by J. Ryan Stradal
As a hopeless U.S. history nerd, I’m heartbreakingly bored with seeing the same old damn Presidents in every major Hollywood historical picture. Film archives offer no solace; since 1909, twenty-nine movies have portrayed Abraham Lincoln, twenty feature George Washington, thirteen Franklin D. Roosevelt, and eleven John F. Kennedy.
Of course, it’s obvious why these folks dominate Hollywood narratives; everyone knows that they were memorable leaders during high-stakes eras, and have dramatic, violent, and sometimes sexy stories. It’s just a shame they have to dominate cinema so thoroughly.
Even Richard Nixon, who has arguably the most complex legacy among recent Commanders-in-Chief, has only inspired nine dramatic roles. This number includes James LeGros’ character Roach in Point Break, who impersonates Nixon in a cartoon mask, and dies beautiful and apt, stubbornly bleeding in a tornado of stolen money. That, to me, sufficiently qualifies. It does not, however, include Nixon’s 356 archival footage appearances, like All the President’s Men or The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Even so, I believe that his true Lincoln-level dramatic oversaturation is yet to come. To paraphrase the man himself, we will have Richard Milhous Nixon to kick around for all eternity.
Until such time, there are dozens of much more obscure and underrepresented political figures in U.S. history whose mostly-untold lives are beyond ripe for dramatic portrayal. I’ve squared it down to four, and for me, it sure wasn’t easy.
Warren G. Harding
Somehow, Warren G. Harding is one of the two U.S. Presidents to have never been represented by an actor on film (the other is John Tyler). While he has appeared on TV, notably in Boardwalk Empire, Warren’s life is as cinematic as it gets, and his legacy as perhaps the worst President of all time should, really, only work to his advantage.
His supporting cast is unbelievable. His Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, is the first cabinet member to end up in prison for corruption. Jess Smith, a staff member in Harding’s equally corrupt Attorney General’s office, shot himself in the head, anticipating an investigation into the department’s wrongdoings. Charles Forbes, a WWI vet and director of Harding’s brand-new Veteran’s Bureau, skimmed money for himself and his playboy lifestyle, was choked out by Harding in the White House, ran to Europe with another man’s wife, was served divorce papers by his own, and eventually ended up in prison.
Among the unsavory lot were also a few rising prospects; Harding’s Postmaster General, Will Hays, is the only Postmaster General with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Commerce secretary Herbert Hoover became President himself in 1928, promptly ushering in the Great Depression. Harding also had friends in entertainment, and pal Al Jolson wrote and performed Harding’s campaign theme song, which included the line, “We need another Lincoln / to do the country’s thinkin’.”
Another Lincoln, Harding was certainly not, but he was a famously easygoing boss, who never fired a single employee in his thirty-plus years publishing the Marion Star out of Ohio. While his no-nonsense wife Florence ran the paper and kept it profitable, Harding was out gambling, drinking, womanizing, and carrying on a years-long affair with the wife of a friend with whom the Hardings frequently double-dated.
Getting wrapped up in Ohio machine politics, Harding built a long career as a charismatic, carousing, friendly drinking buddy to powerful men. Because everyone liked him, and he looked good, sounded good, and avoided controversial political stances, he found himself in increasingly important positions. By 1920, Harding had emerged as a compromise Presidential candidate when the smarter, better-qualified Republicans of the time had made too many internal enemies.
Once in the White House, poker games and drinking parties couldn’t carry the day, and the friends who Harding had appointed to positions of power had thoroughly taken advantage of him. By summer 1923, one of his mistresses had a baby, Teapot Dome was blowing up, and his trusted lackey Jess Smith had killed himself – the sharks were closing in. Had he not died of natural causes that August, it’s more than likely he’d have been impeached within a year. One of Harding’s other underlings, Gaston Means, published a book suggesting that Florence poisoned her husband as revenge for his infidelities or to spare him from the collapse of his Presidency; she didn’t allow an autopsy and died shortly thereafter herself, so we’ll never know for sure.
One scene that will make this a great film: During the Democratic National Convention, in suite 404–6 on the 13th floor of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, a quorum of party leaders huddled over a table, and after hours of debate, finally decided on Warren G. Harding. At one point they even called him up to the room and asked him point-blank if he had any skeletons in his closet, which, after a long pause, he denied. This is the meeting that inspired the phrase “smoke-filled room.”
It’s easy to imagine the end of the meeting as one long Steadicam shot with no edits, including the moment where Harding opens the door and they ask him if he’s done anything they should be worried about. The shot will continue to hold, on a wide shot of Warren standing alone, as he works up the courage to lie to these men and let ignorance, his and theirs, change the course of American history.
