Let’s say you’re Hollywood film director Lee Daniels. It’s March 2012 and you’ve begun casting key roles for your big-budget film, “The Butler,” about Eugene Allen, an African-American White House staffer who served eight presidents from 1952 to 1986.
You’ve got Forest Whitaker (a Longview native who starred as despot Idi Amin in the 2006 film, “The Last King of Scotland”) playing the title role, with Oprah Winfrey as his wife. Other stars in the film include Robin Williams, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, Alan Rickman, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey and James Marsden, among many others.
Now, who’s going to play Nancy Reagan, who was in her 60s during the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency? Daniels, born in 1959, probably doesn’t remember too much of the Cold War, which Reagan — our nation’s 40th president and ultimate Cold Warrior — brought to an end with the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Let’s see, Nancy Reagan. We need an actress of “a certain age.” Glenn Close? Possibly. Meryl Streep? She might work. Sally Field? No, she’s too busy with Spielberg, playing Mary Todd Lincoln in his film about the 16th president.
So who’s the best bet to play Nancy Reagan? Aha! (Flash of inspiration here!) Jane Fonda! Yes, Jane Fonda! She’s 75 but with all the cosmetic surgery she’s undergone and with demonstrating her exercise videos, she looks much younger. Like Nancy Reagan, she’s slender, has a longish, narrow face, blonde hair, etc.
Wait a minute, Lee. You were only 13 years old in 1972 when Fonda spent two weeks in North Vietnam, befriending NVA ack-ack gunners who were shooting down U.S. warplanes. Maybe you’ve never seen those photos of Fonda, wearing an NVA steel helmet at an antiaircraft gun emplacement and smiling while encouraging enemy gunners aiming at our planes.
Lee, when word gets out that you’re thinking of casting Fonda as Nancy Reagan, every member of every VFW, American Legion, or Order of the Purple Heart post is going to scream up and down for your scalp. They’ll argue that this is the most insensitive miscasting of all time, using “Hanoi Jane” — as she’s been known for the past 40 years — to play the loving wife of one of America’s great presidents.
Fonda doesn’t really need the work, Lee. You may remember she was married for 10 years to Ted Turner, the billionaire who founded Turner Broadcasting System (now TBS), created CNN, owned the Atlanta Braves, and is believed to be the largest private landowner in America, with something like 1.9 million acres he owns in western states. (Turner’s New Mexico ranch comprises 920 square miles and is the largest privately owned contiguous land tract in America.) So when the divorce from Turner took place in 2001, Fonda wasn’t exactly left penniless by any means.
Besides, she’s made many millions of her own. Her aerobics video, “Jane Fonda’s Workout,” has sold more than 17 million copies over the years, not to mention the millions she’s made from her films.
So why choose “Hanoi Jane” to play Nancy Reagan, Lee? Well, there’s a certain physical resemblance. And Fonda did do a mea culpa of sorts in July 2011, posting “The Truth About My Trip to Hanoi” on her website. Fonda explained that she was “an emotional wreck” at the end of her two-week trip to North Vietnam and asked to be forgiven for her errors in judgment. Virtually no one believed her and considered her apology a lame excuse for calling our airmen “baby killers.”
Lee Daniels, one of Hollywood’s most successful African-American producer/directors (“Precious,” “The Paperboy”) doesn’t mind edginess in his films. He’s quoted in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter, discussing the PG-13 rating bestowed on “The Butler” after his string of R-rated films: “I can’t go into my bag of tricks on this one. No urination, no baby falling down the stairs, no cursing at all. We only have one (f-word), which Lyndon Johnson gets. I felt like I directed the film in handcuffs and a muzzle.”
When casting for “The Butler” was announced in March 2012, including Fonda’s ill-advised role, an uproar resulted. Internet bloggers, many of them Vietnam-era veterans, recalled Fonda’s misdeeds and posted photos of her at the NVA ack-ack site. Many other patriotic Americans joined in the protest, even spawning rumors that President Obama was somehow involved in the casting, which isn’t the case.
“The Butler” has completed filming and is currently in post-production (editing, music scoring, etc.) It’s scheduled for general release in theaters Aug. 6, so apparently all the clamor about casting “Hanoi Jane” to portray a great American first lady was to no avail.
There is one recourse, however, which concerned Americans can take when the film appears in theaters this summer. In the words of Nancy Reagan during her anti-drug campaign of the 1980s, when it comes to paying to see this movie or not, “Just Say No.”
Bob Orkand, an Elkins lake resident, served in Vietnam in 1967-1968 as operations officer and executive officer of the lst Battalion, 7th Cavalry, an airmobile infantry unit of the lst Cavalry Division. He commanded VFW Post 9182 in Katy, Texas, in 1997-1998.