No less enigmatic than the simpleton Chance played by Peter Sellers is the logic—or lack of same—that caused this wildly inappropriate movie to be selected as Reagan’s first post-recovery movie in the White House screening room after surviving Hinckley’s attempted assassination. Was it because Being There satirized Washington society and politics? Was it because Reagan’s peer Melvyn Douglas—something of a political ally during the long-ago 1940s—won an Oscar for best supporting actor? Being There is filled with things that Reagan might well have found disturbing. Still, the movie made something of an impression. In February 1983, at the start of Reagan’s third year in office, a letter to the business editor of the New York Times pointed out a statement by the president that was clearly inspired by Sellers’ character.
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Screening of Being There with introduction by Brittany Gravely, Eric Rentschler, and Jim Hoberman. Monday November 11, 2019.
Brittany Gravely 0:00
Hi, everyone, I'm Brittany from the Harvard Film Archive. Thank you for coming out tonight. We have a very special guest, Jim Hoberman, who will be here. We have only a few copies of his book. Of course, he's going to be at the Brattle tomorrow night with the WarGames. And there'll be many more copies there, if you don't get one tonight. These are signed, and they're 20 dollars. If you're interested, you can pick one up after the show. I hope you've been enjoying this series. After tonight, we have one more night of films in this series: November 30, Back to the Future and Blue Velvet, great double feature. And so now, here to introduce Jim Hoberman, the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and affiliate of Art, Film, and Visual Studies Department, Eric Rentschler.
Eric Rentschler 1:05
Good evening, everyone. It's my great privilege tonight to introduce Jim Hoberman, who is, well, a national treasure. He’s one of America's premier cultural critics, and a distinguished film historian. Many of you, no doubt, will know his always engaging, and invariably insightful, articles that have appeared in venues such as The New York Review of Books, American Film, Artforum, Film Comment, The New York Times, The Guardian, well, and, of course, The Village Voice, where he wrote for more than three decades and served memorably as a senior film critic from 1988 to 2012. Hoberman, a critic once noted, quote: “approaches a film as a geologist faced with unknown territory. He follows faults and fissures, scratches, digs up, punctuates, but he doesn't finish it off.” And I think that's a really apposite phrase in describing the way Jim Hoberman works. He probes, he critiques, but he always engages, and always leaves something, something for the reader to think about and mull over. It's utterly engaging, in that way. A film that's gone through Hoberman's hands is still alive after the operation. I put it that way. Always a little larger than the review, always open to other readings. For Jim Hoberman, films are, well, America's pyramids, the nation's ultimate time capsules, the closest thing we have to a universal mythology. They're the vessels of our Second Life, as he once put it. And film criticism, for him, is always a form of social criticism. Particularly in the case of Hollywood productions, which, of course, for him, is always something that never exists in isolation. No movie exists in isolation. No film artist exists in isolation. Well, Jim has just finished the final volume of a magisterial three-book study of postwar American dream life. Its title is Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan. And I would say that Hoberman does for the fantasy production of the Cold War era what Siegfried Krakauer once did with German films made before the rise of Hitler. He shows us how powerful feelings and timely ideas coalesce, how they take shape, in the social imaginings we call popular movies. What do films know that we don't know? this book asks, and answers. Answers quite provocatively, putting Hollywood features both from the mainstream and from off the beaten track into galvanizing, surprising, and at times downright stunning dialogues, dialogues with fraught political circumstances. Our distinguished guest has kindly agreed to say a few words about his book, and to introduce this evening’s film. So please join me in welcoming Jim Hoberman.
