President Richard Nixon resigned the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974, capping off a political career and providing writers, historians and filmmakers creative fodder the likes of which Shakespeare would have drooled over.
Nixon’s ambition, his successes, his failures, his paranoia and his mannerisms have provided memorable film roles for some of Hollywood’s most talented actors. Here, then, are some of the best Nixon performances put to celluloid, yielding that most Washington of questions: Who is the fairest Nixon of them all?
— Philip Baker Hall in “Secret Honor” by Robert Altman. Hall’s Nixon is an enraged man alone in a White House with a bottle of booze, recording equipment and portraits of the people who have shaped his life and loom ominously over him. This cinematic one-man play is a bitter pill, and Hall gives his sweaty, drunken, extended soliloquy everything he’s got in the tank.
— Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon” by Ron Howard. Langella’s portrayal of the disgraced ex-president seeking to redeem himself through his extended sit-down interviews with David Frost is a marvel. He shows a calculating, slippery, awkward man, deeply hurt and coldly calculating all the same, desperate to re-engage in the game.
— Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon” by Oliver Stone. Stone’s gonzo biopic allowed Hopkins to lean into his interpretation of Nixon as a less-sophisticated but just as dangerous version of Hannibal Lecter. It’s a wonder Hopkins doesn’t bite someone in this role. You have to admire the commitment.
— Dan Hedaya in “Dick” by Andrew Fleming. The Watergate scandal as comedy! Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams are the Rozencrantz and Guildenstern of Nixon’s White House, two ditzy teenagers who find themselves enmeshed in the biggest political scandal of modern times. Hedaya, so used to playing cranky police captains, homicidal villains in Cohen brothers movies or Carla’s deranged husband Nick Tortelli in “Cheers,” gives the most bubbly portrayal of Nixon ever, a marvel considering how dark the source material is.
— Richard Nixon in “Our Nixon” and “Nixon by Nixon.” Judge for yourself how Nixon does compared to the other Nixons out there. Penny Lane’s “Our Nixon” and Peter Kunhardt’s “Nixon by Nixon” use archival footage, Super-8 home movies and the Watergate tapes to illustrate the 37th president. Both films, particularly viewed as a package, paint a portrait of Nixon that is compelling, entertaining and haunting.
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Jason Dick is the Hill Life editor for Roll Call and has also worked at Greenwire, CongressDaily and National Journal Daily during his time in Washington. @jasonjdick