Amazingly, it’s taken 25 years since he resigned from the presidency for Richard M. Nixon to be the subject of an all-out comedy: the aptly titled Dick, Andrew Fleming’s comic reimagining of the Watergate scandal. Perhaps it’s taken so long for a Nixon comedy because as an icon — particularly as an image transported to the American public via television — he was always funny. Funny-odd when he wasn’t downright funny-ha-ha.
Nixon served as a guinea pig for the way television would cover politics. Sometimes he came out ahead, exuding earnest gumption in his famous "Checkers" speech, a masterful political spin which resuscitated his career. Then again, he was quashed by JFK’s telegenic charisma in their milestone televised presidential debate.
Seen today — with the hindsight that automatically charts his trajectory to political ruin — Nixon appears perpetually awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin, so eager to please that he would appear in a self-parody on the sketch comedy show, "Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In." Without the cloak of power, he’s an idiosyncratic bundle of tics and mannerisms, a megalomaniac encased in the body of a spastic geek.
This makes him a great role for actors, the kind of part made to test a performer’s chops. After seeing Rip Torn in Blind Ambition (1982) or Lane Smith in The Final Days (1989), both made for television, it’s hard not to remember those performances when viewing their later work (Torn’s profanity-spewing producer on "The Larry Sanders Show" is particularly Nixonian).
From Robert Altman’s intimate Secret Honor (1985) to Oliver Stone’s magisterial Nixon (1995), filmmakers have viewed Tricky Dick as a kind of contemporary Richard III. Even though Altman adapted a stage monologue (with Hard Eight’s Philip Baker Hall) and Stone cast chameleon Anthony Hopkins on a much broader canvas, each was essentially a Shakespearean tragedy.
"He’s the ultimate tragic character," says Fleming. "There was a fatal flaw in his personality. He was at the height of power and because of his own actions, he went down and took the country with him. It’s the ultimate tragedy. But he was also just funny, unintentionally funny most of the time."
Fleming, was 11 at the time of Nixon’s resignation. As he closely examined the goings-on at the Nixon White House with co-screenwriter Sheryl Longin, Fleming was struck by just how bizarre the situation really was. The combination of power and hubris seemed ripe for parody, and the writing team found a comic hook through the mysterious informant with a porn-movie moniker who would reveal these shenanigans to the public.
"We got the idea first: What if Deep Throat was two teenage girls?" he says. "And that kind of made us giggle. But the more we learned about Watergate, about the events and the general attitude of high jinks, we felt the situation itself was kind of satirical to begin with. Some of the things that they did — we actually toyed with putting these in the film — they ordered 2,000 pizzas to the Democratic fundraiser, c.o.d. Money being channeled through the White House to go to these guys to play practical jokes on the Democrats. Weird, weird, manipulative things."
"Also, just look at the people involved," he says referring to Nixon’s staff. "They’re like cartoon characters, they’re so broad. The sober version of events usually borders on being unintentionally funny."
Fleming populated Dick with savvy actors (a dead-on Dan Hedaya as Nixon, Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, Saul Rubinek as Henry Kissinger) who capture the elusive essence of their colorful real-life counterparts while making an indelible impression of oddball humor for those not familiar with the details of Watergate. This latter group includes a teen audience which, like the two lead actresses, was born during the Reagan era.
"Sheryl and I endeavored to make the movie intelligible to somebody who knew nothing about Watergate," Fleming explains. "That was our one prerogative. That a scene be able to play as it was behaviorally."
Even though Richard Nixon doesn’t actually appear in it, there’s one movie no one examining his downfall can ignore: All the President’s Men, based on the book by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Director Alan J. Pakula’s sprawling 1975 film, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the investigative reporters, is a marvel of accumulated minutiae transformed into compelling entertainment.
Ironically, Mike Medavoy, whose Phoenix Pictures made Dick, has said that one regret of his tenure as a Hollywood studio head was turning down the opportunity to make All The President’s Men because he thought the country had just lived through Watergate, so why would they want to see a movie of it?
Andrew Fleming’s take on the revered Woodward and Bernstein — portrayed as petty, competitive fame-seekers — is one of the funniest aspects of Dick.
"They’re brilliant reporters," he explains, "and they broke maybe the most important story in America of this century. But they have also been the authors of their own mythology."
In other words, after playing with the big boys and bringing down a president, they could take the heat.