Jim Hoberman 4:45
Thanks. Thanks, Rick, very generous of you. And I was trying to remember. I've taught in this room, but I cannot remember what the last movie I taught here was. But I can say that Make My Day is the final installment of a trilogy, which consumed a number of years, going through the history of the Cold War, and finding the political imaginary, or America’s dream life, in the movies that were released then. In a funny sort of way, Make My Day, it's the last one that I wrote, but it's really the first one. Because I started thinking about this during the Reagan presidency, and I worked my way back to it. But, you know, the germ of it is in the Reagan period. And of course, among other things, Reagan was the first American president, but not the last, to come to us from show business. And this was considered, you know, kind of in bad taste to talk about, believe it or not, certainly, during Reagan's first term. I mean, the fact that he was incredibly well-prepared to be president, you know, as somebody who knew how to project his image, how to hit his line, how to hit his marks, how to deliver jokes, could do all these things, but it was sort of in bad taste to bring that up. By the second term, I think this had begun to sink in, how gifted he was in certain ways. Now, as I was researching this book, I mean, first of all, I should say that I didn't expect Reagan to be the protagonist of all three books, but he was the only person, really, who was in all three, and then who comes into his own in the final, so I realized he was the protagonist. So as I was researching the book, I was not so much taken with the roles that he played. I mean, that was one way to look at it. But I think that actually, kind of misses the point. All right, so he played, you know, a kind of secret agent with a gravity neutralizer, or something like that in a 40s movie. That's not really where, you know, where Star Wars comes from. What I took away, and I got this particular– I spent several days doing research in the Reagan Library, which seems to have been miraculously spared from that terrible fire in Simi Valley and is kind of a curious place to do research. I mean, it made me realize that, you know, you don't go there to find things out, you sort of go there to find out what's being kept from you. But the thing that I did come away with was how incredibly connected Reagan and Nancy Reagan, who also had been in movies, remained to Hollywood. It was as if, you know, being President was great. I mean, there's no question that he enjoyed it and she enjoyed it and it was a wonderful capstone to his career. But I got the feeling that there was nothing in America that could be better than being a movie star when movies were at their height, even if you, like Reagan, were a second-string star. I mean, he wasn't in the first rank. And so they stayed in touch with their cronies. They made lots of little promotional films in the White House. I mean, the one that really amazed me was a movie they made to honor their agent Lew Wasserman for his 50th anniversary in show business, or something like that. And, you know, Lew Wasserman was the leading fundraiser for the Democratic Party during the 80s. He was also the head of Universal. Didn't make any difference. I mean, they wrote the, “Oh, Lew, we'll be out of work soon. Maybe you can do something.” I mean, they're kidding around with him. They spent the better part of a month working on this little thing. So that was very important to them.
And the other thing that I realized was, Reagan was in the movies, but the movies were in Reagan. I mean, they really were his way of apprehending the world. And just to give you the one example, they showed E.T. in the White House. And it was a big deal. You know, Spielberg was there, and all sorts of people. And the next day, Reagan asked for a meeting with NASA. I mean, you know, he was curious. You know? As it happened, the two, the movie tonight and the movie WarGames, tomorrow at the Brattle, are movies that Reagan saw. And that was a lot of my interest in them. Because in the course of writing this book, I kept track of all the movies that he and Nancy watched. And unlike other presidents, he didn't really use movies so much as a state occasion. I mean, E.T. happened to be one, Reds was a state occasion, you know, using the White House theater. But really, what they liked to do is they’d like to go to Camp David over the weekend and look at a bunch of movies. And it was just them and their staff. And so I keep track of what he's looking at. And I couldn't really describe Reagan, characterize Reagan, as a cinephile. But he had more than a professional interest in movies. I mean, there was that. I mean, you know, he and Nancy certainly would have things to say. They wouldn't be looking at movies the way that civilians did. And they loved certain old movies. I mean, they really varied their screening, they looked at new things, they looked at old things. Certain things they didn't like, they didn't like anything that was too downbeat. Really didn't like war movies so much. But there are things that they watched. And so I keep track of that in the book. The one that we're going to see tonight is, you know, for me, one of the great enigmas of the Reagan presidency. I mean, it's not just that Reagan was a movie star who fell to Earth, ran for president and this, that, and the other thing. When there was an assassination attempt on him, when there was an attempt on his life, which was not even, I think, three months into, maybe only two months, into the, or a bit more, into his presidency, it was a crazy movie fan. It was a lunatic who had seen Taxi Driver 20 times, and was obsessed with Jodie Foster, and wanted to impress her by shooting the President. So, you know, this is some kind of incredible karma that would happen. And then, of course, you know, Reagan survived his assassination, which, I mean, not to make light of that, but that, you know, thrilled the American people. And it completely, you know, won over his opposition, such as it was, in the Congress. I mean, it was like a miracle that he did this, you know. He took the bullet and he lived. There had been this silly kind of superstition that a president elected every 20 years, in a year, ending with zero, would die in office. And it was true until Reagan. So that was also very Hollywood, I thought.
Anyway, to get to Being There. It's not, like WarGames, a movie that Reagan saw and gave him ideas. WarGames, E.T., Das Boot. I mean, there were movies that he really focused on. This was a movie that he saw and it was the first movie he saw after he came back from the hospital and was recuperating in the White House. And this, to me, when I saw this, it’s like, why? I mean, first of all, it wasn't a brand new movie. Actually, Carter had looked at it, it was a movie from 1980. And it was well received. I mean, there are lots of things that it has going for it. It has Peter Sellers’ last performance, quite brilliant. I mean, taken from a book by Jerzy Kosinski, which had a lot of interest, you know, about this guy who does nothing but watch television, and so on. But it's not the movie that I would have suggested, you know, would be Reagan's recuperation film. And I don't know who suggested it. And this is what's so interesting, too, because certainly, he and Nancy did not need people to pick out movies for them. I mean, they were perfectly capable of watching what they wanted to watch, keeping up with things.
