It seems rather ironic that Hollywood doesn’t want to make movies about Ronald Reagan. Perhaps it’s because virtually no one in the industry can stand his belief system. Or it could be that Hollywood’s last effort was an exercise in character assassination. A made-for-TV movie planned for CBS in late 2003 was ignominiously taken off the schedule and moved to a premium pay-cable channel after outraged conservative protests (which, full disclosure, I heartily joined).
Hollywood liberals, editorialists, network anchors and TV critics at that time exploded in horror over what The New York Times called the “Soviet-style chill” caused by Reagan supporters. “Censorship!” was the clarion call of the day. And week. And month.
On Jan. 8, the owners of The History Channel announced that they were scrubbing a splashy, $30 million, eight-hour miniseries on “The Kennedys,” starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes (Mrs. Tom Cruise) as Jackie. The Kennedy family objected, and demanded it be pulled. On Feb. 1, it was announced that a deal was struck to unload this massive project on the ReelzChannel, a tiny network where the project will be lost. “Censorship!”? This time, the free-speech-loving critics are as quiet as church mice.
I can offer no comment on whether this Kennedy miniseries has any redeeming historical or artistic merit. Some have complained that it traffics in unproven tabloidish details like JFK explaining that he needs to commit adultery to keep away his migraines. Some simply complained that the creator, Joel Surnow, is a conservative who made the series “24.” But where are the Hollywood “artists” screaming about creative freedom now?
Please recall what happened with “The Reagans.” Barbra Streisand, the wife of James Brolin (who played Reagan in that production), proclaimed, “The Republicans who deify President Reagan cannot stand that some of the more unpleasant truths about his character and presidency might be depicted in the movie.” Brolin’s agent, Jeff Wald, added, “We seem to be in a very oppressive era where they can censor something before they even see it.”
Judy Davis, the Australian actress who played Nancy Reagan as a controlling witch, also complained about censorious America. “With the climate that has been in America since September 11, it appears, from the outside anyway, to not be quite as open a society as it used to be … By open, I mean as free in terms of a critical atmosphere, and that sort of ugly specter of patriotism.”
TV critics were livid. Robert Bianco of USA Today asserted: “If nothing else, this act of creative sabotage should put to rest the idea that the media are liberal.” Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News snapped, “If Hitler had more friends, CBS wouldn’t have aired (its Hitler miniseries) either.”
The media went to academics like Martin Kaplan of USC (a former Mondale speechwriter), who lamented, “There’s a well-organized conservative movement in this country that’s in charge of its version of the truth, and they swing a big bat.” Syracuse professor Robert Thompson, an omnipresent TV expert for TV news shows, said conservatives would keep on killing programs: “There’s going to be a battle cry ‘Remember the Reagans’ that’s going to be like ‘Remember the Alamo.’ The idea is we got ‘The Reagans’ off the air, now let’s see what we can get off the air next.”
None of these critics seemed to care that leaked scripts clearly demonstrated “The Reagans” had plenty of fiction, not “unpleasant truths.” Reagan declaring heartlessly that AIDS patients deserved to die. Reagan naming the names of communists to Congress. Reagan aides urging surgeons to lie about Reagan’s condition after he was shot. Nancy Reagan as a pill-abusing Mommie Dearest. Even Reagan sadly declaring, “I am the Antichrist.”
In the case of the Kennedy miniseries, the lobbying from the Kennedy family of the media companies owning the History Channel was publicly known. Maria Shriver pressed leaders of NBC Universal, where she worked for many years. Caroline Kennedy pressed Disney, since she has a deal in the works to produce a 50-year anniversary book about her father for Disney’s book division. Nobody squealed about these women generating a “Soviet-style chill.”
In 2003, then-CNBC anchor Brian Williams asked a TV writer, “Do you believe what has happened here with this mini-series on CBS amounts to extortion?” Katie Couric insisted then that “a lot of people are asking whether the man once known as the Teflon President remains untouchable.” But when the Kennedys squash a miniseries, Williams and Couric had nothing to say.
Hollywood tolerates all kinds of dishonest and exploitative trash made for TV and the multiplex by insisting on its precious artistic license, including the anti-Reagan garbage. But when “America’s royal family” picks up the telephone, suddenly “art” is as disposable as dirty linen.