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Acting Presidents

Hollywood's Oval Office Is Getting Mighty Crowded

By Bruce Handy

(TIME, ASpril1 4) -- Five years ago, the President of the U.S. couldn't get arrested, at least not in the show-business sense of the phrase. "No one's interested in movies about the President," an agent told me in the spring of 1992, explaining why we had seen relatively few presidential characters on the big screen since the era of Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May back in the '60s. "People get enough of him on the news every night. They don't want to see him at the multiplex." This was the conventional wisdom in Hollywood at the time. Two enervating elections and four draining (though interesting) years of Bill Clinton later, you might think it would still hold true.

Hollywood's Presidents

But 1997 is still young, and already two White House-themed thrillers, Shadow Conspiracy and Absolute Power, have passed through theaters, and a third arrives next week: Murder at 1600, in which Wesley Snipes, playing a Washington detective, investigates a homicide at the well-known Pennsylvania Avenue address. These films are only the most recent manifestations of a trend that dates back to Dave, the 1993 comedy in which Kevin Kline plays a gentle presidential impostor. Since then we have probably seen more Presidents onscreen than, say, strippers and volcanologists combined. We have seen Presidents and ex-Presidents as the lead in a romantic comedy (The American President), as crabby partners in a road movie (My Fellow Americans), as an ambiguous foil for action hero Harrison Ford (Clear and Present Danger), as a work-obsessed '90s dad (First Kid), as battlers of alien invaders (Independence Day, Mars Attacks!) and, perhaps most disturbing of all, as Alan Alda (Canadian Bacon).

This summer, in Air Force One, we will have the opportunity to envision what it would be like to have a Chief Executive, played by Harrison Ford himself, who can deal Die Hard-style with international terrorists when they make the mistake of commandeering his plane. "He's not a ninja or anything," explains Armyan Bernstein, one of Air Force One's four producers, "but he knows how to fight." The back story is that this President served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and won a Congressional Medal of Honor for fighting his way out of the jungle after a crash. "At last," went one of the film's proposed (and rejected) advertising slogans, "America has a kick-ass President." The ways in which real Presidents respond to terrorism, launch surgical strikes and the like will no doubt seem effete by comparison.

The most unusual concept yet for a White House movie--one imagines, anyway--belongs to Sacred Cows, a notorious and as yet unproduced screenplay by Joe Eszterhas, who is most famous for writing Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Sacred Cows, which is being developed by MGM, tells the story of a President who is caught having a trans-species tryst in a barn. At various times, according to Eszterhas, Steven Spielberg, Milos Forman and Robert Zemeckis have all been attached to the film as directors. "It's a comedic but serious piece," Eszterhas says. "It ultimately makes the case that the President of the U.S. has to tell the truth." Indeed, the screenplay's climax has President Sam Parr confessing to the nation during a debate, "Yes, I diddled that cow!" Buoyed by his honesty, voters re-elect him in a landslide. "Maybe you're right," Eszterhas responds when asked if his script is just too vulgar ever to be made, "but I hope it has something to say."

Ivan Reitman, who directed Dave, believes the spate of White House movies may be in part a kind of narcissistic reaction to the Clinton presidency: the fact that Clinton, like many of those in power in Hollywood, is an unabashed baby boomer has made the office seem more accessible. "He's just like me," Reitman says. "He's my age. He probably smoked pot. There are a lot of commonalities." "He's more available to us," agrees Bernstein, who means "available" socioculturally as well as literally. The President's proclivity for hobnobbing with show-biz folk is well known, and many filmmakers have even enjoyed White House sleepovers. "You write about what you know," says Bernstein.

Clinton's elusiveness, as both a politician and a man, would also seem to make his presidency ripe for interpretation by popular culture. So take your pick: Is the President an irresponsible party boy, as in Republican Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power, or a slow-to-anger knight in shining armor, as in Democrat Rob Reiner's The American President? Or maybe he's just a compassionate fellow who lives to minister to fatally ill kids, as in A Child's Wish, a recent TV movie on cbs. That President was played in a cameo by Bill Clinton, which made him the first Chief Executive to play himself as a character in an actual drama, as opposed to a character in a photo op, press conference or some other bit of contemporary presidential shtick. In fact, the question of whether Clinton was believable in the TV movie is secondary to the question of whether doing a TV movie even counts as a departure from his day job. And that may point to the ultimate reason contemporary audiences are responding to movies about the White House. Unlike real Presidents, the ones on the big screen don't come off like actors.


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