So, you know, several things occur to me. I mean, it is a satire of Washington, I guess. It was shot in Washington, and, you know, Melvyn Douglas is in it, and he got an Oscar. And Melvyn Douglas is a contemporary of the Reagans, somebody they would have known. In fact, during the 40s, I think that when Reagan was still a kind of New Deal Democrat, he and Melvyn Douglas may have been together on some committees or something. So there's that. But as you will see when you look at the movie, there are things in it that you have to wonder, what was he thinking? What did he make of these things? I mean, for one thing, you know, he and Nancy were kind of prudish, in a way. I mean, I don't think, really, because, you know, again, they both came from show business. So, you know, they had seen a lot, and they knew a lot. But you know, certain things in the movies disturbed him. I mean, you know, he actually would make notes in his diaries. Unfortunately, they're very short. But there are certain things that he would note down. He was offended, there's some movie where some actress, you know, has sex with somebody in an airplane bathroom, or something like that. He found that fairly tasteless. But there are things that in this movie that he might also find tasteless, as well. So get back to that. Another thing that's mysterious about this movie, and maybe this is why they looked at it, is that right away, people began linking Reagan to this movie. As early as March 1980, that's, you know, before he was nominated, a political columnist, Ellen Goodman, who used to write for the Globe, compared Reagan to the protagonist of Being There, you know, Chauncey Gardiner. You know, she said, “Praise, because he is perceived as consistent, straightforward, understandable.” And, you know, that was Reagan, the Great Communicator. Which they were calling him as soon as he got into office. And then that summer, The New York Times had an opinion piece on the Republican Convention, and they called it “Being There.” And they were noting that really, you know, the whole thing was made for television, as if, you know, this is beyond conventional wisdom now. But if you go back, and you look at what people were saying, in the 80s, it's like a revelation. Oh, it's made for TV? I mean, it's not, it's like an actual event that's going on? You know, critics have said various things about Chauncey Gardiner. He personified TV, personified the TV watcher, and so on. After 15 months of Reagan in the presidency, Garry Wills, who, in my opinion, wrote what is still probably the best book on Reagan, Reagan's America, identified America itself with Chance as this kind of like, enigmatic, or, you know, TV addict. And, you know, he says that you just see television without hearing the words. We think the whole job of a modern president is to get on and off helicopters and horses, and Ronald Reagan has perfected that routine. And he knows he's playing to a nation of Sellers characters, I'll just say, in parentheses, and when you go back and think about Reagan in the 80s, and this happened to me the whole time because I started the book when Obama was president, but then I finished it last year. It's really, you know, chastening, in a way. I mean, just when you think you've seen the worst in American politics, you haven't. And so, or maybe from some attitudes, the best. But so, again, I want to just come back to the logic, or lack of some, that caused this wildly inappropriate movie to be selected to entertain the President when he was recuperating from being shot.
And there are certain things that he might have found disturbing. There's a scene with Shirley MacLaine. Yeah, so I’ll let you know what I'm talking about. There's the whole fact that the Melvyn Douglas character, I hope I don't spoil this for anyone, he's elderly and he dies. So there's that. I mean, at one point, Reagan was very protective of Nancy. They were going to look at Honky Tonk Man, the Clint Eastwood film. And her stepfather had just died, and he figured this is too much for her, because Clint Eastwood dies at the end of Honky Tonk Man, so he was very protective. So I don't know what they would have made of that. And then there are two scenes in which the President, who's played by Jack Warden, who, of course, has a great role in Hal Ashby’s masterpiece, Shampoo—he's the President here—and he's stressed out and impotent. There are two scenes where this happens, where he's in bed with his wife, and she says, "This never happened when you were a Senator!"
So I mean, I go to, what was that? I mean, trying to fathom Reagan's reaction to these things is like trying to figure out Chance. And, you know, that's one way to look at the movie. And I would encourage you to try and figure out what this guy was thinking, what was going on with him. He didn't write about it. Now, there's only one clue to this. And that is, about a year and a half later, or two years later, he quoted one of Chance’s, I don't know what, koan, or something? You know, like sothe thing about it is that Chance, of course, because he doesn't really say anything, becomes a star on television, and the advisor to presidents, and so on. So there's a thing that he talks about, comparing the economy to a garden. And two years later, Reagan did the exact same thing. I mean, he suddenly came out with this. You know, talking about how there was a recovery coming, and things bloom, everything has its season. So, that stuck with him. And I'll leave it to you to figure out what else might have influenced him. I mean, you know, it's a very interesting movie in its own right. But trying to imagine how it was filtered through Ronald Reagan's consciousness, is something else again. So I hope you enjoy it.
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