For President's Day: The Best Movie Portrayals of 15 Presidents

Jaunty angle on the cigarette holder? Check.
Jaunty angle on the cigarette holder? Check.

Portraying presidents on screen is always tricky. Crass imitation makes the thing look like a comedy skit, but completely ignoring the mannerisms and voice that people know doesn't work either.

There have been some laughingly inept acting jobs when it comes to the 44 people who have been the country's chief executive -- who can forget, try as they might, Jon Voigt as FDR in Pearl Harbor? (At least almost no one saw his George Washington in the awful rightwing effort An American Carol.)

Still, sometimes Hollywood gets it right.

Like with these 15 portrayals, moving backwards in presidential time:

15. George W. Bush James Cromwell is usually dependable, but we just never bought into his George H.W. Bush in Oliver Stone's W. Josh Brolin, on the other hand, came close enough for government work with his take on the 43rd president.

14. Bill Clinton The default choice here is John Travolta in Primary Colors, and that's perfectly defensible. We prefer (Houston's own!) Dennis Quaid in The Special Relationship -- the voice isn't quite there, but we love the scene at the end when he tries to charm Tony Blair's wife with some never-fails small talk, and she's not having any of it.

Here's the trailer:

13. Ronald Reagan Two Brolins on one list? The White House vibe is strong in this family. The Reagans was chased off CBS by rightwing complaints and sentenced to cable so a lot of people missed it, but it's worth checking out. Brolin gets Reagan's disconnect from reality when things get unpleasant, and Judy Davis plays a brittle Nancy.

12. Richard Nixon Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon was just a bit over the top, as was Anthony Hopkins in Nixon. Both were good, to be sure, but for our money we'll take Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman's Secret Honor. Mostly unknown at the time -- he went on, of course, to greatness as library detective Bookman in Seinfeld -- Hall is on camera alone, talking into a recorder, for the whole movie as Nixon remembers his life, and you're never bored.

The ending, admittedly, is too much:

11. Lyndon Baines Johnson Dumbledore as LBJ? Yep. We could have gone double-Quaid for Randy's portrayal in LBJ: The Early Years, but John Frankenheimer's final effort, Path to War, is marred only by a cheap-looking scene of an LBJ speech to Congress. Other than that, the movie, and Michael Gambon's version of Johnson, are convincing and fascinating, with Donald Sutherland as Clark Clifford and Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara.

 10. John Kennedy

Bruce Greenwood was a very effective, understated JFK in

Thirteen Days

, and William Devane was memorable in

The Missiles of October

. But although the mini-series itself was rote and by the numbers, Greg Kinnear was completely convincing as JFK, especially in a scene where he finds his speechmaking ability. (Just as with

The Reagans

, by the way, complaints from supporters banished this to cable.)

9. Dwight Eisenhower Robert Duvall as Ike and Lee Remick as his wartime mistress Kay Summersby? Even production values that scream "`70s made for TV movie" can't ruin this.

8. Harry S Truman The competition for "Best Truman" isn't exactly stiff, but even if it was, the sure-handed Gary Sinise would be the odds-on favorite.

7. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Kenneth Branagh -- yet another Harry Potter Brit who captured a president. As with Ike, this movie covers the pre-White House years, but still nails one of the most important, if opaque and unfathomable, presidents to ever lead the country. (Note: Bill Murray, of all people, plays FDR in the upcoming Hyde Park on Hudson, with Laura Linney as his confidante Daisy Suckley. Could be great, could suck; we're hoping for the former.)

 6. Woodrow Wilson

Umm, yeah: On the one hand, Alexander Knox was nominated for an Oscar for


; on the other hand, there's a reason they don't make stilted historical films like that anymore.

5. Teddy Roosevelt There's a great movie out there waiting to be made about Teddy Roosevelt, but no one's made it yet. The film clips that survive of him do not translate well to modern audiences, and he's usually reduced to caricature (see Robin Williams in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian ). But we'll give this to Brian Keith in the 1975 epic The Wind and the Lion, if only because he later portrayed William McKinley in a made-for-TV movie about TR's Rough Riders.

4. Ulysses S. Grant A president that has been portrayed by Kevin Kline, Rip Torn, Rob Lowe, Aidan Quinn and Jason Robards? Considering that those portrayals came in some of the biggest bombs ever -- Wild Wild West and The Legend of the Lone Ranger, anyone? -- we're declaring no winner here.   3. Abraham Lincoln Sam Waterston did a great Lincoln in the mini-series from Gore Vidal's novel, but we're prematurely awarding this to Daniel Day-Lewis, providing a) he loses the jeans, and b) director Steven Spielberg doesn't drown us in a bombastic John Williams score.

For President's Day: The Best Movie Portrayals of 15 Presidents

2. Thomas Jefferson Jefferson was played in a musical -- Ken Howard in 1776 -- but we'll go with Nick Nolte in the not-entirely-successful Jefferson in Paris, thanks.

1. George Washington The Father of Our Country is another difficult-to-nail character, mostly because he's been embalmed as the Father of Our Country, a stuffy title which hardly gets across the vibrant, athletic man Washington was.

Talented actors like Jeff Daniels and David Morse have played him with some success, but we're going with Frank Windsor, even though his role is a cameo in Al Pacino's Revolution, if only because the movie -- while laughably corny in spots -- is a gritty, true-feeling imagination of the Revolution, and that's rare in movies.

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