As the motion picture industry gathers tonight (March 2) to honor its greatest achievements of the past year, it is fitting that we recall the two great leading men of American politics: John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Actors and politicians share so many of the same vanities and insecurities, noted Jack Valenti, the late head of the Motion Picture Association of America and former aide to Lyndon Johnson, that it is difficult to tell whether Hollywood or Washington, D.C., most deserves the title “entertainment capital of the world.”
But it is not an either/or choice; Kennedy and Reagan, more than any other individuals, forged a bond between the two cities that can almost make them seem one and the same.
Kennedy was long ago labeled our first “movie star president,” and Reagan, of course, was the first movie star to become president, but their affiliation with Hollywood went far beyond simply being photogenic.
They each took Hollywood seriously—a favor that insecure Hollywood repaid ten-fold. They carefully studied how to use Hollywood’s glamour, its talents, and its uncanny ability to tap into the American subconscious to further their own political careers.
“There have been many times in this office,” Reagan quipped while president, “when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.”
Reagan did not mean simply being able to learn your lines, take direction, and know from which angle you should be photographed; he also meant developing a character, understanding the motivations and feelings of others, and then gauging the audience reaction to a performance.
It is common to dismiss Reagan as a second-rate “B-movie” actor, but in truth Reagan was exceptionally successful at his profession and admired by his peers.
His acting range was limited (he had trouble projecting menace or sensuality), but in January 1942, the Los Angeles Times opined that Reagan was developing into a “first-rate actor.” He was a top box-office draw and was paid like one by Warner Brothers, earning a salary of $170,000 per year in 1946, comparable to what Errol Flynn made. But Reagan was as interested in what went on behind the camera as in front of it. He immersed himself in the screen business, serving, for example, as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Director Fred de Cordova said he imagined Reagan becoming a studio executive one day, not a politician.
Kennedy, too, was more than a passing fan of films and the beautiful women who starred in them.
Kennedy’s father had made a large part of his fortune investing in movie studios and even producing films for his actress lover, Gloria Swanson. He not only taught his children about the movie business and what made a successful news reel, he also bought his children 8 mm movie cameras to use and learn about film making.
Kennedy inherited his father’s “consuming interest in the movies,” historian Garry Wills has noted, and that interest peaked as Kennedy prepared to enter politics.
Just after World War II and before he returned to Massachusetts to run for Congress, Kennedy traveled to Hollywood and stayed for two months, rooming with a young Robert Stack, closely observing the great stars, trying to fathom the secret of their allure.
While dining together, Kennedy found Gary Cooper “yawn-inducingly boring,” yet upon leaving the restaurant Cooper was mobbed by adoring fans.
“How does he do it?” Kennedy asked a friend, following up with the more important question, “Do you think I could learn how to do it?”
It was not a crash course that Kennedy took, but a life-long tutorial. Previous presidents and politicians might have posed with a star as a publicity stunt (see Lauren Bacall lounging on Harry Truman’s piano), but Kennedy actively cultivated stars as friends, lovers, advisers, and helpers.
Kennedy learned the business so well that while president he took control and personally approved the cast and script of a movie about his wartime exploits in the South Pacific, though PT-109 did not star Kennedy’s first choice to play himself, Warren Beatty.
Before that, the star-studded gala organized by pal Frank Sinatra for Kennedy’s inaugural was such a break with the past and heralded such an obviously new alliance between entertainment and politics that actress Better Davis giddily proclaimed that “show-biz … has become the Sixth Estate.”
Twenty years later, having been dumped by President Kennedy because of alleged ties to the mob, Sinatra organized a similar gala for Reagan’s inaugural, crooning “Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” to the new First Lady who blew kisses back.
Reagan would also follow Kennedy’s lead in turning the White House into a major venue for cultural events, though none glittered as much as the Pablo Casals concert organized for Kennedy in 1961.
Now, such cross-pollination between politics and show business is routine. Actors adopt political causes, politicians seek celebrity endorsements, Hollywood funds the left and right in Washington, and presidents set a cultural tone in ways unimagined a half-century ago.
When Clark Gable stood bare-chested in 1934’s It Happened One Night, it allegedly ruined the nation’s undershirt industry. When it was learned that Kennedy did not like hats, the hat business faced a huge downturn. The president as a “leading man” to borrow historian Burton Peretti’s theme, never seemed more obvious.