was ten, ended his days as fat as a house and lending his distinctive voice to Transformers: The Movie. As well as probably the best beer commercial voiceovers in the world.

But critically he had the last laugh. It’s difficult to think of William Randolph Hearst these days without inviting thoughts of Citizen Kane.

And to be fair, for all its technical excellence, Citizen Kane is hardly a natural crowd-pleaser. It might not have won anyway.

 

1976: Rocky beats Taxi Driver (and a few other things).

1976 should have been a classic year. Sydney Lumet’s Network was a powerful critique on the media portraying a news programme’s cynical exploitation of one of its presenters when he suddenly has a breakdown and announces he’s going to kill himself on air. All The President’s Men saw Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as real life Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein as they uncovered the Watergate scandal. Taxi Driver saw Robert De Niro deliver one of the finest performances ever committed to film as a Vietnam vet driven mad by insomnia and loneliness comes close to assassinating a presidential candidate.

But 1976 was the United States’ bicentennial year. the Academy are a conservative bunch and were keener to reward a film endorsing the American dream than one about Watergate (in an election year)  or one about Vietnam vets. This why Rocky beat all of these films, despite being clearly the worst of the lot.

1979: Kramer Vs Kramer beats Apocalypse Now.

Actually for all Apocalypse Now’s classic status, I’m less sure this was such a bad call. Kramer is actually an excellent and extremely powerful film while Apocalypse Now does rather go on a bit and – let’s face it – doesn’t end properly. Besides, the much more conservative Vietnam film The Deer Hunter had already won the previous year.

1989: Driving Miss Daisy beats Born on the Fourth of July (1990 Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas).

Driving Miss Daisy was a ludicrously safe choice which barely even begins to discuss the issues raised by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Even worse, the Oscars opted for Kevin Costner’s picturesque western snooze fest the following year, thus snubbing Goodfellas, probably the best film of the entire 1990s.

1994 Forrest Gump beats Pulp Fiction.

The Oscars got everything wrong this year snubbing the most iconic and watchable film of the decade in favour of a film which a) portrays the entire anti-Vietnam movement as a bunch of sneering wife beaters b) suggests women should marry young and be good housewives or they’ll descend into drugs, promiscuity and prostitution c) spends a good half hour showing Forrest running across the US in a bid to win the Best Cinematography Oscar…which it didn’t win anyway! And d) is scared to mention the AIDS virus by name. In 1994. A full year after Tom Hanks had appeared himself in the Oscar winning Philadelphia which is all about AIDS.

Even worse: the one Oscar Pulp Fiction did win (Best Original Screenplay) should actually have probably gone to Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Samuel L Jackson’s response on losing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (visibly mouthing “Shit”) says it all.

2006: Crash beats Brokeback Mountain.

Were the Academy attempting to show their liberal credentials by awarding a film about racism? Or were they just being homophobic? Or were they just idiots? Who knows? Either way Paul Harris’s Crash must rank amongst the weakest Best Film winners ever. It’s barely any better than the David Cronenberg car crash fetish film of the same name.

The name is fitting though: the choice was a disaster.