Elevator Pitch: Guileless playboy rises to top with the help of his douchey bros and satisfyingly goes down in flames. Being There meets Wolf of Wall Street, but with the Hollywood ending that Wolf didn’t have. Cast: John Slattery (Warren G. Harding); June Squibb (Florence Harding); Rainn Wilson (Jess Smith); Richard Gere (Charles Forbes); Shia LaBoeuf (Gaston Means); Shaun Ryder (campaign manager & Attorney General Harry Daugherty).
Helen Gahagan Douglas
There was a time when Helen Gahagan Douglas couldn’t do anything wrong. Once named “one of the twelve most beautiful women in America,” she was a Broadway star at age twenty-two, and married the handsome leading man Melvyn Douglas. Choosing to study voice, she discovered another natural talent, and made her debut in a production of Tosca in Prague. In movies, her performance in the role of the Empress of Kor in the movie She won her mass acclaim, inspiring the character of the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
For the brilliant and charismatic Helen, politics was just as easy as show business at first. Running for Congress from her Los Angeles district in 1944, she won easily, becoming one of nine women in the U.S. House, and quickly rose to prominence, becoming a frequent guest at the FDR White House, and an outspoken leader in a new wave of support for civil rights. Mary McLeod Bethune even called Helen “the voice of American democracy.” She handily won re-elections in 1946 and 1948 and became an enormously popular spokesperson on liberal issues.
While in Washington, she met an ambitious and caddish Texan named Lyndon B. Johnson and, although they were both married, carried on a very public relationship with him while they were in Congress together; even if they weren’t sleeping together, it seemed like they were. Crazy as it seems today, this appears to have had little effect on either person’s career. When Helen ran for Senate from California in 1950 as the heavy favorite, a bold new adversary named Richard Nixon would come at her from a different angle.
Nixon, also a Congressman, was also running for his first Senate seat, and although his assault on the liberal Democrat Helen was in the red-baiting style of the times, Nixon, unsurprisingly, was excessive. His staff published a pamphlet on pink paper, called the “Pink Sheet,” with allegations that she was soft on Communism. He went Anti-Semitic on her, attacking Helen’s Jewish husband. Nixon also capitalized on the words of one of Helen’s former opponents, who’d called her “The Pink Lady,” and said that she was “pink right down to her underwear.” The ceaseless character assassination worked, and Richard Nixon won a landslide victory to become a freshman U.S. Senator. The margin of victory seemed to validate Nixon’s claims in the public eye, and Helen became box-office poison in the eyes of Democratic committees. Helen, exhausted from the attacks on her family, never tried to run for public office again.
She did get in one last, enduring jab on Nixon – her nickname for him, which was to follow him throughout his career: “Tricky Dick.” She lived a mostly quiet life thereafter, also failing to return to substantial roles on the stage or screen, but did live to see Nixon’s political career go down in flames, twenty-four years after he destroyed hers.
One scene that will make this a great film: Helen emerging from Lyndon Johnson’s car, and walking hand-in-hand with Lyndon to the Capitol, encounter a pair of journalists on the street as they pass by. After they’re gone, one journalist asks the other if Helen and Lyndon are an item. The more veteran journalist shakes his head and says, “Impossible. They flaunt it too much for it to be real.”
Elevator Pitch: Like Erin Brockovich, except the bad guys win at the end. Cast: Keri Russell (Helen Douglas); Jeremy Renner (Lyndon Johnson); Paul Dano (Richard Nixon); Aretha Franklin (Mary Bethune); Justin Kirk (Melvyn Douglas).
Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents from British Guiana and Barbados, Shirley’s is the classic American story of a person rising from obscurity to become a legend. Sent by her parents to British-style elementary schools in Barbados, she returned to the U.S. in 1934 at age nine as a sharp, supremely well-spoken, and ambitious young girl. Earning degrees in education from Brooklyn College and Columbia University, she encountered a professor, Louis Warsoff, who encouraged her to enter politics due to her “quick mind and debating skills.”
She threw her hat in the ring several years later, in the manner of many effective politicians, by acting locally. She agitated to overturn the white Democratic political machine that dominated her Bed-Stuy neighborhood, and when they attempted to mollify her by placing her on the board, she got even louder, and they kicked her out. It was a temporary setback, and Chisholm outlasted the old-guard boys’ club, eventually being elected to represent the Bed-Stuy area in the New York State Assembly in 1964.
After four successful years in the State legislature, she decided to make her first run for Federal office, and in 1968, using the campaign slogan “Unbought & Unbossed,” became the first black woman elected to Congress. Party leadership ridiculously placed the Brooklyn-based representative on the Agriculture Committee, and she demanded a more relevant assignment and received it, moving to the Veterans Committee. “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” she said at the time.
She was also placed in her top choice, the Education and Labor Committee, where in time she rose to become its third-highest ranking member. Knowing that, as she said, “tremendous amounts of talent are lost in this country just because that talent wears a skirt,” she drew from that vast, underrepresented talent pool when she hired only women to work in her Congressional office – half of them black. In 1972, she became the first African American to seek a major party’s nomination for President. This truly put her on the national stage, and at a time when many more open, avowed racists held positions of power across the country, this wasn’t just brave, it was dangerous. She survived three assassination attempts on the campaign trail.
