Ronald Reagan called his first autobiography “Where’s the Rest of Me,” from just about the most memorable line he ever uttered on film.
“Where’s the Best of Me?” could have been the title of the movie that the conservative criers warned the nation it would be watching on Showtime tonight -- although those same critics would have preferred that viewers boycott it altogether.
Reagan loyalists who had not yet seen the made-for-TV movie declared that it would be a hatchet job on a sick old statesman and the loving wife he no longer even recognizes. It would be three hours of slander-by-video -- Ronald and Nancy Reagan outtakes, bits of their celebrated lives better left on the cutting-room floor, edited together with concocted footage of liberal fantasy.
The hue and cry -- which amounted to a reported 80,000 e-mails and letters to the network -- was enough to get the movie drop-kicked from CBS’ sweeps schedule and sent to the Siberia of pay cable.
The TV critics may find some things to love in this miniseries collapsed into a one-night marathon, making its premiere at 8 tonight on Showtime. James Brolin -- married to the woman conservatives regard as that liberal hood ornament, Barbra Streisand -- is a Ronald Reagan even the real Reagan might find persuasive, and he is by no means sinister or stupid or unsympathetic. Judy Davis -- who isn’t even American, for goodness’ sake, but Australian -- is often so taut that you could play Bach on her, and as dramatic and commanding in private moments as her husband appeared to be in public ones. Conservatives will probably find less to their liking, but if they had kept mum, this movie would probably have aired to middling-good ratings and wound up as just a $100 question on “College Jeopardy.”
The political fuss and bother that nudged this film from network sweeps to Sunday night pay TV is in some ways more engaging than the film itself, at least to anyone acquainted with the real-time Reagan saga: the his-and-hers movie careers, Reagan’s TV reincarnation, the California governorship, the White House and the 15-year twilight of Alzheimer’s.
Biopics, which is Variety-speak for biographical films and pseudo-biographical ones, are necessarily set at soap-opera volume, their vivid scenes selectively plucked from the millions of life’s drabber moments, such as balancing the checkbook and washing the car.
This film is drawn from Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s book “First Ladies,” and as usual, the book itself raised no ruckus. But when someone decided to put it on film -- well, then it’s serious. Think of the novel “The Last Temptation of Christ,” sitting unremarkably on bookshelves for 33 years until it got turned into a movie, and then it was Katie-bar-the-door, with the religious picketers and protesters out in force before they’d seen the film.
“The Reagans” gives viewers the Nancy Reagan the nation met through the comedians and the gossips and the tell-all books by the administration’s ship-jumpers: Nancy the clotheshorse, the distant mother, the ambitious wife whose husband called her “Mommy” and “Nancy Pants,” the fierce tigress promoting her husband’s career like an agent, and defending his health and reputation like a Secret Service agent.
And this is the Ronald Reagan the nation met through the big screen and the small one -- ready with a joke, genial, a bit vague, Norman Rockwellian in his politics, Sunday school-simple in his religiosity, a man who took actorly prompting from the wife who played Svengali to his Trilby. (This Reagan became such a staple that “Saturday Night Live” parodied it: Reagan in the Oval Office greeting schoolkids, and the minute they’re out the door, snapping into commander-in-chief mode, authoritative, decisive and all-knowing.)
This undertaking, we were told, was conceived as a love story, and it has its moments -- Ron and Nancy, tickling in bed; Ron and Nancy, wrapped in bath towels and holding hands in front of the TV set that’s announcing he was elected president. Nancy’s mother, martini in hand, tells her daughter in one scene, “The only important thing is you and Ronnie. Kids will come and go. You be good to Ronnie, and you’ll have him for the duration.”
Did she really say that? Who knows? Did Reagan really say to his ballet-dancing son, apropos of his sexuality, “Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly -- there was nothing wrong with them either?” That’s what biopics do: They compress and inflate, expand and compact. But with so much on the record about the Reagans, why make stuff up?
Certainly Nancy Reagan consulted astrologers, and she was pregnant when they got married, and she did arrange to meet him when he was Screen Actors Guild president because she said her good name was being besmirched after another actress of the same name had been fingered as a Commie.
The problem Reagan’s admirers and chroniclers will find is that’s about all there is here; we get Iran-Contra, but not Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” We get the stupefyingly ill-advised visit to a cemetery where Nazi SS troops were buried, but not the Reagans teary-eyed at the memorial for the Challenger astronauts.
One of the most touching moments was one of the most controversial. Nancy Reagan was pleading with her husband to do more about AIDS, after her hairstylist died of it.
“Ronnie, say something,” she says. He doesn’t; in the original script that was the source of conservatives’ indignation, Reagan speculated that AIDS was a plague from God to punish illicit sex. That’s gone.
Gone, too, is a moment where Nancy Reagan is exhorting her husband to dump Secretary of State Al Haig as a liability; she still nags him on the subject, but they’ve cut out Reagan’s line, which was in the promo tape -- “Now get off my goddamn back.” And cable is supposed to be more expansive in content, not less.
The most astonishing thing about this made-for-TV movie is that it’s being taken so seriously. When did the nation begin letting movie-makers teach history? When did viewers begin to believe just about everything but the evening news? How many people believe the JFK assassination was a conspiracy involving Lyndon Johnson, not because they read books or documents or much of anything -- but because Oliver Stone’s movie said so?
As if this weren’t absurd enough, Showtime is presenting a forum of experts Monday night to talk about a movie and its fallout with the same solemnity as if it were a real event.