"Some Movie Characters Miss the Mark"

July 30th, 2019

Actor James Brolin portraying Ronald Reagan

During this 50th anniversary month of the Apollo moon landing, I watched a number of NASA-related movies, and while most of them were top-notch productions, it occurred to me that hardly any of the actors actually looked or sounded anything like the real-life astronauts they were portraying. Tom Hanks, for example, neither looked nor sounded like Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, and Ryan Gosling was a total wash-out as Neil Armstrong in First Man, for the same reasons. These anti-doppelganger experiences prompted me to think back on all of the films in which someone was decidedly miscast, and, since we are now obsessed with presidential politics, I thought I'd share my thoughts on some of the more egregious screen portrayals of political figures.

JFK:  To date, dozens of actors have portrayed John Kennedy, including William Devane in Missiles of October, Martin Sheen in the mini-series Kennedy, and Rob Lowe in Killing Kennedy.  But it takes more than a Boston accent to make the 35th president come alive on screen. Late-night TV host-turned-actor Greg Kinnear did that for me when he appeared in REELZ channel's The Kennedys. It wasn't a very good series, but Kinnear made me believe he was JFK.

RFK:  Among the men who have donned flop hair and a Boston accent in trying to portray Bobby Kennedy, were Steven Culp in Thirteen Days, Martin Sheen in Missiles of October, and John Shea in Kennedy. The worst of these was Barry Pepper in The Kennedys. Again, Pepper is a fine actor, but totally miscast as JFK's younger brother. On the positive side, I thought the most convincing Bobby was Law & Order's Linus Roache in FX's RFK. What Roache lacked in cosmetic accuracy, he made up for with his authentic passion.

LBJ:  Some actors seem to think that being tall, speaking in a fake southern accent, and wearing prosthetic ears automatically morphs them into Lyndon Johnson. Woody Harrelson fell into this trap in LBJ, as did James Cromwell in RFK, and Tom Wilkinson in Selma. Randy Quaid attempted the role in LBJ the Early Years, but he just looked goofy, and, as his character aged, his hair looked like someone painted white-out on it. Thus far, the best Johnson interpretation has come from my friend Bryan Cranston in All the Way, for which he won a Tony before taking his play to the big screen in 2016.

Nixon:  Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella are world-class thespians, but both came up short in their portrayals of Richard Nixon, Hopkins in Nixon, and Langella in Frost/Nixon.  Hopkins looked nothing like the controversial president and sounded like Hannibal Lecter doing an impression of Nixon. Langella also looked nothing like Nixon, and his speech cadence was way off the mark. Strangely enough, my favorite Nixon was Beau Bridges in TNT's Kissinger and Nixon. Bridges understood his subject and expertly captured Nixon's nuances.

41 & 43:  Both George H.W. Bush and son George W. have been memorialized on film. Our 43rd president was played by Josh Brolin in Oliver Stone's production, W, in which Brolin's mannerisms and speech patterns were pretty accurate, although he was nowhere near a dead ringer for Bush. Meanwhile, Brolin's on-screen dad was played by James Cromwell who neither looked nor sounded like our 41st president. Being tall wasn't enough to make us believe Cromwell knew anything about voodoo economics.

Obama:  In 2016, two films were released about a young Barack Obama. Devon Terrell played the lead in Barry, and Parker Sawyers starred in Southside With You. Neither actor looked like Obama, but Terrell at least managed to get the voice right.

The others:  James Whitmore hit a home run with his televised one-man show as Harry Truman, while Ralph Bellamy and Edward Herrmann are captivating as FDR in Sunrise at Campobello and Eleanor and Franklin, respectively. Dennis Quaid also deserves high marks as Bill Clinton in The Special Relationship. Meanwhile, stay away from Tom Selleck's turn as Eisenhower in IKE: Countdown to D-Day.  He just looked like Magnum without hair. And don't bother with Sam Waterston's Lincoln, but check out Hal Holbrook's two turns as the 16th president, one in 1974's Lincoln, and again in 1985's North and South. He's even better than Daniel Day-Lewis. 

Finally, my highest praise goes to James Brolin in Showtime's The Reagans. Brolin made me believe that he was Reagan, and he should have won the Emmy that year.

Thus far, no major films have been made with Trump as the lead character, but if that ever happens, we can only hope that Ryan Gosling doesn't get the role.

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