I sometimes have difficulty separating an artist from their art, although I’ve been able to accomplish it several times. Would I be able to do so when the artist in question was a President of the United States whose art included not only films, but policies that transformed the Republican Party, the American economy, and the course of the Cold War? Movie Nights with the Reagans by Mark Weinberg has arrived to pose this question.
Whatever your feelings about Reagan’s politics, and mine are by no means completely positive, this new book affirms any belief in the influence of film on society. It is written by Mark Weinberg, who in 1981, when the book begins, was serving as an assistant press secretary at the White House. He was one of the few staff members invited along on the Reagans’ weekends at Camp David, where there is a movie theater. In the privacy of the Aspen Lodge, the First Family and their guests sat in comfy chairs as popcorn was served in baskets, and watched contemporary and classic movies on Friday and Saturday nights, in good times (landslide re-election) and in bad (assassination attempts).
The book is organized mostly chronologically, with one chapter per film, beginning with the first weekend trip of Reagan’s presidency in February of 1981 (the film was 9 to 5) all the way up to 1987, including September of 1985, when the chosen film was Ronald and Nancy’s only one together, Hellcats of the Navy, which was also the last feature in which either Reagan appeared. The connections between the films and the memories in each chapter can be tenuous but are nonetheless fascinating. Weinberg was in a unique position of truly unparalled access, enabling him to now deliver an assortment of anecdotes; he seems to have been both an employee and a friend of both the Reagans, with a closeness verging on that of family.
The stories are wide-ranging, everything from behind-the-scenes notes about classic stars like Robert Taylor, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn, to meetings with Tom Cruise, to real-life parallels between the Reagans and the Thayers, the family in On Golden Pond. Where the book really shines though is in revealing inner workings not of Hollywood, or the First Couple’s opinion of its product, but of the White House for most of the 1980s. On several occasions, movies influenced policies or found their way into speeches given by the President and/or his First Lady; one example comes right off the bat, when Mrs. Reagan refers to the pot scene in 9 to 5, though not by name, in the speech that she made to launch her anti-drug campaign. (The name “Just Say No” came from her answer to a child who asked what to do when offered drugs.)
There are some twists as well, although I’m not sure the author sees the irony in them that I do. Reagan not only was a Democrat in the 1940s and 1950s, but served as Screen Actors Guild president from 1947 to 1952, during which time “[he was a very effective union president…and even organized a famous 1960 actors strike, the first such action in the history of Hollywood” (44). Weinberg mentions instances of Reagan’s personal courtesy that I found oddly touching; for a man whose actions and policies would lead to an interrupted but inevitable decrease in quality of life for the middle and working classes, both during and after his administration, Reagan was, according to this portrait, almost unfailingly dignified and nearly chivalrous, a gentleman who apparently never so much as swore around his wife, who, for her part, was warm and welcoming to all.
How much should a commander-in-chief be influenced by popular culture? I’m not sure, but Reagan certainly was. Weren’t we all, back in the ’80s? Some of these films, like Ghostbusters and Top Gun are films I can recite large portions of from memory, and to see them in the context of White House activities at the time of their release is quite a read. One film that met with the Reagans’ purest approval is one I’ve seen 10 times or more…if the phrase “they all think he’s a righteous dude” means anything to you, you’ll know which movie is (and you may be surprised at the significance it’s given in the book). If Weinberg’s impressions are correct, Reagan was more comfortable in Hollywood than he ever was in politics, and he certainly had more fun making movies. Yet Reagan’s Hollywood experience made him ideally suited to public office in the United States. This paragraph, from the Introduction, sums up the state of U.S. politics so perfectly:
To the consternation of his staff, Ronald Reagan would sometimes say he did not see how someone could do the job of president without having been an actor. Critics seized on that as evidence that he was shallow, insincere, and just playing a role. Ridiculous. I asked him about it once, and he told me what he meant: that because of television…the modern-day U.S. presidency required an understanding of how to influence public opinion in a new way. He was keenly aware that most people formed their opinions based on what they saw on-screen, and that a simple gesture, experssion, or image could have far more impact than a perfectly crafted policy platform or speech. (xxi)
In a sense, storytelling is this book’s larger topic. Reagan employed Hollywood storytelling to attain the highest level of public office, treating it like “the greatest and most important stage in the world” (xxiii). To the author, this is commendable; to most of the rest of us, this principle, followed to its present manifestation, is disastrous.
If you can tolerate unquestioning acceptance of the politics of Reagan and his ilk (i.e., Margaret Thatcher) and a point of view that the author admits approaches hagiography (246), you will undoubtedly enjoy this book and its unique insights from the intersection of politics, gossip, and royalty, Old and New Hollywood and otherwise. With what we’ve got in the White House at this moment, it might even make you a bit nostalgic.
Aesthetically, the book is beautifully typeset, including the title treatment. The title is embossed and varnished on the dust jacket. There are two inserts of rare, behind-the-scenes photos.
Movie Nights with the Reagans by Mark Weinberg is released February 27, 2018
288 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.
The book’s release date holds a personal significance for me; February 27 is my Aunt Mary’s birthday. She was a staunch Republican all of my life; about the only things we agreed on were classic movies and food, but that was always enough. Happy Birthday, MRR.