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True Colors

Mike Nichols gives a controversial novel a vibrant new life on the big screen

By Richard Corliss

TIME magazine 03-16-98

(TIME, March 16) -- There's a poignant little scene halfway into Primary Colors. It's primary night in New Hampshire, and candidate Jack Stanton (John Travolta) stands alone on a rainy street, knocking on car windows and importuning drivers for last-minute votes like a squeegee guy cadging a dollar. To hell with the odds; this man won't give up. He will keep asking, charming, wheedling, until people finally collapse under his will to be loved. As a character says in the Joe Klein novel on which the film is based, "The heart is a lonely hustler." But hustling--hey, that's politics. That's entertainment.

Travolta and Bill Clinton both know about perseverance and the uses of charisma. As the actor spreads his seductiveness on a movie screen like jelly on toast, so does Clinton work a room or a country, avidly selling his policies and himself, in love with being loved--and with his need to be loved. No wonder that when Travolta met Klein, he said, "I've been waiting my whole life to play this role."

The $65 million comedy opens next week, almost exactly two months after l'affaire Lewinsky broke. But even without the coincidence of a politician's sex scandals in the film and in surreal real life, the kinship between Clinton and a movie star like Travolta is clear.

Both have It--that mixture of swagger, danger and vulnerability. Folks who meet the President typically refer to his heat, to the musk of his personality, whether he is flashing them a thrilled-with-it-all smile or listening, hands folded prayerfully, concentrating with a ferocity that is a virtual assault of attentiveness. And he uses It like a movie star. The confluence of politics and performance finds its nexus in his indefatigable showmanship. He wants to romance not just the Congress or perhaps a stray intern but America, the world.

Other Presidents had an anchorman aura: authoritative, a bit square. Clinton has the urgency of a talk-show host. Or guest ("I want everyone to want me"--today on Jerry Springer). He is the first boyfriend (rather than father) figure in the White House since Jack Kennedy. Bye-bye, Poppy; hello, Elvis. That was the cue for the Southern beau-hunk to go on strutting his sex appeal, occasionally swiveling his ideology and forever crooning his ballads: "For I can't help/ Falling in love with you."

The film's makers deny, with the fervor of a White House aide in front of the skeptical scorps of the press, that Primary Colors is really the story of Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign. "Of course, nobody is going to note the differences," director Mike Nichols sighs. "There's no fun noting the differences. But the whole story doesn't work if it's literally about the Clintons. It does work if it's about the political process and the people who work in it. Can you remember why you started? Can you do anything but run the race and fight the fight? How do you know when you've forgotten your principles, and whom do you turn to? The movie asks a lot of questions, but it doesn't answer anything."

It answers one thing: Nichols and his once and current partner, screenwriter Elaine May, can make a funny, knowing, ultimately judicious film from the deliciously satyric satire that Klein, a former Newsweek columnist who now works for the New Yorker, published under the pseudonym Anonymous. If you mix the primary colors red, yellow and blue, the result is black. But this is no black comedy. It is a wistful story, about honor (Nichols says) and (we say) about the joy and pain of an idealist's love. Cagily, it asks big, brutal questions. What will we do for someone we love? What will we do for someone we want to love? When this person is a politician and has a shot at becoming the most powerful man on earth, good people can do pretty cruddy things--for the sake, they keep telling themselves, of a noble goal. Faust knew this. So, at every step of the long primary road, does Henry Burton.

It's his story, not Stanton's, so much so that the film could be called Regarding Henry (a 1991 Nichols movie that Klein particularly admires). Henry--a young black man so properly educated, so fully integrated into the political elite that another black pegs him as "the white man's Burton"--is the soul up for grabs in Primary Colors. He joins the Stanton campaign because he thinks, "This guy could be the real thing." Delicately played by British stage star Adrian Lester (As You Like It, Company), Henry is a can-do Candide, a fixer who keeps hoping Stanton is the best of all possible candidates. Ideals are always in danger of being reduced to fairy tales.

