Wednesday, August 17, 2005

B-grade Gipper

We’re here to report a rather bizarre, if not disturbing incident combining Hollywood and Washington, specifically this month’s special film-industry screening of “The Killers,” a 1964 movie starring Ronald Reagan in his final big-screen role.

On hand in Hollywood for the Aug. 4 event was a prestigious crowd of actors, actresses, writers, reviewers, scholars, researchers and film preservationists — including “L.A. Confidential” director Curtis Hanson — that actually erupted in cheers when Mr. Reagan “the actor” was shot and killed.

Absent the applause, it was already an eerie scene to relive, considering Mr. Reagan, later as president, was shot and nearly killed in 1981 by John Hinckley Jr.

But that’s not all. The audience also broke into “malicious cheers,” one man in attendance tells Inside the Beltway, when Mr. Reagan was threatened at gunpoint and pushed out of a speeding car.

Then again, was it any surprise? Consider that when the words “Also Starring Ronald Reagan” appeared on the screen during the opening credits, many in the audience booed. (There were supporters of Mr. Reagan in the crowd, given some scattered applause.)

The recent screening was part of an industry retrospective salute to director Don Siegel, who made two pictures with Mr. Reagan. The event at which the jeering took place was sponsored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Mr. Hanson, who is chairman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, introduced the film and then took a seat in the audience. Afterward, he led a discussion about the movie, joined by actor Clu Gulager, who also appeared in the film.

Mr. Gulager, says the attendee, discussed the making of the picture, including how actor Lee Marvin boasted that he intended to “bury” his fellow actors with his intimidating performance. After scenes with Angie Dickinson and Norman Fell, Mr. Marvin held up two fingers indicating he had “destroyed” them.

But Mr. Gulager told the audience that when it came to Mr. Marvin’s scene with Mr. Reagan, he was taken aback at the future president’s professionalism and the way Mr. Reagan couldn’t be shaken like the other actors.

Mr. Gulager, the source added, appeared surprised by the audience’s reaction to Mr. Reagan. “I thought Reagan was great,” Mr. Gulager said.

He wasn’t alone, despite the sentiment of today’s Hollywood crowd.

John Meroney, who is at work on “American Destiny,” a book about Mr. Reagan’s life in Hollywood, recalled in National Review Online this month a night in February 1950 when some of Hollywood’s brightest lights gathered at the Beverly Hills Hotel for the kind of glamorous, star-studded soiree typically held on Academy Awards night.

The event for which Cecil B. DeMille, Harry Cohn, George Burns, Ed Wynn, Jane Wyman and about 600 others turned out was a formal tribute to Mr. Reagan, he explained.

The view in those days of Ronald Reagan, who “supposedly had a B-grade movie career and was a failure as a leading man,” noted Mr. Meroney, “was far different from today’s conventional wisdom about his work in Hollywood.”

“The Killers” was in production on the afternoon in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas. In the wake of that, Universal executives radically altered their distribution plans for the picture because the film was deemed too violent and disturbing.

Shaking the Hill

Who says midterm elections are boring?

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), is warning Republican incumbents this week to watch out, because in the next election cycle he’s “doing things differently.”

“We will only expend our resources directly on the races we can win,” he vows. “I won’t give a dime to campaigns that do not have the tools and staff they need to build a successful campaign infrastructure.”

Democrats are six seats away from taking back the Senate. Several key battleground states where Mr. Schumer will certainly pledge more than “a dime” are Pennsylvania (Mr. Schumer says he “personally recruited” Bob Casey, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate of late, to face Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in 2006), Rhode Island and Ohio.

Then there are states such as Montana, where just last week the DSCC turned up the heat on Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, for what Mr. Schumer calls “close ties” to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In all, there will be Senate races in 33 states next year.

Come clean

“If Hillary wants to be president, she should be honest with herself and her constituents and say so.”

Jeanine Pirro, district attorney in New York’s suburban Westchester County, who emerged in recent days as a Republican challenger for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s seat.

• John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or

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