Ranking Your Cinematic Nixons

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On this day way back in 1974, the House Judiciary Committee passed the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. It was the culmination of the formal impeachment hearings against the President which began in May of that year, prompted by the break-in of the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel two summers earlier and the subsequent cover-up (and revelations that the Watergate break-in was part of a pattern of illegal activities and “dirty tricks”). Two more articles of impeachment were approved on July 29 and July 30; Nixon announced his resignation on August 8.

In the years since, this most dramatic of presidencies has prompted (unsurprisingly) a wealth of theatrical and television movies dramatizing the Nixon White House. The trouble, of course, is playing Nixon — or at least playing him credibly. The former president’s verbal and physical tics and eccentricities were parodied so endlessly (and mercilessly) by comedians and impressionists of the era that it’s all but impossible for any actor worth his salt to personify the man without making him into a caricature. But several fine actors have given it a shot; after the jump, we’ll take a look at their performances and rank them from worst to best.

Bob Gunton, Elvis Meets Nixon

Allan Arkush’s fanciful 1997 made-for-TV comedy is based on the real, and strange, 1970 meeting between the President and the King, who fancied himself a part-time lawman (he never left home without his collection of deputy badges from across the country) and wanted to offer himself up to his country as an undercover agent in the war on drugs — though he was on enough prescription meds to kill a small animal. The President is played by Bob Gunton, a reliable and capable character actor (he was the villainous warden in The Shawshank Redemption), and given the picture’s light tone, his decision basically just do a comic impersonation of Nixon might’ve worked — if his Nixon impression was any good. But it’s not; it’s like your unfunny uncle shaking his jowls and intoning “I’m not a crook” over and over at Thanksgiving dinner.

Beau Bridges, Kissinger and Nixon

This TV movie first aired on December 10, 1995 — exactly ten days before the theatrical release of Oliver Stone’s big-budget Nixon. Interesting timing, eh? Working on a smaller canvas than Stone, director Daniel Petrie (Sybil) focuses on the relationship between Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, played with nuance and accuracy by the late Ron Silver. As Nixon, Beau Bridges is decent — a little mannered, but mostly believable — though he’s strangely hampered by the peculiar and distracting make-up job, which keeps him from looking like himself, but doesn’t make him look much like Nixon either.

Rip Torn, Blind Ambition

Some of the most successful on-screen Nixons have chosen to eschew the obvious vocal mannerisms and instead try to embody the essence of the man, rather than do a hack “impression.” That appears to be the strategy chosen by Rip Torn, who plays Nixon in this 1979 TV mini-series based on the account of White House lawyer John Dean (here played by Martin Sheen in one of his many pre-West Wing White House turns). The result is a fairly typical Rip Torn performance, which is (make no mistake) a good thing. But Torn also doesn’t do much to alter his own rhetorical devices and onscreen personality, resulting in the peculiar experience of watching President Nixon through the prism of Artie from The Larry Sanders Show. Which is still pretty entertaining.

Dan Hedaya, Dick

Andrew Fleming’s clever 1999 comedy imagines that the Nixon White House was brought down by a pair of dim-witted teenage girls (marvelously played by Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst) who went from “official White House dog walkers” and the President’s personal “secret youth advisors” to playing Deep Throat for the spectacularly petty and incompetent Woodward and Bernstein (Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch). If you haven’t guessed, Dick is a pretty broad comedy, and Dan Hedaya (who played Cher’s dad in Clueless and Carla’s low-life ex-husband on Cheers) plays Nixon accordingly: “In exaggerating Nixon’s mannerisms,” wrote the New York TimesStephen Holden, “Hedaya has created the year’s funniest film caricature.” But the genius of the performance is how Hedaya pushes, subtly, just a little further. “Hedaya also gives the character a few surprising layers,” noted Stephanie Zacharek, “less in the way he reads his lines than in the way he carries himself just a little awkwardly, or flashes his already-crazy eyes when he takes a bite out of the girls’ homemade pot cookies… he doesn’t rely on excessive jowl shaking to build his character; instead, he carries all of Nixon’s rage, resentment and confusion in his wayward eyebrows. Hedaya turns Nixon into exactly what he should be, a comic villain.”