"The characters in my book took on lives of their own," says Klein. "They were who they were." Still, insiders had fun guessing who in the Clinton caravan matched the characters Klein created. Henry's is the most elusive: a sort of mythical grandson of Martin Luther King Jr. crossed with former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos. Nearly everyone else is an acute comic exaggeration of a familiar friend or foe of Bill's.

Richard Jemmons, the self-proclaimed redneck spin surgeon (played by Sling Blade's Billy Bob Thornton), is transparently James Carville. Daisy Green (Maura Tierney in the film) shares resumes with campaign adviser Mandy Grunwald. Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), the manic "dust buster" who tries to cover up Stanton's peccadillos before they make the tabs' front pages, is similar to Betsey Wright, Governor Clinton's chief of staff and trigger-happy troubleshooter. Lawrence Harris (Kevin Cooney), the New England Senator who runs against Stanton until being felled by a heart attack, could be the physically frail Paul Tsongas. Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides) stands in for Gennifer Flowers. And Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), the white knight who comes out of retirement to threaten Stanton's front-runner status, is a kinder, less kooky, more kinky H. Ross Perot.

The Stantons, TIME has learned, are based on Bill and Hillary Clinton. Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson), with her iron irony and rigid self-confidence, is Jack's severest critic and staunchest defender. For all her feminist executive briskness, she is in love with Jack, or with what she can help him become. In a more sophisticated way than Jack does, she sells loyalty, cunning and, when cornered, sex appeal.

In the book and the movie, Jack is a guest star. His role is not so much supporting as hovering--like God in the Old Testament. He shows up occasionally to bring fear, awe or happiness to the mortals who are at the center of the story. He asks them to slaughter their first principles, hurls plagues of tabloid headlines their way, gives their lives meaning and hope with his captious majesty. Except, of course, that Jack isn't God. In luring his team toward corruption, twisting their idealism into realpolitik, Stanton is Satan.

And spinning this Mephistophelian tale was Klein, the author who insisted on anonymity until he finally, clumsily, owned up after being outed in the Washington Post. Klein was unprepared for the book's success and the attendant rumpus about the author's identity. "I wrote two other books and never got American royalty checks," he says. "I was kind of agog for the first weeks after it happened. Agog, delighted, terrified."

A novelist's expectations may be modest, but while writing he can afford to do what a reader does: cast the movie version. Some of Klein's daydreaming proved prescient. "In my mind Libby Holden was Kathy Bates. I was also thinking of Emma Thompson as Susan Stanton--because Emma Thompson can do anything!" On his directors' list were Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist) and, at the top, Mike Nichols.

For a while, before publication, it seemed as if Klein's book would be a movie only in his head. The directors on his list, including Nichols, passed. Then the buzz got booming, and a fierce bidding commenced. Each suitor was allotted 30 minutes for a pitch. Nichols smartly said, "The reason I want to film the novel is that it's about honor, and that's the thing very good movies are about." That speech, and $1.5 million, put him over. Universal later reimbursed him for the rights (plus an almost equal amount tied to various bonus incentives) and also spent a reported $5 million to get him to direct and produce the film. Then Nichols got May.

As the royal couple of improv comedy, Nichols and May often took eroticism into new areas; in one duologue they replayed the breathless infidelity of Brief Encounter in a dentist's chair. The pair, once estranged, reunited professionally with the direction and script for the 1996 hit The Birdcage. "We close a circle," Nichols says. "All the difficulties have long been burned away, and only the good parts are left. I can tell her things in our own code, and it comes out infinitely richer."

Right from his first two films in the mid-'60s (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate), Nichols has trusted original material, pruning carefully, changing little. Nichols and May's film of Primary Colors faithfully distills the 366-page book, excising a few colorful critters (like the caricatures of Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson) but bringing the rest to seductive life onscreen. The major elision is the one-night stand Henry has with Susan Stanton.

