As we mark the passing of Ronald Reagan, many have remembered his early career as a Hollywood actor. We are told that some of the biggest movie critics at the time thought he was quite good as an actor, despite the way his political opponents reduced his movie career to laugh lines about that chimp movie. Cultural critic Terry Teachout looked up a New Republic review of Reagan's most noticed performance in the film "Kings Row," and found respected critic Otis Ferguson nodding briefly to "Ronald Reagan, who is good and no surprise."
Usually during his presidency, Reagan's movie career was just a launch pad for attacks by his critics on his political seriousness. Some liberals, like the author Garry Wills, have devoted entire books to claiming that Reagan somehow walked through his presidency in a fog of old movie roles. But what about how Reagan's critics used entertainment products to demean Reagan and the Reagan decade? The argument can be reversed. If the entertainment industry was such a fantasyland, why did Reagan-bashers love to use it as a metaphor?
When the 1980s came to a close, the era was often summed up by a Hollywood movie rather than a Washington reality. "Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good," pronounced actor Michael Douglas as capitalist caricature Gordon Gekko in the Oliver Stone movie "Wall Street." Piecing the "Decade of Greed" together in a desperate frenzy of imitation, the TV networks liked Gekko's image so much that CBS used it four times, and ABC and NBC showed it twice in their end-of-the-decade reviews.
The media histories also had Madonna percolating through their reviews as a soundtrack for the materialistic Eighties. Madonna, one of the hottest musical sensations of the '80s, was remembered mainly for singing the greed anthem "Material Girl," which CBS called "a theme song for the decade." One pundit quipped: "Ronald Reagan and Madonna. On the surface, he stood for the fundamental American values that she parodied. But underneath, they conveyed the same Horatio Alger myth: self-image over reality. Say it or sing it enough, and any dream of yourself might come true, at least in the public's perception." Reagan was often portrayed as plastic, not really human.
Book reviewers loved taking their shots at what they called the Reagan "sleaze factor." Reviewing the plot of Richard Condon's mob novel "Prizzi's Glory" in 1990, Los Angeles Times critic Charles Solomon delighted in the plot. "Charley initially is appalled at the notion [of joining the Cabinet], but Ronald Reagan's legacy of corruption and malfeasance quickly makes the former hit man feel right at home in Washington....Condon's rollicking tale of the all-too-friendly takeover of the U.S. government by a multibillion-dollar famiglia seems distressingly plausible." The Reagan team was summed up as a fair comparison with murderous criminals.
Film critics were the most creative. In Time magazine, Richard Corliss let go in a Christmas cover story on Tom Cruise: 'From its plot synopsis, 'Risky Business' (1983) promised more of the lame same. An affluent high school senior has an affair with a hooker (Rebecca de Mornay), dunks the family Porsche in Lake Michigan, turns his house into a brothel and still gets into Princeton. Sounds like the Reagan era in miniature.'
Vincent Canby, then of the New York times, was not to be outdone: "Though Sylvester Stallone's Rambo movies didn't have a single coherent political thought in their respective heads (or maybe for that very reason), they became emblematic of the Reagan era." Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley went ballistic in her review of 1980s movies: "If sensitive guys were the superegos, then action guys were the ids, rediscovering jingoism and homoerotic savagery in tune with Reaganomic red-baiting and their audiences' adolescent fear of females."
What on earth is that bucketful of insults all about? Reagan critics have often sneered that Reagan made people feel good about themselves. But they never felt better about their own high-faluting superiority to the deluded Reagan-adoring masses than when they were putting Reagan down.
Even sitcoms loved boiling Reagan in rhetorical oil. An episode of NBC's "Family Ties" had the Reagan-loving Michael J. Fox character ask what was going on at Dad's PBS station. A co-worker replies: "Oh, your Dad and I are producing a documentary comparing Reagan's presidency to medieval Europe's bubonic plague." Jokes Dad: "Nine out of ten people prefer the plague."
As silly as that sounded in 1989, after two electoral landslides and Reagan departing at the height of his popularity, how anciently ridiculous does that sound now? Hollywood just didn't get Reagan's greatness then. It still doesn't. But a broad swath of America gets it, joining coast to coast, hand in hand, remembering how much insolent idiocy he had to endure on his way.