A controversial look at the Grand Old Party's First Family. James Brolin and Judy Davis suit up for CBS' ''The Reagans''

By Carina Chocano
November 07, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
The Reagans: Nicole Rivelli
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In a large, crowded, very muggy banquet room, all eyes are transfixed by the scene at the top of a sweeping formal staircase. A tall smiling man in a tuxedo descends the steps arm in arm with his swizzle-stick-thin wife. The crowd erupts in ecstatic applause. The man’s wife looks at him adoringly, as though gazing upon her own personal miracle. If he looks like a movie star, it’s because he used to be one.

Et tu, Arnold? Nope. We’re in an art museum in Montreal, and the imposing figure on the stairs is James Brolin — dyed, styled, and wadded (latex layers have been applied to his chin, the sides of his mouth, and the tip of his nose) to resemble the man who forged the marquee-star-to-California-governor path way back when.

For someone who didn’t want to play Ronald Reagan initially, Brolin, who stars in CBS’ biopic airing Nov. 16 and 18, has the former President nailed. ”I didn’t see me as Ronnie Reagan,” says Brolin, hubby of super-Democrat Barbra Streisand. ”I wasn’t plugged into [him] except as this cartoon character, this buffoon that people made of him [on ‘Saturday Night Live’]. And I’m reading this script and there’s none of that feeling in there, of the fun, the foibles, of what’s wrong…. All of a sudden I’d get to a scene and go, Really? Oh, my God, this is a real character.”

”The Reagans,” which also stars Emmy winner Judy Davis as Nancy, follows the presidential couple from their first meeting through the end of their second term. It’s the kind of film that is guaranteed to elicit strong reactions, given the near fanaticism that surrounds Reagan’s legacy. (Nancy Reagan has been characteristically reserved about the project. Her stepson, Michael, a conservative radio host, has been characteristically vocal, blasting the miniseries.) ”When you’re dealing with somebody that was the President of the United States,” says executive producer Neil Meron, ”it’s going to engender a lot of feelings from both sides.” Adds his partner, Craig Zadan: ”It’s the most difficult type of movie to make because, yes, the people involved in making it are, for the most part, Democrats. But we really went out of our way to make the movie evenhanded.”

Zadan and Meron (”Chicago,” ABC’s sitcom ”It’s All Relative”) are no strangers to biographical miniseries. They’ve produced some of the most memorable TV pics of late, including ”Martin and Lewis,” ”The Three Stooges,” ”The Beach Boys,” and 2001’s ”Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” (starring Davis) — which won five Emmys and was the highest-rated miniseries of the season. But ”The Reagans” is a departure for the duo in that it focuses on a political family rather than on entertainers. Still, Zadan and Meron say that their approach, which explores family dynamics and the human side of larger-than-life figures, is similar. The script portrays Nancy Reagan as a woman whose devotion to her husband comes before everything else, including her children. (Much is made of her devotion to her astrologer as well.) Her wounded inner child — Nancy’s mother, Edith, is the quintessential bad mommy — is also very much in evidence.

”My approach was to try and understand what motivated her,” says Davis, who does a pitch-perfect impression of Nancy’s controlled movements, toy-soldier shoulders, and penetrating stare. ”She wanted to succeed. And part of being successful was to be married to a respectable husband who’d provide for her. My take is that — the drive to defend him, support him come what may — he came first.” The President, meanwhile, comes across in the script as a charming, affable man whose ideas about defense were sometimes inspired by B movies and whose religious beliefs influenced his social-policy decisions. ”I have a lot of respect for him,” Brolin says. ”Whatever he did, he thought he was right.”

Back in the ballroom, Brolin channels Reagan beautifully: He looks, moves, and even breathes just like him. In fact, the whole scene seems like a bit of a time warp: ”The parallels between what just happened [in California] and the timing of the movie are staggering,” says Zadan. ”When you watch the movie, all of a sudden you see that everything is contemporary. Iraq, Iran, everything that’s in the movie is stuff we’re dealing with right now.”

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