Thursday, June 5, 2014

The President's Ladies

Author:  Bernard F. Dick
Genre:  Biography, Filmography

Four Stars

Ronald Reagan, a former actor and one of America's most popular presidents, married not one but two Hollywood actresses. This book is three biographies in one, discovering fascinating connections among Jane Wyman (1917-2007), Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), and Nancy Davis (b. 1921).

Jane Wyman, who married Reagan in 1940 and divorced him seven years later, knew an early life of privation. She gravitated to the movies and made her debut at fifteen as an unbilled member of the chorus, then toiled as an extra for four years until she finally received billing. She proved herself as a dramatic actress in The Lost Weekend, and the following year, she was nominated for an Oscar for The Yearling and soon won for her performance in Johnny Belinda, in which she did not speak a single line. Other Oscar nominations followed, along with a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Angela Channing in Falcon Crest.  Conversely, Nancy Davis led a relatively charmed life, the daughter of an actress and stepdaughter of a neurosurgeon.  Surrounded by her mother's friends--Walter Huston, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lillian Gish, and Alla Nazimova, her godmother--Davis started in the theater, then moved on to Hollywood, where she enjoyed modest success, and finally began working in television. When she married Reagan in 1952, she unwittingly married into politics, eventually leaving acting to concentrate on being the wife of the governor of California, and then the wife of the President of the United States.  In her way, Davis played her greatest role as Reagan's friend, confidante, and adviser on life and in politics.

This book considers three actors who left an indelible mark on both popular and political culture for more than fifty years.


I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book, but the end result is that it is more a filmography of these three actors than anything else.  The book is mainly devoted to Jane Wyman - since she is, of the three, the one who had the longest film career.  It definitely is a biography, but quite a bit of detail is given upon each of their films, the cast, the plot, and any other information the author deems relevant.  I have seen most of the films that are listed, so this information isn't anything new.  It was interesting to hear about some of the films Ms. Wyman made and who the original stars were intended to be before the roles fell to others.

However, the author gives us the reasons why each person was the way they were.  The fact that Jane grew up without really knowing who she was certainly didn't help her personal life any.  What she was searching for, and what she got, were two entirely different things.  There is no doubt that when she married Ron, she loved him.  But Jane had determined that he was smarter, and therefore, superior to her; and when he discovered politics she had no interest anymore and wanted to end the marriage.  Ron, for his part, was devastated.

When he met Nancy, she was a minor actor - and I will infuse my own opinion here - and a mediocre one, at that.  I have seen her movies and her performances are average.  Yet she fell in love with him and he her, and that was that, as they say.

He does explain why every performance Jane gave was nothing less than her best:  she wanted to be a top flight actress, and this she achieved, finally winning an oscar for The Yearling.  She put her career before her marriage, and perhaps if Ron had not had the feelings he did for politics, and stayed an actor, things might have turned out differently; but we will never know.  I do wonder, though, if she fell out of love with him because of him, or because of his strong interest in politics.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book a tad more if I didn't have to hear every single detail of every single radio and television show any of these three were in - it seemed kind of superfluous to me - and, I admit, since I never watched Falcon Crest I really didn't care.  Someone else might, however.

Recommended for anyone who has an interest in movies or biographies.

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