Anthony Hopkins, Nixon

Eyebrows were raised when Oliver Stone cast Welshman Anthony Hopkins, an actor with little to no physical resemblance to Nixon, in the title role of his epic 1995 biopic. But Stone was more concerned with someone who could act the part than with someone who looked it; his film ran over three hours and Nixon was in nearly every dense, dialogue-heavy scene, the modern equivalent of a Shakespearean lead. As Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers noted, “Hopkins gives a bum impersonation but a towering performance.” Roger Ebert concurred: “Hopkins looks and sounds only generally like the 37th president. This is not an impersonation; Hopkins gives us a deep, resonant performance that creates a man instead of imitating an image.” In fact, watching the film is a bit of an odd experience; it takes a few scenes to get used to Hopkins-as-Nixon, but once we do, we spend so much time with him that the archival footage of the real Nixon at the end comes as a bit of a shock. Nixon has embodied the man so fully that seeing the genuine article is downright jarring.

Philip Baker Hall, Secret Honor

Robert Altman spent much of the 1980s in exile, unable to get backing for studio productions in the wake of the (somewhat exaggerated) failure of Popeye. Instead, the prolific filmmaker turned out a series of films based on theatrical productions (occasionally mounting the stage versions as well): Fool For Love, Streamers, Come Back to the Five, and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, etc. One of the most interesting pictures of this period was Secret Honor, his adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man Nixon play, with the great character actor Philip Baker Hall as Tricky Dick. The film — which takes place on a single set in real time — has Hall’s Nixon dictating notes and memories into a tape recorder (which, in a nice comic touch, he initially has trouble getting to work) as he drinks, rants, raves, and occasionally waves a pistol. It’s an intense, powerful, and fascinating piece of work, and Hall — a terrific actor who would become a favorite of Paul Thomas Anderson — is mesmerizing; his “immense performance,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times, “is as astonishing and risky — for the chances the actor takes and survives — as that of the Oscar-winning F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus.”

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Langella had plenty of time to perfect his Nixon performance for Ron Howard’s film version of Peter Morgan’s marvelous play; he originated the role and played it in both the West End and Broadway productions (winning Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards), as did his co-star Michael Sheen. Peter Morgan’s script centered on the televised Frost/Nixon interviews, allowing Langella to focus solely on Nixon’s later years — stubborn and enraged, the perpetual victim, yet maybe, just maybe, capable of regret. Langella’s extraordinary performance is a triumph in both the big speeches and the tiny, introverted moments — particularly a drunken, late-night phone call that goes from idle chatter to seething rage and pointed taunts. Morgan’s brilliant screenplay seems to argue that Nixon was pushing Frost to amp it up; he’d never admit it, but there may have been a tiny part of him (the young Quaker who knew right from wrong) that had not yet been smothered by the politician. Somewhere inside his dark psyche, Nixon may have wanted to be held accountable, and when he saw that Frost wasn’t working for it, he pushed him. Thankfully, this is all between the lines — hinted at in Morgan’s script, personified by the nuances of Langella’s tremendous, Oscar-nominated performance.

Lane Smith, The Final Days

All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s magnificent adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book, is the ultimate Watergate movie — though it is concerned primarily with the pursuit of the Watergate story by the two Washington Post reporters, with Nixon only seen in archival footage (and only fleetingly at that). The duo’s follow-up book, The Final Days, is an altogether different beast — though it picks up where the first book left off, the point of view is switched from the Post reporters to the Nixon administration. It took considerably longer to make a film adaptation of The Final Days — until 1989, and then only as a film for television, making it a good deal tougher to come by on DVD. But it is worth seeking out, both for the skill of the film itself and the stunning performance of Lane Smith as Nixon. Smith, a recognizable character actor (he played Perry White on Lois & Clark and the small-town D.A. in My Cousin Vinny) doesn’t go for the obvious Nixon moves; it’s a performance of quiet intensity and astonishing restraint. Newsweek raved “this docudrama is a one-man show, and perhaps the most incandescent ever to ignite the tube,” and said Lane was “such a good Nixon that his despair and sorrow at his predicament become simply overwhelming.”

Do you agree with our rankings? And is there anyone we left out? Let us know in the comments.