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Politics as Comedy? Filmmakers Vote Yes With Watergate Tale

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 1999

   


LOS ANGELES – It was probably only a matter of time before the children of Watergate turned around and got even. In that vein comes "Dick," an often vicious parody of the Nixon scandal that masquerades as a daffy romp for high schoolers. It is a cross – as the studio accurately puts it – between "Clueless" and "All the President's Men."

How did that happen? Screenwriters Andrew Fleming and Sheryl Longin – both in grade school during the final days of the Nixon administration – began by writing a tale of the misadventures of two teenage girls but ended up getting their political revenge against a president who they feel got off too easy.

"Originally we thought it was an irreverent way to treat something serious," says Fleming, who also directed the film.

The central characters are the two teens, who become President Nixon's dog-walkers. The girls live in the Watergate and discover Nixon's nastier side; eventually they are revealed to be "Deep Throat," the still-unidentified source of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (Note to readers under 30: Woodward and Bernstein – collectively known as "Woodstein" – revealed the Nixon White House's illegal doings surrounding the Watergate break-in, starting a chain of events that ended in the president's resignation in ignominy in 1974. A Pulitzer Prize ensued. So did a book, a movie and general fame and fortune.)

We digress. Fleming is still talking: "But in reading the transcripts of the tapes" – Nixon's often profane recordings from the Oval Office – "we felt that he was irreverent. He violated us, lied to us. Did things that were illegal and seriously, permanently damaged this country." Fleming looks away, a bit disconcerted that a conversation about a comedy has quickly gotten so serious. Most of his work so far has been youth-oriented fare like "The Craft" and "Threesome," which he wrote and directed. He has now flopped his 36-year-old frame against the worn green velvet of a couch in the lounge of the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood. "I'm amazed there is this effort to rehabilitate his image."

Longin agrees. "The first political memory for our generation was Watergate," she says in a phone call. "Adults were so shocked and outraged and upset. For us, we were like, 'What happened? Oh, the president lied? Oh, everyone lies.' Our generation then felt very cynical about politics. We became cynical and apathetic, and we really feel it was because the earliest thing we knew about politics is that they were lying and abusing power and doing things we were told you're not supposed to do."

Pause. "We felt really angry about that."

It shows. The story starts out with the girls – played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams – accidentally witnessing the break-in at the Watergate office and apartment complex. (Burglars hired by White House dirty tricksters were trying to replace a defective wiretap planted in the Democratic National Committee headquarters during the 1972 presidential campaign. This was, need we say, illegal.)

Apprehended by the burglars, the girls – who are clueless as to what they've seen – go to the White House and are charmed by President Nixon, who hires them to be his dog-walkers. Thus they come to be witnesses to (or the causes of) many key Watergate moments, including document-shredding, the discovery of Nixon's secret recordings and the gap of 18 minutes on one of his secret tapes. (Clarification for Generation X: There were no actual teenage girls involved in Watergate.)

In discovering Nixon's tapes, filled with profanities, racial slurs and anti-dog sentiment, the girls are finally revolted by the president's true character. They decide to call Woodward and Bernstein, and become the source known as "Deep Throat."

(The caricatures of the reporters, played by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch, are hilarious if inexact. To our knowledge, Woodward never once tried to shove Bernstein out of camera range, and Bernstein never once said to Woodward, "You smell like cabbage." At least in public.)

But for some, "Dick" may venture too far into the new comic territory of raunch, offense and general dissing of authority of any kind. One running joke throughout the film involves the president's name and predictable puns of a sexual nature. Others involve the name "Deep Throat" and predictable puns of a sexual nature. Pat Nixon is cast as lumpy and nondescript and has a bottle of liquor by her nightstand. The president gets high. In the final scene, as the disgraced president rises from the White House lawn in his helicopter, the girls unfurl a banner with a particularly graphic sexual insult directed at him.

Both Fleming and Longin say they insisted that the final, insulting scene be included – and note that they wrote it while Nixon was still alive. "People said different things in the movie were too much. We were adamant that it wasn't," says Longin. "I feel like he really – he earned it."

She continues: "I don't think the girls would say that [insult] to an adult ordinarily. But he lied, he was mean to them. He was mean to all of us. He really abused things. He shattered people's illusions."

Says Fleming: "I was angry at what a blatant bigot he was. He made many antisemitic remarks – about Henry Kissinger, about Jews in general. He made racist remarks," says Fleming. "At one point it does sound like he's kicking the dog."

