|Michelle Obama's Inauguration Gown, 2008|
It’s remarkable how often politics and movies intersect. American presidents, both fictional and real, have been featured in scores of movies. I can think of a half-dozen, at least, in which Abraham Lincoln is portrayed, often by award-winning actors like Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, and Daniel Day-Lewis. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, a thinly disguised Bill Clinton (in Primary Colors), and George Bush (W.) have all had their moments – whether reverential or sardonic -- on the silver screen.
I hail from Southern California, the land of motion picture royalty. Now I’m newly returned from the city dedicated to American political royalty. Of course I mean Washington, D.C., where I went to participate in the sixth annual conference of the Biographers International Organization. What struck me in my rambles through our nation’s capital is the clear parallel between Washington’s political celebrities and the movie celebrities of my hometown.
Washington is a city of statuary, with every major president granted some sort of monument. In Hollywood there are far fewer statues, but the fame of our stars is preserved in other ways. Their names are emblazoned on buildings and street signs (e.g. the Kirk Douglas Theatre and West Hollywood’s Norma Place, honoring silent star Norma Talmadge). Celebrities’ autographed glossies are pinned up on walls everywhere: from dentists’ offices to delis to dry cleaning establishments. Then, of course, there’s the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where stars literally adorn the pavement.
In Washington, I took a long Saturday evening walk to the magnificent Lincoln Memorial. There sat Abe himself, nineteen feet high, looking down on me and on everyone else who had gathered at this spot. The first time I saw Paris, I visited the tomb of Napoleon, a place so silent and solemn that it felt like a cathedral. The Lincoln Memorial, by contrast, seems downright festive. At pretty much any hour, there are so many people – of all sizes, shapes, and colors – assembled here, many of them armed with cameras, that I was reminded of the crowds happily checking out the movie-star footprints at Grauman’s Chinese.
I also visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where the inaugural gowns of past First Ladies are preserved as sacred relics. The reverence we feel toward these opulent frocks is not so far removed from how movie fans regard Marilyn Monroe’s white Seven Year Itch halter dress and Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz blue-and-white checked pinafore. In fact, the “American Stories” display at the museum has as its focal point a pair of Garland’s dazzling ruby slippers, upon which fans gaze with awe.
One of my favorite Washington museums is the National Portrait Gallery, where famous Americans of every stripe are honored. Yes, many of the exhibits are devoted to historical figures, and one of the museum’s most famous sections is the Hall of the Presidents. That’s where you can find each president’s official portrait, painted by an artist of his own choosing. These are mostly flattering works, making each chief of state look movie-star handsome. A case in point is the Norman Rockwell rendition of an idealized Richard Nixon. Then there’s Ronald Reagan, who truly embodied the intersection of movie star and president because, of course, he was both.
But the National Portrait Gallery collects depictions of movie stars too. Among the recent acquisitions is a glamorous photo of Gary Cooper. Also recently purchased are images of film composer Marvin Hamlisch, choreographer Busby Berkeley, the Jackson Five, and a distinctive Milton Glaser homage to comedian/activist Dick Gregory. It’s reassuring, somehow, to see that showbiz stars are stars in Washington too.