One of the most reviled and mocked presidents in recent history, Richard Nixon is said to represent the beginning of modern-day cynicism toward politicians. In the past 20 years, it was difficult to hear his name unaccompanied by a gleeful snort or a flippant remark. Many have argued that his fate was sealed the moment he shared a television screen with John F. Kennedy. He was the man comedian George Carlin referred to as the poster boy of the anal-retentive attitudes of America by saying, "He looks like he hasn't taken a shit in a month." He was a man who, as it turns out, could be redeemed only in death. You could also argue that only the embarrassing and numerous peccadilloes of Bill Clinton could make this grouchy-looking guy seem not so bad.
Watergate has provided dramatic fuel for Hollywood, most notably with the high-energy drama All the President's Men and Oliver Stone's erratic character study Nixon. And now we have Dick, a Nixon roast that suggests it was two teen-age girls who were responsible for his downfall. Most of the cast and crew fervently remember the unfolding of the Watergate scandal.
Dan Hedaya plays Tricky Dick in the film.
Not one to rely on research, Hedaya feels the Nixon era has been replayed enough times in the forms of news clips and parodies that the nuances are familiar even for somebody who was born after Watergate. And portraying the man hasn't changed his low opinion of him.
"When you look at all the hubris, the cunning, the abuses of power, he completely lost his sense of humility," he said. "I thought what he did was despicable. Also, I'm Jewish, and I didn't know at the time that he was so blatantly anti-Semitic. But as a person, I thought him pathetic. Then, in the years of his restoration, so to speak, when he became a spokesman for foreign policy, he reacquired a certain respect. At his funeral, it was like a joke. They were all praising him like he was pure."
Not that personal politics kept him from trying to shape the role.
"I just viewed it as a job, and one that was interesting," he said. "My biggest concern was getting the voice down. I'm a Jew from Brooklyn, after all."
David Foley, of Kids in the Hall and NewsRadio fame, plays elusive Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman. He was 9 years old when the break-in occurred and 11 years old when it was finally over. Growing up in Canada, he was able to view the Nixon scandal in a somewhat different manner, although he was delighted by the resignation as much as any good American leftist.
"I grew up thinking he was a horrible man," he said. "Some people think the Canadian view is real different, but it wasn't, especially in those days. Canada had so little sense of itself that you almost grew up thinking you were in the States. Except I didn't worry about being drafted, and we provided a nice harbor for your boys. We were taught American history, not Canadian history. All our textbooks came from the U.S. I was personally impressed by Americans and their willingness to scrutinize themselves when that's something Canadians would never do. It'd seem bad form for us. On the flip side, Watergate and Vietnam exhausted that willingness. It took 24 years before America was willing to do it again. And in the meantime, the Republicans managed to get away with Iran-Contra. That involved crimes much more heinous than anything Nixon ever did. But nobody wanted to hear about it. Nobody wanted another Watergate. The press wanted another Watergate, but when they couldn't get ratings on it, they just dropped it. Nobody watched the hearings. And if you look at it now, Oliver North is redeemed in the public eye."
Foley was intrigued at the idea of Haldeman, the only man in the Watergate entourage who seemed "clever enough to never be caught on camera."
"Haldeman never revealed himself," said Foley. "There is no mention of Haldeman in the Nixon diaries. He was orchestrating things and deeply involved, but you never saw him. For that reason, it was fun to imagine those private moments of panic. You know that every time Nixon opened his mouth, Haldeman was like, 'Please, shut up.' Can you imagine what it was like to be as smart as Haldeman was and having to watch this lunatic self-destruct in front of you and knowing that you were going down with him."
It's clear Dick isn't interested in the subtle details of Watergate history. A major point in the film is that one of the girls develops a crush on Nixon. Interestingly enough, just when production for Dick started to kick in, a news story broke about a certain dark-haired girl in a beret performing unspeakable acts on the current president of the United States.
Director Andrew Fleming seemed slightly annoyed at the coincidence.
"We were already greenlit when the first story broke," he said."People thought it was so appropriate for our story. But we figured, we wrote the script before the story broke, and we're gonna stick to it. The only difference was the film's premise became less absurdist and more relevant. Because of the Monica thing, the idea of two daffy girls getting inside the White House and meeting the president isn't so implausible. It's an attraction to power, attraction to a man who is not exactly a hunk. I am glad we waited, because now people have moved on to other things."
Producer Gale Ann Hurd, who's partially responsible for such films as The Abyss and Aliens, was concerned whether the real-life circus in the Clinton White House would dilute interest in any fictional farce.
"We were in production when the Monica thing was happening, and we were worried whether people would be so jaded and cynical that they wouldn't perceive this film as fun. But as we found out, people lost interest pretty quickly. They lost interest in the whole impeachment process. I guarantee you that if you asked people today whether Clinton was impeached, they'd say no."
Another snag occurred when questions arose in how to market Dick. Given its two leads, Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst, it is surely aimed at an audience too young to catch the references and inside jokes of the Watergate era.
"I don't think about demographics when I'm writing,"said Fleming. "But, yes, our one prerogative was to make the movie intelligible to someone who knows nothing about Watergate. We asked ourselves that if we took it out of historical context, threw in a generic president, would the scenes still play behaviorally?"
The big question is why now? What is the purpose of dragging Nixon's disgrace into the public eye yet again other than to commemorate a 25th anniversary? In the mid-1970s, one film executive passed on All the President's Men proposal because he felt the film was too close to actual events. He figured people had just lived through the real thing, why would they want to see it dramatized on film?
"We probably didn't need this much distance," said Hurd. "But one thing about Dick was that it took us back to a time when being a teen-ager wasn't so complicated. The girls in the movie are very innocent. Their dislike of Nixon has nothing to do with Watergate. They don't like him because he has a potty mouth and he kicks the dog. I don't think we could play the innocent angle with the Clinton White House."
Indeed, Kirsten Dunst laughed at the suggestion of a Clinton satire, referring to such an idea as the porno version, but it will soon be evident what kind of audience Dick finds, if any.
"Hopefully, the film will still be in theaters three weeks after it opens," said Hurd. "Then, maybe some of the older folks who don't normally go to the movies on Friday night will be convinced it's worth their time to see a movie about teen-age girls."