Using the tape transcripts, the writers pasted together an actual montage of comments – including Nixon's insecurity over whether the dog liked him – to be read by actor Dan Hedaya, who does a comically skewering version of the fallen president.

Fleming goes on: "I just thought – it's only fair. Look. He got to leave. He got pardoned. He lived in tragic isolation, sure, but he got off easy. All his underlings were punished. And he got to live out his life without answering any serious questions." Pause. "Except from David Frost."

Nixon certainly took his share of digs throughout Watergate and its aftermath. But then came a long period of silence, broken by his 1977 televised interviews with Frost, the British television personality. Nixon quietly cultivated the image of elder statesman. He advised sitting presidents on foreign policy. By the 1990s, it became almost impolite to chide the old man for his past sins. Even boomer conspiracy-theorist director Oliver Stone offered an unexpectedly complex image of the man with the 1995 film "Nixon." When Nixon died in 1994, the eulogies were filled with florid praise of his landmark achievements in China and elsewhere abroad, tempered by gentle reminders of the Watergate mishap.

So it is jarring to see the reappearance of "Tricky Dick" on screen, etched in the harsh acids of the '90s.

Woodward thinks it's just part of the cultural tenor – meanness, that is – and also part of Nixon's legacy. (He hasn't seen the movie yet.) "The forces that are being unleashed in the new, vicious comedy . . . Nixon unleashed those forces in television and elsewhere. That says that the adults have screwed it all up, and the kids get their turn. The kids got their turn in 1976 with [John] Belushi and [Dan] Aykroyd and Lorne Michaels. If it's taken a new, ugly turn . . . well, it's a cultural moment."

Woodward tends to agree with Fleming and Longin that the Nixon revealed on tape is plenty offensive – even if he does not agree with their sexualized insults of a dead ex-president. "What is parody? Go look at those Nixon tapes. Here's Nixon ranting about firebombing the Brookings Institute. It's chilling. That historical reality is chilling.

"The real Nixon is on the White House tapes, and every season a new batch is released. It's the gift that keeps on giving," Woodward says. "In those tapes is the raw language of vengeance and smallness and ultimately the historical record that proves Nixon's unfitness for office. That's going to be the Nixon legacy, because it's his authentic voice."

But these days what Hollywood wants is lightweight, teen-oriented entertainment. That's what Longin and Fleming set out to produce when they were trying to fashion a script six years ago. They kept placing the same two teenage girls in different misadventures, but none seemed quite right. Then Longin, a first-time screenwriter, remembered a run-in with the law she had at age 7.

Her family was on vacation on Key Biscayne at the same hotel as Nixon. She and a couple of older friends decided to throw ice cubes at Secret Service agents from a seventh-floor window. Chaos ensued. Longin was terrified that she'd be jailed for life. She says Nixon inexplicably canceled a planned speech by the hotel pool.

It became the germ of the idea for "Dick," which eventually morphed to: What if the girls turned out to be "Deep Throat"?

Says Fleming: "The only things we truly invented were in the blank spots where what actually happened was not known." Then he adds, only half in jest: "Nobody has any proof that it wasn't two teenaged girls. But if 'Woodstein' wants to prove us wrong, they can tell us who it is."

The two sent the script to former Post executive editor Ben Bradlee to see if he'd play himself. Bradlee politely declined. They sent a script to former White House counsel John Dean. He sent it back with a note: "Good luck." They got a few tips from a retired Secret Service agent. They mostly relied on their memories of being clueless kids in the '70s.

What has resulted is an odd sort of hybrid – a political satire for grown-ups, a wacky comedy for juveniles. In test screenings, adults and young viewers have laughed at entirely different moments. Tri-Star's marketing department, in charge of releasing the film, despaired of ever creating an advertising campaign. In the end, research found that teen girls were the most interested in the movie, so the ads show Williams and Dunst in close-up, with a minuscule White House in the background.

Which means the political vendetta embedded in "Dick" may well fly right over the heads of most of the movie's audience.

"Ultimately our goal was to personalize Nixon's betrayal of the country. So there's a compact fable in there," says Fleming. "It's not a movie about political events, it's a comedy about the distance between the citizenry and politicians. How normal people feel about politicians. And about the gap between what a normal person is aware of and what actually happens in politics."

   

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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