Before it even went into production, a planned satire of Ronald Reagan to be produced by and starring Will Ferrell inspired an outpouring of criticism from conservatives and members of the former president’s family. And by Friday, according to The New York Post, the actor had already backed out of the project, possibly due to the fallout.
According to Variety, the still untitled project is based on a script from Hollywood’s legendary “Black List,” an annual collection of the most popular, yet-to-be produced screenplays in the industry. The film, if it goes forward without Ferrell, will almost surely stoke controversy because its plot purportedly portrays Reagan as suffering from dementia while he was still in office.
“The REAGAN script is one of a number of scripts that had been submitted to Will Ferrell which he had considered. While it is by no means a ‘Alzheimer’s comedy’ as has been suggested, Mr. Ferrell is not pursuing this project,” a spokesperson for the actor told the Post on Friday. MSNBC has reached out to Will Ferrell’s production company, Gary Sanchez Productions, which was reportedly developing the film, for comment but has not heard back at this time.
Reagan went public with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994, and while there has long been speculation about his state of mind during his second term in office, there has never been any hard evidence that he had begun to lose any of his mental faculties while president.
Condemnation of this project came swiftly, and not surprisingly the loudest objections came from right-wing circles, not only because of Ferrell’s participation (the “Anchorman” star is a supporter of Democratic candidates and causes, and has a history of sneaking subversive progressive messages into his mainstream comedies), but also because of the potential insensitivity to the health of the former president.
“Alzheimers is not joke…It kills..You should be ashamed,” his son Michael Reagan tweeted. And Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis has penned an open letter to Ferrell, in which she wrote: “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have — I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.”
It makes sense that members of Reagan’s inner circle would take issue with an unflattering portrayal of the conservative icon, but what has been curious is how consistently people on the right side of the political spectrum have taken offense at virtually any attempt on Hollywood’s part to portray “The Gipper.”
In 2003, CBS was forced to yank a highly touted miniseries about the Reagans after conservative critics railed against the casting (James Brolin, who was cast as the former president, was attacked for being the spouse of outspoken liberal Barbara Streisand) and for dialogue that alluded to Reagan’s widely reported apathy during the initial outbreak of the AIDS crisis. Showtime eventually aired the series and Brolin was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for his performance.
Lee Daniels’ film “The Butler” faced similar criticism 10 years later for depicting Reagan, played by the late British actor Alan Rickman, as being indifferent on civil rights issues. The film covers the 40th president’s refusal to support sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa and portrayed him as being generally chilly towards African-American members of the staff at the White House.
“Across the political spectrum, historians, biographers, and former Reagan aides have condemned the movie’s outrageous caricature of Ronald Reagan as historically inaccurate and personally unfair, many noting that the president didn’t have a racist bone in his body and was actually remarkable in his sensitivities and warmness to blacks and other minorities,” wrote Mark Joseph and Paul Kengor in a column for Forbes at the time.
“Reagan,” a sure-to-be more flattering biopic based on two books by Kengor, has been in the works for several years. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the film “tells Reagan’s story through the eyes of Viktor, a KGB agent who kept tabs on Reagan’s activities from the time when he was an anti-Communist leader of the Screen Actors Guild.”
In 2013, the news that Hollywood icon Michael Douglas would eventually be playing Reagan in a big screen interpretation of the former president’s historic 1986 nuclear summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik was also greeted with a collective groan from many on the right, due to the “Wall Street” star’s perceived lefty leanings.
Ironically, Reagan had a long history with Hollywood as an actor and president of the Screen Actor’s Guild. And although he represented a conservative moment that was at odds with many of his peers, he did enjoy an unprecedented level of support from celebrities when he mounted his ultimately successful 1980 campaign for the White House.
“The irony is that Reagan brought Hollywood stagecraft values to the presidency,” author and journalist Will Bunch told MSNBC on Thursday. “You could make the argument that Reagan was kind of stepping stone towards Trump, in terms of the way he communicated with the public.”
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Bunch has been making a concerted effort to bring the Reagan image back down to earth ever since he published his book “Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy” in 2010. In the years since that book’s release, the public’s perception and conservative worship of the former president has only inflated more.
“He’s become more of an icon for people than a real person,” said Bunch.
This new movie, which dares to explore one of the more sensitive aspects of his persona, could chip away at many preconceived notions of the former president.
“You could make the argument that doing this movie is courageous in a way. I think there’s always been this fear of kind of challenging the narrative of Reagan that’s taken hold,” argues Bunch, although because the president’s Alzheimer’s is such a difficult and potentially offensive subject matter, he believes the filmmakers are taking a huge risk. “I wonder if the studios are really underestimating the level of outrage I would expect this to generate,” he added.
Exaggerated comic portrayals of deceased former presidents in Hollywood movies are nothing new. For instance, 1983’s “The Right Stuff” depicted Lyndon Johnson as a bit of a lumbering, needy buffoon. Richard Nixon — usually with arms raised in his signature peace sign pose — has become a familiar whipping boy for laughs in films like “Dick” (1999) and “Black Dynamite” (2009). Even dramas like “Selma” and “Frost/Nixon” have not shown these leaders in the best light.
However, history has not been as kind to those presidents, which may speak volumes about how this new Reagan project has already been received. Presidents’ reputations are constantly evolving depending on the current mood of the electorate.
For instance, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight has scored huge applause lines on the stump by comparing the current GOP front-runner Donald Trump to Harry Truman, who left office with some of the worst approval ratings in recorded history. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz has had a penchant for name-checking former President John F. Kennedy, who had for decades been a liberal icon.
Then there’s Bill Clinton. Prior to Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency, many liberals and even some conservatives were downright sanguine about the 42nd president, but in this election cycle buyer’s remorse for his 1994 crime bill and welfare reform initiatives has proven to be a perpetual thorn in the side of his wife’s campaign for the presidency.
Reagan, despite provoking a partisan response when he was actually in the White House, is now credited by both Republicans and Democrats with elevating the nation’s mood, sense of patriotism and for contributing to the end of the Cold War, although how much of a direct role he played in that historic feat is still in dispute.
“Clearly people who agree with ideology and people who completely disagree with his ideology both agree that he had an ability to move people,” said Bunch. But Republicans risk overplaying their hand by harping on the former presidency’s legacy so much that they produce a kind of Reagan fatigue within the electorate. (Debate drinking games already feature references to the ex-president as a familiar call to chug.) And the backlash that Hillary Clinton received for implying that the Reagans were strong in their response to the HIV/AIDS crisis suggests the voters are more informed on the former presidency than one might suspect.
And as income inequality has increasingly become a top concern for voters across the political spectrum it will be hard to ignore the Reagan administration’s complicit role in helping shape our modern economy. As an increasing number of voters will be coming of age without any nostalgia for the Reagan years, the movies may be the new battleground for defining his legacy.