Or maybe he just doesn't feel right. I'm not talking about real presidents, I'm talking about the President of the United States as portrayed in the movies. And I'm not talking about Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey playing Abe Lincoln at any age or in any state. I'm talking about that wonderful Hollywood tradition, the Genero-President! As in, we need a President because the script calls for it so find some guy with white hair and a strong chin and we'll call him the President for a day. That's what I'm talking about: The Great Generic Presidents of the movies.
It's a noble tradition that really got jump-started by the science fiction genre. Before Sci-Fi got on-board movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy actually had someone play real Presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and actors like the aforementioned Fonda and Massey played the Great Emancipator onscreen. But eventually Hollywood needed some guy to order an A-Bomb attack on the invading force from the planet Kulltar, and when that happened they got the guy with the white hair. For years it was a pretty standard model but eventually even Genero-President grew into something much grander and deeper.
By the sixties Stanley Kubrick gave us perhaps the greatest Genero-President in history, President Merkin Muffley, played by Peter Sellers in the now classic Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It was an eye-opener. Genero-Presidents could be actual characters, not just talking marble statues with three lines, usually ending with, "My fellow Americans, it is with a heavy heart that I surrender our nation to our new rulers, the Tashderians of Mokdar." In fact, 1964 produced a triumvirate of character driven Genero-Presidents, or GP's: President Muffley of Strangelove, President Jordan Lymen (Frederic March) of Seven Days in May and simply The President (Henry Fonda) from Fail Safe. Hell, in that very same year Henry Fonda even played a fake candidate for the nomination of the presidency in The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal. It was a banner year for the GP and brought him into the limelight as never before. To hell with portrayals of Washington and Lincoln, with a GP you could do and say things with the character that you could never do or say with a real president, except maybe Nixon. And it provided the "starved for portrayals of fake politicians" masses with endless hours of entertainment. And damn, I love me some good fake politicians.
But then something disturbing happened. By the late eighties and into the nineties, the Genero-Presidents became "real" people. Actors like Michael Douglas gave us warm, nurturing portrayals of the Commander in Chief in The American President and television got all deep and thought-provoking on us with West Wing. What the hell? I don't want my Genero-President dealing with his motherless daughter and dating a lobbyist. I don't want him having a crisis of faith on the eve of his decision to run again. I want him fending off a military coup staged by Burt Lancaster. I want him talking to a drunk Soviet Premier on the phone in the War Room (where you can't fight). I want him calming the nerves of J.R. Ewing so J.R. can tell the Russians that we're gonna bomb New York, just to make things square and all.
Hollywood made some half-hearted attempts to revive the great tradition of kick-ass GP's with vehicles like Air Force One, where the President is a Harrison Ford type, amazingly enough played by Harrison Ford, fighting off terrorists on his plane, but I don't know. Unless a military coup or A-Bomb attack is imminent the new Hollywood model just doesn't do it for me. Even when Sci-Fi got back into the act with Deep Impact and Independence Day the GP's left me underwhelmed. Sure they were fighting for survival with impending asteroid destruction or invading alien forces but once again they were too soft, too touchy feely for me. I'm not saying GP's can't be great anymore, just that it's been a long time since I really connected with one of them.
And that's why I've saved my two favorites for last. They're the last two GP's that I really liked. They're not fully fleshed out characters like the 1964 Banner Year GP's. They're Standard Model Sci-Fi GP's and among the last of their kind. I'm talking about E.G. Marshall in Superman II and Donald Pleasence in Escape from New York. There be some damn fine Genero-Presidents.
First, let's understand and spread the love for E.G. Marshall as President Bad Wig in Superman II. Three years before, Marshall had played fake Senator Joseph Paine in Billy Jack Goes to Washington, a clear reference to Claude Rains' fake Senator of the same name in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But now it was 1980 and Marshall had graduated from fake Senator (yawn - who cares) to GP (woohoo - G-P! G-P! G-P!). Why is his GP so good? Because it is the model of GP simplicity given gravity by actually casting a respected actor in the role. And the wig? I'm thinking the producers accurately predicted that Ronald Reagan would take the presidency at the time they were making the movie and decided to put a Reagan wig on poor old E.G. Marshall. And man did he look ridiculous! But let me just say this: Thank God they did it! That wig completes the character in a way a bald, graying E.G. Marshall never could have done on his own, despite all of his talents. That wig, I mean really, I don't know what to say: it's the end-all be-all. And Marshall plays President Bad Wig as if he were playing O'Neil on the Great White Way, full of solemnity and stoicism, which makes it just that much better. And - AND - he gets to do the classic all-time GP Sci-Fi shtick: Surrender the United States to a bunch of aliens. You can kiss that re-election bid goodbye:
President Bad Wig: "My opponent, Senator AbScam, has ruined his state's economy, been caught red-handed in at least three bribery stings and eliminated all public works from his state in a bid to line his pockets."
Senator AbScam: "President Bad Wig surrendered our nation to two guys and a chick from outer space in two seconds flat."
Winner: Senator AbScam.
But as good as Marshall is, to quote Yoda (and I don't do that often so mark this day on your calendar) "there is another." So now let us praise famous men, or at least one: Donald Pleasence as the President in Escape From New York. Now this is a GP! He's got the whole range going on here. He's conniving and crafty (like a real politician), self-concerned, a little on the cowardly side when he needs to be and finally, when he's all safe and secure, goes Tony Montana on the Duke of New York mocking him as he shoots him to ribbons: "You're the Duke of New York. You're A-Number One. A-NUMBER ONE!!!!!!!"
My only beef here is at the end. He's got to deliver this speech that's going to save the world or something (it's not made very clear) and Snake Plissken's busting his balls and getting all whiny about his treatment after saving him. Look Snake, I understand, I really do, but he's the President and now that he's safe and secure he needs to concentrate on saving the world with that mix-tape he got from the United Nations discount bin so can you take your whiny, "woe is me" shit and shut the hell up please? The attempt to make President Montana look ungrateful here is transparent and doesn't fly in my house. Donald Pleasence is the President of the United States in my book. He cowers when he has to to stay alive because he knows the country needs him. And once his survival is assured he can tear a man to shreds with an M-16 and five minutes later deliver a calm and composed speech complete with a Maxell-60-Gold prepped to save the world. That's a guy who understands responsibility to the greater good. That's a guy who wouldn't switch out tapes on somebody cause he felt all dejected and sad. And when I see Plissken walking away tearing up that tape I think, "Screw you cry-baby, you couldn't wipe this President's ass if you were white and linty and wrapped around a cardboard cylinder."
Donald Pleasence is the Genero-President of the United States! He's A-Number One! A-NUMBER ONE!!! Hail to the Chief!