BOOK REVIEW: JOURNAL OF AMERICAN CULTURE 26.4 (2003): TBA
(Ray Browne is the founder of the American Culture Association and the
Book Review Editor of the Journal of American Culture.)
HOLLYWOOD'S WHITE HOUSE:
THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY IN FILM AND HISTORY
(University Press of Kentucky, 2003).
Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor, Editors.
Trying to capture the spirit(s) of the Presidents of the United States
through the aims of the makers of movies is like trying to solidify reality
in a house of mirrors during an earthquake when the intentions of various
people and cultures and reactions rattle and
roll with private and public intentions. Sometimes such a reality is best
steadied under the hand of one person, who maintains a single point of view.
Sometimes it is better done in a computer of several informed historians who
keep unblinking eyes on the actions if the
Presidents and the motivations of movie-makers who with their several
purposes--some open, some concealed--make movies that will serve their own
purposes or those of their actors. This collection of various historians
reading history from, as it were, not the Oval
Office but the Hollywood studio accomplishes its purposes well.
Primarily these essays demonstrate how leaders of a developing
democracy change as the demands of the public demands new approaches and new
reactions. The Oval office, as well as the visiting rooms of the White House,
is increasingly opened to the public. More and more Presidential writers,
photographers and cameras are a part of the
Presidential equipment. And carrying the most weight, perhaps, is the movie
camera. Movie critic Stanley Kaufman if probably right in saying that
included in the President's oath of office probably should be the demand that
he/she "should also swear to defend the
American filmmaker's right to use the presidency anyway they like."
This collection of essays demonstrates dramatically the filmmaker
alters reality to suit his purpose. D.W. Griffith rewrote history in his
BIRTH OF A NATION, as we have been told a hundred times. Frank Capra, and
Oliver Stone read history through their political bias. In fact, nowadays it
is difficult to find a film about the President that does not have a slant.
The insemination of the film generally begins with the President. Since TR
Presidents have known that their office was Hollywood's grandest studio, and
generally they have been happy to play a role constantly, reshooting a scene
until it came out satisfactory for the director. And increasingly they will
expand the role, serving as star on the movie stage that satisfies their
constituents, the public, themselves and history.
This volume is an excellent example of the American theater, with the
Presidents performing on a Shakespearean stage and the roles they play
sometimes successfully, sometimes miserably. We are the audience. We will be
a much more informed audience after reading the essays in this book.
Bowling Green, OH
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