Playing Presidents: Good History vs. Good Drama and the Actor JFK wanted to play Him, Part II

Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams

Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams

With so many events to bend into two hours, presidential biopics offer less chance to plumb the character of a President than do those films which focus on a specific conflict from their life. Critics faulted Amistad (1997) on both dramatic and historical points, but it presented former President John Quincy Adams with nuanced poignancy in a way few in the genre do.

Nigel Hawthorn as Martin an Buren in Amistad

Nigel Hawthorn as Martin Van Buren in Amistad

Equally pitch-perfect was the depiction of supporting character and incumbent President Martin Van Buren as his contrasting foil; though limited to a few formal dinner scenes it was enough action to characterize his presidency and persona and casting legendary British actor Nigel Hawthorne accurately nailed the royal touch of “Old Van.” Excerpts of the Adams depiction are here:

Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson in the President's Lady

Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson in the President's Lady

While the stakes are raised higher in a presidential film when it represents factual truth, it is still drama which ultimately determines its quality, best exemplified perhaps by The President’s Lady (1953). That recordings of Andrew Jackson don’t exist seems moot when Charlton Heston appears onscreen as the seventh president. The film romanticized an already romantic novel about Jackson’s courtship and adoption of an Indian orphan, entirely ignoring Rachel Jackson’s legal bigamy and Jackson’s genocidal view of Native Americans. That’s bad history, but pointing it out would have undermined sympathy for Jackson as protagonist. It may have made the presentation more realistic but less clear. An excerpt of Heston as Jackson follows Susan Hayward accepting an award for her role as Rachel Jackson:

With more immediate commercial needs than film, television presentations of Presidents tend to be look and feel like soap operas set in the White House. To generate bigger market shares and ad revenue, network execs inevitably morph even those biopics bought on a high-minded pitch. An original story on Mrs. Reagan I helped sell to ABC by verbal and written pitch, derived from one of my books, told of how, by helping her husband, she grew personally, so that the woman who was nervous speaking at a 1981 Teacher of the Year award was, by 1988, addressing the U.N. The project stalled when the exec who bought it left and it was resold to CBS which ordered something more “edgy,” resulting in the controversial The Reagans (2003), which bore no resemblance to my story. Despite initially conceiving it, as the “historian” I wasn’t allowed to even offer a spec draft myself. The Reagans was part of a long line of TV movies and mini-series on presidential families. Although Lincoln, starring Hal Holbrooke, was broadcast a year earlier, the genre was firmly established by the multi-award-winning Eleanor and Franklin, (1976) starring Edward Herrmann and Jane Alexander as the Roosevelts. The gold standard of presidential mini-series, Eleanor and Franklin was both intelligent and emotional drama, while also historically accurate. Both the 1976 PBS series The Adams Chronicles and 2008 HBO series John Adams upheld the tradition. A clip of Eleanor and Franklin:

More typically, however, a salacious storyline is mixed into the rote biographical scenes o

Randy Quaid as LBJ

Randy Quaid as LBJ

f Presidents as seen on TV minis and biopics. Unfortunate examples include Ike (1979) with Robert Duvall, based on Kay Summersby’s book which alleged her World War II affair with Eisenhower, and LBJ (1987) with Randy Quaid, which made Lyndon Johnson’s relationship with Alice Glass a primary focus of his life and cause for competition with his wife. Using these elements as aspects of the story, rather than a focus, might have improved the overall quality but to make love affairs more central required the productions to wildly overstep what was a highly suspicious claim by Summersby and a far less relevant one in the case of Glass.

Nick Nolte in Jefferson in Paris

Nick Nolte in Jefferson in Paris

The pattern may have ended with Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000). Using a premise that Thomas Jefferson had a full-blown love affair with the mixed-race half-sister of his late wife and fathered several children by her, the TV movie was pure fiction even for those who believed she did bear his offspring and indeed based on a novel. The reality is that there is little to no documentation of any kind about Sally Hemings as a person or whether she had a romantic relationship with Jefferson or that of the traditional slave to master, and the DNA findings of a Jefferson link to the slave descendants remain open to scientific interpretation. In contrast, while Jefferson in Paris (1995) also uses the Hemings relationship, critics were less concerned with it than the point of it all. As the Chicago Sun-Times’s Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie tells no clear story and has no clear ideas.” Here is an excerpt of Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson:

Hal Holbrooke as Lincoln

Hal Holbrooke as Lincoln

Although a minor character in numerous television venues, there’s been only two TV biopics of the 16th President, the Holbrook one and 1988’s same-titled Lincoln, starring Sam Waterson. As a television character, John F. Kennedy has Lincoln beat. Even in those series with ensemble casts, he remains the central figure, an element again true with this week’s The Kennedys. With eight hours being aired over six nights, it’s the longest series ever made about a President and his family. After an early draft of one of its scripts leaked to the press last year, a drive was organized to prevent production and broadcast of The Kennedys by its initial purchaser, the History Channel. Those leading the drive claimed they did so not based on unflattering personal aspects it threatened to dramatize but egregious historical inaccuracies. Here’s Holbrooke’s Lincoln:

What few realize is that during pre-production of the very first time John F. Kennedy was used as a dramatic character, the feature film PT-109, (1963) the potential for telling history while moving audiences (and voters), proved irresistible t0 a man who, though never paid or credited as producer, exercised his full approval rights on the script, the director and even to chose the actor to be cast in the lead.

And the real John F. Kennedy did this while working – as President of the United States.

Part III: President Kennedy’s role in casting the role of…himself:

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Categories: Andrew Jackson, Barack Obama, Hollywood, Presidents, Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson

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2 replies »

  1. “Eleanor & Franklin” is my favorite of this genre, bar none. I thought Edward Herrmann absolutely nailed FDR, which was tough given that he was quite a young actor when he did it. And I think the series came closer to BBC-quality historical drama than anything done in this country before or since.

    I enjoyed “Wilson” – the film and the President have been pretty much forgotten, it seems to me.

    Did not like Randy Quaid’s LBJ at all – it was caricature.

    This is a great series of blog posts.

    • Well thank you and tell your friends – and tell everyone to subscribe here instead of reading it from facebook! meanwhile, i would have to say I agree with you – Eleanor and Franklin was informative yet genuinely moving without manipulation and the production value was of the highest quality. The music was also extremely stirring and captured the tone of the overall series. Agree on the LBJ being a caricature – so missed the open-hearted aspect of his big personality too – teaching Mexican-American students in San Antonio so opened his eyes and mind to the poorest of the poor, white and non-white – and one can trace the integrity of his commitment to them in the War on Poverty and other Great Society programs. Wilson – eh, I guess it is great as a period piece but it was so, so slanted, such hagiography. I should have mentioned that Edith Wilson had complete veto power over the scripts and she permitted nothing even remotely unworshipful to be implied about Wilson.


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