Who Knew It Could Get Worse?: When Nixon Haunted the New Hollywood (Preview)
by Jonathan Kirshner

 The Conversation  (1974).   Photo courtesy of Photofest.

The Conversation (1974). Photo courtesy of Photofest.

Is everything old new again? In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President by the narrowest of margins, helped in part by the fact that disaffected liberals simply could not bring themselves to vote for the flawed Democratic Party nominee (Vice President Hubert Humphrey), and telling themselves there was no real difference between the two (boy, were they wrong). Thin-skinned and sensitive to slights, Nixon seethed with resentment toward coastal elites, railed against the media, promised a return to “law and order,” and ran on a “Southern strategy” designed to capitalize on white resentment. He was a bigot and an anti-Semite (“Bob, please get the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats,” he would as President ask Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, “could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?”); he was a pathological liar. During his last year in office, Nixon became increasingly erratic, slurring his speech at press conferences and derailing briefings by rambling on bizarrely about his enemies. Toward the end, the Secretary of Defense gave instructions that should orders from the White House call for a nuclear strike—well, check with him first.

What is astonishing, however, is that the parallels between Nixon and President Trump underscore how much farther still we have fallen. Say what you will about Nixon—one of the great American villains of the twentieth century—he was nevertheless eminently qualified for the nation’s highest office: experienced, thoughtful, literate, generally polite in public settings, fluent in politics and policy, sophisticated in his command of international relations (if in practice blood-soaked and immoral), and, notably, whatever his failings, he was not an idiot. Nixon was a vulgar racist but he knew enough to keep such shameful qualities private (his supporters were shocked by the Nixon they heard on the tapes); he was an inveterate liar but did not traffic in the Orwellian lie (insisting that the facts were different from the plainly visible truth); it is very likely that Nixon wrote more books in his lifetime than Donald Trump has read.

The Nixon presidency? Suddenly, it seems almost quaint. But it was not. His election (and re-election) was, for many, millennially horrifying. This was especially so for participants in the New Hollywood. For these filmmakers, influenced by the European New Waves and the social upheavals of the 1960s, and empowered by the end of censorship and the decline of the studio system, the body blows of the Nixon presidency would inevitably inform the content of their movies. A tragic Shakespearean figure in both rise and decline, Nixon’s spirit haunted American cinema throughout the Seventies. Any movie that talked about power, privacy, paranoia, institutional corruption, or the madness of the patriarch, no matter the setting, was inevitably talking about Nixon. 

Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in Dirty Harry (1971).

Not all of it was negative. Jack Lemmon picked up an Academy Award (Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Al Pacino were also nominated that year) for his performance in Save the Tiger (1973), in a role that offers the Seventies’ most sympathetic Nixon stand-in. Harry Stoner is not really a crook, he’s just a regular guy trying to keep his business afloat, and desperate times call for desperate measures, even extralegal ones. Not everyone was amused—Pauline Kael, in her review “The Businessman-Pimp as Hero,” called the film “a moral hustle.” Also aligned with Nixon, of course, was the reactionary, law-and-order affirmation of Dirty Harry (1971). Relocated from New York City to San Francisco—the epicenter of the counterculture—Harry is two-thirds of a great movie (roll the credits with the recovery of the body of the kidnapped girl) before it descends into a bizarre right-wing fantasy in which liberal politicians, Berkeley law professors, and an abetting media set free a mass murder on laughably incoherent legal grounds (“That man had rights!”) leaving only Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) to dispense justice with the business end of his .44 Magnum. Roger Ebert did not mince words—“The movie’s moral position is fascist.” Little wonder that Paul Newman, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Mitchum wouldn’t touch the role—they got the message. So did Nixon, who screened the picture at Camp David, reached out to Clint Eastwood, and appointed him to a six-year term on the National Council for the Arts.  

The Mackintosh Man (1973).

It would be an exaggeration, then, to say that everybody in the film industry hated Nixon, but the New Hollywood sure did. Scratch any such Seventies film, and a nefarious Nixon stand-in won’t be hard to find. James Mason as George Wheeler in John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man (1973)—a corrupt, hypocritical, double-crossing anticommunist—might as well be wearing RN cufflinks. The same could be said for Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas, directing himself in 1975’s Posse), a politically ambitious marshal whose campaign to restore “law and order” (bankrolled by the railroad trust) is designed to catapult him into the U.S. Senate. Still malevolent, but also the most tragic “Nixon” is Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather Part II (1974). As biographer Richard Reeves described Nixon in his book, Alone in the White House, Michael, too, is increasingly isolated, cut off from his allies (Nixon had to sacrifice his right- and left-hand men, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, in April 1973), and obsessed with seeking revenge against his enemies. Of course, this comparison can be pushed too far. Michael had Fredo killed; Nixon only tapped his brother’s phone.

One could play “find the Nixon” in Seventies films indefinitely—and it does make for an amusing evening’s entertainment. But the effect of the Nixon presidency on the New Hollywood was deeper, more profound, and even painful, as filmmakers wrestled with the implications of his election and presidency. In lieu of the traditional five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), participants in the New Hollywood processed the catastrophe with successive waves of films that first looked inward, expressing a deeply personal despair, before turning their cameras on Nixon’s America and finding decay, paranoia, betrayal, and, after the fall, ruins…

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Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2