Though she knew that victory was remote, she refused to look upon her campaign as merely symbolic. “At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination,” Chisholm said, “perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” She finished seventh of the fifteen Democratic candidates who received votes, and carried the states of New Jersey, Mississippi, and Louisana in the Democratic primary. The campaign over, she returned to Congress, where she served until her retirement in 1980. She’s in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and was featured on a U.S. postage stamp for the first time earlier this year.
One scene that will make this a great film: George Wallace, a Southern segregationist and opponent of Shirley’s in the 1972 Democratic primary, was shot five times and paralyzed while on a campaign stop in Maryland by fame-seeking assassin Arthur Bremer (who in part inspired the character of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). Though they were each other’s ideological nemesis, and many of Shirley’s constituents were happy to see this paragon of the segregated South get shot down, Shirley had the grace to visit Wallace in the hospital.
Elevator Pitch: Your classic Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, but with a motivated African-American woman instead of your usual reluctant boring white boy. Cast: Angela Bassett (Shirley Chisholm); Lupita Nyong’o (mentee, and future congresswoman, Barbara Lee); Tom Sizemore (George Wallace); Wendell Pierce (first husband Clifford Chisholm); Regina King (Brenda Pillors, Chisholm’s legislative director in D.C.)
Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was twenty-six, representing Albemarle County in the House of Burgesses, and in love. He’d met this striking, funny, talented young widow in Williamsburg named Martha, and although she had a couple of other suitors, they’d hit it off immediately. Martha and Thomas were both musicians, and bonded over meeting up to kick out the jams, which was something the other two guys couldn’t do.
Two years later, Thomas and Martha got married, and had set out home from their honeymoon into one of the worst snowstorms yet on record in Virginia. With their carriage paralyzed by three feet of snow, they completed the last several miles on horseback, and returned to a freezing one-room outbuilding that was to be their home while Monticello was being constructed for them. Still, they were happy. They were one of those couples who were so into each other, I bet it made their neighbors and servants want to stab themselves in the face with a quill. Their marriage was the happiest time of Thomas’ life. Martha, while delicate in constitution, was furiously active; she started a brewery at Monticello (she was a huge beer enthusiast), befriended the locals, played music for guests, kept a detailed ledger of the property’s accounts, created impressive works of embroidery, and employed her tastes in literature to help fill out the generous library (she, like her husband, was an indefatigable reader).
Even with their home complete, and Thomas’ prestige on the rise, the devoted couple faced serious emotional hardship, as four of their beloved six children didn’t survive past age one. The last child, a little girl named Lucy, finally wrecked her mother’s fragile constitution, and Martha’s health irreversibly deteriorated. Before she died, Martha asked Thomas to please never marry another woman, and he never did.
Thomas, inconsolable, didn’t leave his room for weeks after her death. When he finally did, he spent several hours a day riding alone on horseback through his property. He never did marry again—his daughter Patsy served as White House hostess during Jefferson’s two terms as President—and it would be years before he’d have so much as a romantic interlude.
As it turns out, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, had several children by his longtime concubine Betty Hemings, and when John died in 1773, many of Betty’s children came to Monticello in the will. One of them was Martha’s half-sister, Sally. You know the sequel.
One scene that will make this a great movie: One evening, when Martha’s other two suitors came by to see her, they first heard, and then saw, Martha and Thomas happily playing music and singing together. The scene would open on the two of them, chatting amiably on horseback, approaching the Wayles’ country home, hearing the melodies, voices, and stomping coming from somewhere as they approach, until finally, one of them figures out that it’s Martha, but who’s she with? They peek through the window and see Thomas with her, and they’re both laughing and singing, oblivious to the spying faces in the glass. It is in this moment where the two suitors look at each other, get back on their horses, and ride back into town, knowing they no longer have a shot.
Elevator Pitch: Like Shakespeare in Love, except with Thomas Jefferson instead of Shakespeare, crossed with Rabbit Hole and The Descendants. Cast: Zooey Deschanel (Martha Jefferson); Jared Leto (Thomas Jefferson); Kerry Washington (Betty Hemings); Tom Waits (John Wayles); Adam Driver (suitor #1); Andy Samberg (suitor #2); Alina Foley (Patsy Jefferson).
J. Ryan Stradal's writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Rattling Wall, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Nervous Breakdown, Joyland, Trop, and NFL.com, among other places. He lives in Los Angeles, where he volunteers at 826LA, helps create products and materials for the Echo Park Time Travel Mart, co-produces the literary/culinary event “Hot Dish,” and works in TV on programs like Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, and Storage Wars: Texas.. He likes wine, books, root beer, and peas.