3/31/15

RICHARD NIXON AND THE LYING AUTHORITY FIGURES IN SOME OF MY FAVORITE MOVIES


Sharp suit, gray hair, crooked smile: one of the first character-types I became aware was this lying authority figure. I didn't know it when I was a child, but each of these minor villains are stand-ins for Richard Nixon. See here: 


Mayor Larry Vaughn from JAWS (1975) 
The Mayor makes his position clear: I'm not closing the beaches. We never learn Vaughn's political affiliations, but he's a classic portrait of an empty suit (scripted by counter-culture comedian Carl Gottlieb), spouting platitudes like "Amity, as you know, means friendship." His greed and denial are a deadly combination. He's an archetypical Nixon figure, knowingly lying to the public about a real danger. 

 Mr. Lewis Teague from POLTERGEIST (1982) 
There's a lot of scary stuff in POLTERGEIST: creepy clowns, carnivorous trees, a flying Hulk action figure. But none of these would be possible without Teague. He's the one who built the the Cuesta Verde houses on top of a cemetery -- and he only moved the headstones (not the bodies.) Teague is to the ghosts what Mayor Vaughn is to the shark; the enabler of evil. Again, I didn't realize it at the time, but he embodies the public's distrust of leaders after Watergate and Vietnam. 

Dr. James Kelloway in CAPRICORN ONE (1978) 
Years of playing Mark Twain prepared Hal Holbrook for one of my favorite film monologues: his deliberately slowly paced speech perfectly sets up the story of CAPRICORN ONE. Holbrook actually allows us to sympathize with the devious NASA scientist. True to the post-Vietnam era: He's not a bad man, but he does questionable things. 


D.A. Thomas Pain in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) 
Revisiting this cult favorite I figured the District Attorney fit the bill: He's threatens the freedom of the press and works with the police force to withhold information and cover up the murders of a Las Vegas vampire. And he's a silver-haired suit. The first Kolchak movie aired 5 months before the Watergate break-in, but he still counts! 

Dean Vernon Wormer in NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) 
In his 2006 memoir The Real Animal House author Chris Miller identifies the real-life inspirations for his stories of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. At the end of the book he defends Dartmoth College Dean Seymore, noting that the real-life Dean was not the source material for Wormer: "Nixon was Dean Wormer. Dean Seymore was always a great guy. And his wife is not Marion Wormer!" Thanks for clearing that up, Chris. [This seems like as good a place as any to mention that John Landis' first choice for the evil college dean was DRAGNET's Jack Webb. Mr. Webb turned it down because he thought the script poked fun at authority. Yeesh!]

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So there you have it. The Nixons of my youth. 

Full-disclosure: this blog post was written to be a footnote to another article I wrote about Vietnam movies for IFC.com


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