Klein gave the tryst the logic of satire: Henry discovers that not only his boss but even the boss's wife is desperate for sex. It also humanizes Susan, who, out of hurt and curiosity, for once acts spontaneously. The director of The Graduate ("Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me, aren't you?") liked the scene and, over Universal's protests, shot it. Preview groups hated it--perhaps in prim disapproval or perhaps because when the hero of a film has an affair with the leading lady, audiences expect the affair to take over the story. Here it doesn't; it's just an anecdote about the abuse and frustrations of power. Nichols was right to shoot it and right to cut it.

Casting was a series of sensitive political negotiations. Nichols considered Mel Gibson and Liam Neeson for Stanton, but his first choice was a fellow Clinton sympathizer, Tom Hanks. "He was eager," the director recalls. "Then he said the more he looked at certain things in the script, the less he could see himself doing the film. It was the philandering, I think. He's an at-home, family guy." (Carly Simon, another friend of Bill's, also withdrew as provider of the film's music.) Thornton, an Arkansas homeboy, took the Jemmons role only after receiving Clinton's dispensation via television producer Harry Thomason.

Several distinguished actors were approached for the role of Picker. For a time Nichols wanted Jack Nicholson, who has made four films with the director. But Nicholson had a high price tag for a supporting gig. There was another obstacle: a star of Nicholson's wattage would throw the film off balance; viewers would expect Act III to be all about his character, but it's really Kathy Bates' show (when Libby goes on a mission to save and test the Stantons). As he did with the Henry-Susan tryst, Nichols realized he had to serve the story: "I didn't need Jack the King." Instead he cast Hagman--old J.R.--whose soft smile and dazed eyes bring a lovely sense of politics' walking wounded. He is the film's sweetest emotional wreck.

The two British stars, innocent of the intricacies of U.S. politics (imagine an American actor cast as Prime Minister Tony Blair or Northern Ireland firebrand Ian Paisley), had a few all-night cram sessions. Lester studied the career of the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, an early black supporter of Clinton's, and read The Power Game: How Washington Works by Hedrick Smith. Says Thompson: "The areas of my ignorance are vast and arid. I read Politics for Dummies; I saw the documentary The War Room; and I learned a wee bit about women in American politics. It's impressive what women can do, but it's also depressing that the ultimate glass ceiling is First Lady."

Nichols and his wife, ABC News star Diane Sawyer, are friendly with the Clintons; Nichols and May have been hosts of benefits for the President. But the director insists he neither spoke with Clinton about the film nor softened the case against Stanton. "We're all supposed to be friends of the President, which is nuts to begin with," Nichols says, bristling. "The movie is about a man with a talent for the job and the things that get him into trouble. That's the story. Softening it or hardening it--forgive the expression--doesn't come into it."

In fact Klein was in the thrall of the Clinton charisma; his Jack is a figure that rockets off the page. In the film Stanton is less grand and less sexy, and Travolta plays it subdued, a tad mopish. His smile looks startled, as if he had just sniffed ammonia. He has the hardest job: while everyone else gets to crack wise, he has to make political platitudes sound like poetry and Stanton's skunkish behavior smell almost sweet. His Stanton is a large man unsure whether he's big enough for a job he would kill to get.

There were whispers that after a White House conversation with Travolta, Clinton put pressure on Germany to soften its stance toward the Church of Scientology, of which the actor is an outspoken adherent, and that in return Travolta portrayed Stanton more sympathetically. That rumor gets a sneer from Klein ("I don't think Clinton would change policy toward Germany to get better treatment from John Travolta"), but the actor has warm memories of the chat, in which he says Clinton spoke of an old roommate who had been a Scientologist. Travolta insists his performance wasn't swayed by the President but declares he played the role "with a valentine in my heart."

