BEFORE Lee Atwater became a political hit man and before “Rovian” was written into the nation’s campaign lexicon, the campaign against actress Helen Gahagan Douglas symbolized the viciousness of politics by smear.
Douglas, a liberal Democrat who ran against Congressman Richard Nixon for a California senatorial seat in 1950, was characterized as a communist -- “pink down to her underwear” -- by an opponent who would become known as “Tricky Dick.”
In the years since the actress’ brutally unsuccessful bid for office, her story has emerged as an emblem of how badly candidates -- especially women -- fair in the modern meat grinder of national politics. Given all that, it was almost inevitable that the controversy over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s treatment in the Democratic primaries (and perhaps, now, the vetting of Gov. Sarah Palin) would awaken in some quarters memories of the bitter Douglas-Nixon battle.
Longtime journalist Michele Willens and screenwriter Wendy Kout have done more than recall. They’ve written a play about the actress and her experience.
Their production, called “Don’t Blame Me I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas,” will show for one evening only, on Thursday, at the Landmark movie theater in West Los Angeles.
The event begins at 6 p.m. The vice presidential debate between Palin and Sen. Joe Biden will be broadcast live on the theater’s large screen. The play will begin after the debate.
Two-time Emmy nominee Wendie Malick plays Douglas. Charles Shaughnessy plays Douglas’ husband, the Oscar-winning actor Melvyn Douglas. Patrick Breen plays Nixon. (And Michael Dutra plays JFK, LBJ and everyone else.)
“This play is not a puff piece,” said Malick in a lunch interview, along with Kout, in Westwood last week. “Helen is not entirely likable. She was spoiled and selfish and indulged. She was stubborn but passionate. There’s a line in it where she talks about the need to organize Hollywood. It was the start of stars actually taking stands on important issues. She said, ‘If you don’t like it that I’m standing up against McCarthyism, then break my contract. I don’t care.’ ”
The production has become something of an underground hit, with readings around the country. These days, it seems even more prescient.
“When we were reading through it the last time it sort of gave us pause,” said Malick. “It’s just so eerie how history repeats itself.”
When Kout and Willens first discussed the project 20 years ago, they wanted to make the story into a movie but didn’t get very far. The project was shelved for a while -- until Clinton ran for the U.S. Senate in New York.
“I said, all right, we have to do this,” said Kout. “Michele had just done a successful play. We figured that was the way to go.”
They mined their movie script and took the play on the road in 2006.
“It’s just evolved,” said Willens, whose father, Harold, was one of the nation’s top Democratic fundraisers. “We’ve shown it in Durango, Colo., and in Florida. It’s been done in red states and in blue states.”
The production is very simple. Said Willens: “It’s almost like a radio play.”
On Thursday, the playwrights and sponsors -- who include John Cusack, Robert Redford, Tim Daly, Gore Vidal and Mike Farrell --will donate the ticket proceeds to the Nation magazine. (Tickets sell for $100; you can get one by going online at www.tickets.landmarktheaters). They will also use the event as a chance to honor Paul Newman, who died over the weekend. He was a longtime supporter of the Nation magazine and a friend of Willens’ father.
Willens said she first became interested in Douglas after she interviewed her for a magazine piece in the 1970s.
“I just idolized her from the start,” Willens said. “She felt sad for the future of campaigns in America. The more I learned about her story, the more I wanted to tell it.”
A challenge to Hollywood
Ohio entrepreneur and political activist Jonathan Lewis on Tuesday challenged the entertainment industry to donate money to fight California’s Proposition 8, which would bar same-sex marriages.
“With election day six weeks away, we are concerned that the entertainment industry hasn’t stepped up to the plate to fight this unnecessary initiative,” Lewis said in a statement. “We are pleased to see the leadership of Brad Pitt and Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg. Now it’s time for the entertainment industry as a whole to take the lead.”
He added: “My family and I are issuing a $500,000 challenge to the entertainment industry. We will match the next half-million dollars that entertainment industry leaders contribute. This is an urgent time in the campaign, and we have to act now.”
So far, few in Hollywood have gotten involved in the anti-Proposition 8 campaign (Pitt and the Spielbergs have each donated $100,000).
Lewis said the match also applies to Florida’s Proposition 2, an initiative similar to California’s Proposition 8.