When a Movie Star Was President

'Movie Nights with the Reagans: A Memoir' by Mark Weinberg

Ronald and Nancy Reagan / Getty Images

It is a strange historical fact that the only president to come out of Hollywood was a standard-bearer for conservatism. The most American of art forms has a peculiar anti-American streak, something Ronald Reagan criticized as he became a leader in the conservative movement. But in Movie Nights with the Reagans, former communications aide Mark Weinberg shows Reagan and his wife Nancy never lost their love for the movies. Their own love for each other was a product of their lives in Hollywood, of course, and by holding a regular movie night at Camp David, they shared a side of themselves that was easy to miss in light of Reagan's status as leader of the free world. The occupation that molded Reagan's public image and communication style retained its personal importance to the man even once he had entered the White House.

Weinberg uses film to explore various aspects of Reagan's presidency. Each chapter's title includes a movie or a group of movies that spoke to something personal for the Reagans. Perhaps thanks to watching movies with them for years, Weinberg doesn't find the Reagans inscrutable. Like others, he recognizes that Nancy and Ronnie couldn't be understood apart from each other—"two halves of a circle," as he quotes their daughter Patti—but he also demonstrates that Reagan had an unaffected desire for America to hold certain values in common. That's why he was deeply proud of popular roles like the Gipper in Knute Rockne, All American, and why he resented being excommunicated from the film world for hosting "General Electric Theater." His time as a television host gave him the opportunity to travel and connect with a large cross-section of the country, though, and that would be highly valuable as he began a political career.

When politics is the topic, Weinberg's perspective is on the personal rather than on statecraft. This is a memoir, after all, and so readers interested only in analysis of the administration's policies should look elsewhere. But those wanting to know what lay behind Reagan's politics will find plenty to ruminate on. For instance, Weinberg relates how the film 9 to 5 depicted pot-smoking in a favorable light and influenced Nancy to broach the topic at the national level with what the press dubbed the "Just Say No" campaign.

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One major way the Reagans' time differs from the present is that many of Hollywood's most acclaimed films were also beloved by audiences and even spoke to the values the Reagans held dear. To compare the Hollywood in which Chariots of Fire won best picture with the Hollywood in which that honor goes to The Shape of Water is to compare different worlds. Reagan included references to the former film in his speeches as a source of inspiration—it is hard to imagine what he would make of the latter's ennobling of bestiality.

To be clear, the Reagans were already uneasy with Hollywood's mores and the increasing prevalence of sex, drugs, and obscenity in movies. Reagan remarks multiple times that filmmakers from the 1980s could learn from the masters of old Hollywood, but that criticism is neither mean-spirited nor despondent. Reagan loved some of the period's most acclaimed—and most popular—films, from Chariots of Fire to Raiders of the Lost Ark and even Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He and Nancy believed in a Hollywood that could at once provide artistic excellence and speak to the popular culture, a vision very different from the film industry today that has bifurcated into two separate wings for making money and garnering acclaim. In the first full year of Reagan's presidency, the Academy showered five Oscars on Raiders—the highest grossing film of 1981. In 2017, one has to count down to No. 13 on the list of box office leaders to find a movie that won an Oscar: Disney's Coco, for best animated feature.

Some of Weinberg's most compelling passages touch on Reagan's few sore spots about his acting career. He had many friends in Hollywood, which included such like-minded conservatives as Charlton Heston, but the industry as a whole did not embrace him. He believed that recognition at the Academy Awards, for instance, would have been a certainty had the first actor-turned-president been a Democrat. At certain wistful moments, Reagan also wished he had been able to play a swashbuckling defender of the red, white, and blue. But he ultimately looked back on his acting years fondly, as someone who enjoyed the job and met the love of his life in it as well. Weinberg concludes the book with the Camp David viewing of the one "golden oldie" that Ronald and Nancy Reagan starred in together: Hellcats of the Navy.

Weinberg notes that he had to take pains to keep the book from being a full-on hagiography. His appreciation of the Reagans is evident throughout. He comes to their defense in the face of rumors from the likes of Sidney Blumenthal as well as more-common talking points that arose about Nancy being controlling or the president being feeble-minded. Weinberg also captures some of Reagan's larger-than-life quality, which came from his unique combination of gifts. He could communicate directly to people's yearnings because he understood why they loved movies like Return of the Jedi, which provided something "politically uncomplicated" in the words of one critic. But Reagan could also turn his charm on individuals, as he did to quiet Christopher Reeve, who was a loudmouth critic of all things Reaganite until he met the man and toned down his class warfare rhetoric.

Movie Nights with the Reagans doesn't provide any bombshell revelations about the Reagan family or his presidency, but it describes an oft-overlooked aspect of the 40th president. He had a sense that America's identity was bound up in its most famous cultural export, and he saw the big screen not as a step in his rise but as a focal point of the culture he sought to defend. Much of Hollywood's smug disdain for segments of American culture has convinced its detractors that it can no longer serve as a vehicle for shared values. If Reagan were still here, I wonder what he would say.