'Reagans' Director Says Hollywood's Original First Couple Was a "Vessel" of Far Right Powerbrokers

Ronald Reagan
Studiocanal Films Ltd / Mary Evans / Everett Collection

Ronald Reagan

Matt Tyrnauer, who casts an unforgiving eye on the couple in his new Showtime docuseries, discusses the late president’s naming of names during the Red Scare, his questionable deal-making with mogul Lew Wasserman and what his presidency taught Trump.

Documentary director Matt Tyrnauer, who in 2019 profiled Donald Trump’s late legal fixer in the documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn?, has turned to The Reagans, a four-part series debuting Nov. 15 on Showtime.

Tyrnauer examines how the machinery and milieu of Hollywood helped the couple reinvent themselves and Ronald's presidency and how it in turn continues to define the conservative moment today.

Tyrnauer — whose other subjects have included fashion designer Valentino Garavani, urbanism activist Jane Jacobs and "male madame" to the stars Scotty Bowers — sees the titular couple as crafty charlatans, backed by wealthy right-wing ideologues and engaged in a long con on America. "From the '60s onward, after [1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater [was defeated], a group of plutocrats, self-made businessmen with anti-government and anti-civil rights views, found in them some perversion of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington narrative," he says. "Ronnie and Nancy became vessels, and it was perfect because they knew how to play those Frank Capra roles. America ate it up."

What’s left to say about the Reagans?

The whole Reagan legacy is a brilliantly confected myth. The real Ronald and Nancy Reagan are virtually unknown. They learned how to myth-make from the best, who supported them: [Warner Bros. founder] Jack Warner, [legendary gossip columnist] Louella Parsons, the entire publicity team at MGM. There’s nothing more effective than a good Hollywood studio. They carefully constructed their myth and they acted it out.

As a result, what really happened during the Reagan presidency is ignored: the advancement of the system of the one percent, the dismantling of the New Deal social safety net. He may not have seen himself as a cruel man, but when you look at the effect of his policies, he was, and he got away with it because he knew how to manipulate the media-industrial complex with his myth. It’s time to take a fresh look at it.

The series zeroes in on how Reagan is known for gutting the welfare state, and yet he and his wife were themselves recipients of generous handouts throughout their lives.

The Reagans lived on government and corporate welfare. They lived in housing that was bought by patrons from the 1950s onward. There are no two people who benefited more from such largesse than Ronnie and Nancy Reagan.

Reagan said he wondered how he could’ve been an effective president if he hadn’t been an actor. What’s different about his performative conception of himself and Donald Trump’s?

Reagan’s playing a president. He did it so effectively it went over the heads of the press and the public. It was one of those strange moments in American history where you couldn’t tell where the movie’s ending and life’s beginning. He never got cast in the Jimmy Stewart part that he eventually got to play in real life.

Trump, in a coarser era, when reality TV rules our lives, decided to play it like an insult comedian, and as himself.

So what did Trump take from Reagan, aside from lifting the “Make America Great Again” slogan?

The presidency-as-performance and the dirty secret that you can be a figurehead who can wing it. As long as the performance is acceptable to your political base, you can survive. Reagan proved that, and I don’t think a lot of people paid attention.

The series depicts how the packaging of projects by representatives — which to this day is Topic A in Hollywood — came about because Reagan was running SAG and gave his agent Lew Wasserman’s firm, MCA, a waiver to produce. Then MCA’s first big show, General Electric Theater on CBS, gave Reagan a fat contract to host, and General Electric gave Reagan a house in the Pacific Palisades. Then the Kennedy Justice Department investigated Reagan for a kickback.
That created a great deal of stress for Reagan, and he was very indignant about it. It was just then that he changed his party registration, from Democrat to Republican. It was the last straw. His political evolution had been a slow burn, starting rightward from the Red Scare. His brother and father-in-law, both ring-wing, had been strong influences. But it makes sense to me that the Kennedy Justice Department investigation involving MCA was it.

In our current era, we’ve seen the normalization of a kind of celebrity diplomacy around social issues. We’re reminded in The Reagans of Elizabeth Taylor’s role in pressuring the White House to acknowledge AIDS.

Elizabeth Taylor was the key to Reagan, pathetically late in the game in his second term, waking up and saying the word “AIDS” and giving a speech. It wouldn’t have happened without her. She deserves enormous credit. It might be the most important thing she ever did in her life. So that’s a great story about Elizabeth Taylor and a pathetic story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

What do you make of Reagan’s record as an FBI informant during the Red Scare while he was involved with SAG?

One of the things I wanted to show was that he very cleverly named names out of the spotlight. There were people like Elia Kazan, who publicly named names and was pilloried for it. And then there was Reagan, who was very slick and understood how the system worked. He’s never been, in my opinion, held to account for ruining the careers he was supposed to be protecting as the head of the Screen Actors Guild. But he proved to be a very good amateur politician at that point in his career. He looked like a good guy, just as he played the good guy on film. No doubt he saw himself as a good guy. He always did.