Old political hands did swarm over the set to make the rallies and conferences look real. Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Meyers, who had been approached to be political adviser on the film, later asked about the production, but that was curiosity, not a threat. And Nichols did ask Stephanopoulos whether Henry would decide to stick with Stanton through the election--a question Klein left hanging, as did the original cut of the movie. "Well, of course he stays," Stephanopoulos replied. "He'd want to know how things turned out."

Universal executives believe the Lewinsky scandal may attract more customers. "Of course, we could have been hurt if Clinton had resigned," says Universal Pictures chairman Casey Silver. "People might have been so despondent and depressed that they wouldn't have wanted to go see the movie." But politics or even prurience may matter little to moviegoers. Studio surveys indicated that only 3% had read the book and that audiences rarely mentioned the Clinton connection even when they'd seen the film. At an early screening in Seattle less than 1% noted similarities to scandals in the White House. Says Nichols: "There was one card that read, 'Hilarious, thought-provoking, touching. Reminds me of the Clintons.'" Yet when virtually the same cut was screened post-Monica, the audience approval rating shot up 10 points. Even Nichols felt he was watching a different film. "The whole thing shifted and deepened."

The shooting of the last scene took place in late January, just after Monica Lewinsky had become a household name. The film's main ad line ("What went down on the way to the top") now had a Letterman leer, and the central mystery (Can Stanton cover up an affair with a young woman?) seemed less like satire than prophecy. But, of course, the timing was just a fluke of the Zeitgeist. As Maura Tierney says, "The reality is something very serious, and the movie is something we made in Hollywood, based on a book that came out more than two years ago. It doesn't seem the same to me at all."

Yet there is more than coincidence to the charges of sexual recklessness that have dogged Clinton; it could be something like fate. Says Klein: "Personally, I have no information at all about Bill Clinton's sex life. But leadership is a complicated business, and leaders are complicated people. Often they've been overendowed with all kinds of emotional qualities--not only libidinous ones but also violent ones. And historically, having an interesting sex life is a leading indicator of success in the presidency."

Nichols has also raised what might be called the Testosterone Theory of Public Office. As he told the cast during an early read-through, "We've often thought about our leaders, 'He's a great man and has a real gift with people--too bad he can't keep his dick in his pants.' But the very gift that makes him a great leader is the same thing that keeps him jumping on a lot of women. We tend to split it up into a 'good' side and a 'bad' side. The fact that it's the same vitality is rarely considered."

It is now. Pundits and real people have for the moment decided that Bill Clinton is a good President with some bad habits. As Klein says, "The American people have shown that they're pretty sophisticated about this." They may even be sophisticated about why they go to movies. They didn't buy $124 million worth of tickets for The Birdcage because every one of them supported gay family values; they went because they thought they'd have a good time. And as Nichols notes, Primary Colors is, in part, about having a good time--the vertiginous good time Henry has trying to get Stanton elected, as if he and Daisy were Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on the big show in their backyard.

Maybe Primary Colors is not about loving the man but about loving the work. Early on, when May asked Nichols what he was hoping to say in the film, he told her, "It's secretly Seinfeld. It's about the fun friends have together in what turns out to be the happiest time of their lives." As happy as that canny politician John Travolta, parading his charisma in Hollywood. As happy as that consummate showman Bill Clinton, locking eyes and hands with one more member of the universal audience.

--Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 16, 1998

True Colors
A Primary Roll Call
"Primary Colors" A Tale Of Two Bills
All The Presidents' Movies
Will Betty Currie Stick To The Script?
The White House: Getting The Story Straight
The Nonsense Stops Here: Profile of Judge Johnson
Purloined Papers At The State Department?
Now It's Paula Jones' Turn
Hizzoner The Hall Monitor: Rudy Giuliani
Mr. Gates Goes To Washington
Bill Gates' Diary
Harassed Or Hazed?
The Notebook: Oh...That Clinton Personality

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