In her latest incarnation as first female president-designate, Hillary Clinton enjoys the support, one assumes, of 99 per cent of Hollywood liberals. Yet it wasn't that way last time she was in the White House. During the (first) Clinton Era, there was a flurry of presidential motion pictures featuring recognizable albeit idealized versions of the then incumbent. This thriving genre ceased the moment George W Bush took the oath of office. But you couldn't help noticing that, while Hollywood had no trouble offering variants of Bill Clinton to moviegoers, it was strangely antipathetic to Hillary.
The nearest they got to solving the problem was in Primary Colors (1998). The Bill Clinton character was played by John Travolta at his most ingratiating, whereas Hillary was such an unsympathetic character that, as with Hannibal Lecter or the Die Hard terrorist masterminds, they had to fly in a Brit to take the role. The part went to Emma Thompson, presumably because Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons turned it down. (If memory serves, Rickman drew the line at the prosthetically enhanced ankles, although he'd totally nailed the robotic voice that tells you to fasten your seat belt.)
On the other hand, at least Hillary made it into the movie. In most other Clintopics of the mid-Nineties, the filmmakers found it easier just to kill her off in the first reel. In The American President (1995), directed by Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin, the Clinton figure is called Andrew Shepherd, but we all know who he's really meant to be. For one thing, President Shepherd is played by Bill's fellow sex fiend Michael Douglas. This was some years before Mr Douglas gave his strange interview blaming his throat cancer on his addiction to oral sex: Unlike Clinton, he does, as Ken Starr would say, reciprocate. Also unlike Clinton, he checked into a clinic to have his sex drive treated.
At any rate Douglas gives a fine sober performance of a White House widower. Alas, he's surrounded by spinners and fixers who analyze things only in terms of whether it'll add two points to his approval rating among soccer moms in swing states. Until, that is, a lobbyist called Sydney shows up and he falls in love. No, not Blumenthal. This Sydney is Annette Benning, playing an environmental lobbyist who stiffens his resolve: is that a firm set of principles in your pocket or are you just pleased see me? As it happens, both. The American President was a therapy exercise for disillusioned Hollywood liberals midway through his first term, when they were just beginning to realize he was a trimmer and triangulator who didn't care about anything except how much action he was getting. Still, it's interesting that the great cinematic idealization of Bill requires Hillary to be six feet under.
Independence Day the following year took it to the next level. Bob Dole, then in the midst of his post-modern self-subverting campaign for the presidency, was prevailed upon to see the film and gave it a rave review: "Diversity, leadership, America," he announced approvingly. A few days later, he was asked to amplify this thumbs-up and examine the film's qualities in greater depth: "We won, the end, leadership, America, good over evil," he declared.
That's really all the prÃ©cis you need, although he might have noted the fate of the First Lady. This time the Clintonian president was played by Bill Pullman, who, unlike Bob Dole, knows how to deploy a verb and gives an eve-of-battle speech to his troops in the Nevada desert that's the sort of peroration John Wayne might have given at Agincourt. Independence Day has an unerring sense of iconography, beginning with its first eerily formal image â€” an ominous shadow passing over the Stars and Stripes planted on the moon. Most invading aliens would knock out, say, the electric grids, but these guys want to make a point: they zap the Statue of Liberty, they shatter the Empire State Building, and best of all they blow up the White House. It was this shot in the trailer that had American audiences cheering. Makes you wonder about the ovation they'd have got if they'd taken out the World Trade Center. At the time of the trailer, the actual film hadn't been completed, but director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer/producer Dean Devlin wisely took their cue from the promotional teaser. It was, without doubt, the most successful ever: even before the film was released, its signature image â€” the flying saucers big as cities hovering over New York and Los Angeles and plunging them into endless night â€” was being parodied in the trailers for the Brady Bunch sequel.
As for the film itself, Dole had a point about "diversity". The aliens who destroy the world's great cities are eventually overcome by an array of archetypes â€” a black air ace (Will Smith), a brainy Jew (Jeff Goldblum), a stripper with a heart of gold (Vivica A Fox)... More problematic stereotypes â€” like the whiney gay â€” are dispatched early on. And so is First Lady Marilyn Whitmore who, in an all-star cast, is played by Mary McDonnell. Like Hillary's chopper in Bosnia, Marilyn's helicopter is shot down, but by space aliens rather than Hillary's fantasy Serbs. The First Lady suffers terrible injuries and dies in a military hospital. In The American President, the First Lady's death enables the Clintonian president to get in touch with his feminine side and demonstrate how much he cares. In Independence Day, the First Lady's death enables the Clintonian president to get in touch with his masculine side, don his helmet, climb into the cockpit and jet off to vanquish the foe. But in both films it requires the demise of the missus to liberate the President's heroism.
I wouldn't want to overstate the phenomenon of Hollywood's mid-Nineties Hillaryphobia, but it was striking at the time. Perhaps if there is a second time around for the Clinton White House, the Beverly Hills libs will finally warm up to her, and the idealized Hillary president will be played by kick-ass totty like Kristen Stewart and Keira Knightley and it'll be the creepy wizened lech of a First Gentleman who gets killed off in the first 20 minutes.
But I wouldn't bet on it...
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