Was Will Ferrell’s Reagan Comedy Really Mocking Alzheimer’s?
This week the outrage mounted over a new comedy about the Reagan White House, but it isn’t clear it merited the venom.
America’s leading Reagan loyalists declared war on Will Ferrell, and won.
On Wednesday, Variety reported that the Hillary Clinton-supporting funnyman—and part-time Democratic donor—was attached to play the role of President Ronald Reagan in a comedy crisply titled, “Reagan.” (Ferrell was set to produce the satirical biopic along with Gary Sanchez Productions.)
The script, penned by Mike Rosolio, kicks off at the start of Reagan’s second term when he “falls into dementia and an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander in chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie,” according to Variety.
That brief description of the comedy set off a near-instantaneous backlash, earning swift condemnation from the Reagan Foundation, the Reagan family, the Alzheimer’s Association, and a raft of Reagan loyalists and vanguards of the conservative icon’s legacy.
“Blissfully, America does not look to Hollywood for history lessons,” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley told The Daily Beast. “At least, not anymore. Will Ferrell should stick to puerile man-child movies and leave the manly leadership to Ronald Reagan.”
“Perhaps you would like to explain to them how this disease is suitable material for a comedy,” Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis wrote in an open letter to Ferrell.
And the outrage worked.
On Friday, Page Six broke the news that Ferrell had pulled out of the Reagan project.
“Reagan” has been painted by detractors—the vast majority of whom have not seen or read the script—as an “Alzheimer’s comedy” offensive to the late president and those suffering from the disease. A small number of people actually know what is in the script, and what kind of comedy it would be.
However, a table-read of “Reagan” was mounted by Black List Live! at Montalban Theater in Hollywood last month featuring John Cho (as the fictional intern), James Brolin (Reagan, reprising the role), Dennis Haysbert, and Nathan Fillion. (Lena Dunham was slated to read as Reagan-era speechwriter Peggy Noonan, but ultimately was unable to attend.)
Several of those who attended the event argue that the screenplay has been unfairly judged and mischaracterized—again, by people who haven’t read a word of it.
“Reagan actually comes of as sweet—and he’s really a background character,” producer Bob Schooley, who was at the table-read, told The Daily Beast. “And the lead character’s father is suffering from dementia, so they play parallel scenes, which shows the real toll that [disease] can take on a family…You certainly didn’t walk out of the thing hating Reagan.”
Rosolio’s manager did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment. But on a recent episode of the podcast “The Black List Table Reads,” the screenwriter describes why he wrote “Reagan.” And one of the reasons is intensely personal.
“I always wanted to write something about politics,” he said, explaining how he wanted to take something “expected and making it a little weird” and that he was “fascinated by all the dementia stuff.”
“It’s a very important subject to me personally and to my family personally,” he continued.
Patrick McIlhone, a writer and Bernie Sanders fan, also scored a ticket to the table read, and loved what he saw.
“The satire is intended to nod towards the corruption within the Reagan administration, which is fair game, but it does not use Reagan’s disease as a tool for that,” he told The Daily Beast. “There is a wholly invented White House staffer who takes on the persona of Frank Capra and directs Reagan like an actor, giving nods towards his Hollywood past.”
McIlhone specifically commended Brolin’s performance, and emphasized that he didn’t believe “Reagan” was executed “in poor taste.”
“If we can have movies like Inglourious Basterds [that] poke fun at aspects of World War II, and countless movies that are dark comedies about cancer, we can certainly do this,” he said. “If Reagan had not been an actor, then this movie would not be funny.”
In the script, when the administration needs the unwell Reagan to go on live television, the fake Frank Capra is called in to direct him. Reagan refers to the intern as “Mr. Capra” for most of the film. Most of the humor and tension is derived from Reagan’s closest advisers scrambling to cover-up his ailment, and attempting to manipulate the commander in chief.
“John Cho’s character is basically ordered to continue doing this by various higher-ups at the White House,” McIlhone recalls. “He is not totally comfortable with it. However, over the course of the story, he becomes fond of Reagan and while at the same time maintaining a conscience about what he is doing. This ends up making the [intern] a witting actor in policy decisions, along with Peggy Noonan. Those two are kind of the moral pulse of the film … At the start of the film, he’s sort of a bright-eyed bushy tailed Reagan devotee who thinks he can make a difference, and through this very strange series of events, he does.”
(Major historical events that “Reagan” covers include the bombing of Libya and the Iran-Contra scandal.)
Of course, not every attendee of the table read walked away with a favorable impression of the work.
Amy Lutz, who serves as the Young America’s Foundation’s program officer at the Reagan Ranch Center, attended the March event with her colleague.
“It had its moments, I thought there were some funny lines…and some of the characters were very well done, and the actors did a very good job,” she said. “But my issue was a lot of the punchlines had to do with dementia…and that it dealt with it flippantly, and made fun of it.”
“[The script] doesn’t portray Reagan himself as evil… but again a lot of the punchiness do have to do with him forgetting things and not knowing what’s going on.” (According to The Hollywood Reporter, the ailing character of Reagan at one point thinks Mikhail Gorbachev is actor Ernest Borgnine, for instance.)
Before this week’s controversy erupted, “Reagan” was considered one of Hollywood’s hottest unmade scripts, Ferrell was attached to star in the title role, and the project was on the hunt for a director and a movie studio. In a matter of days, the satire found itself in the middle of a torrent of negative publicity, and branded a toxic property with an at-best uncertain future.
Ferrell’s representative did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.