When Nancy Reagan, in the late 1980s, thought her husband needed something to “liven up” the doldrums of post-White House life, she went straight to a Hollywood top gun for help.
In Movie Nights with the Reagans, being released on Feb. 27, author and former White House aide Mark Weinberg reveals that former president Ronald Reagan, a former actor, was always “bothered” by the fact that he was not given an honorary Oscar. And, as his retirement schedule was so dull, Mrs. Reagan invited Tom Cruise to her “Ronnie’s” California offices so that he could relive some of his own Hollywood glory days with one of “modern Hollywood’s” newest stars.
“After all, [Reagan] was an elder statesman not only of the United States but of Tinseltown,” Weinberg writes. “We knew he would be interested in getting to know his successors as movies stars, as well as learn how the motion picture business had evolved. Cruise, one of the biggest stars of the 1980s, seemed an ideal person to approach.”
Not only that, but Weinberg writes that Reagan had been a Cruise fan ever since watching Top Gun with Nancy and his staff at Camp David. (Movie watching was a regular pastime for the former actors turned president and first lady while they were at the retreat.)
The Reagans first screened Top Gun shortly after its release in 1986. The movie follows Cruise’s character Maverick as he fights to be the best in the United States Navy’s elite fighter weapons school. While there was what Weinberg described as “awkwardness” for the Reagans during the love scenes between Maverick and Charlie (played by Kelly McGillis), Reagan loved the dogfighting scenes.
“The president enjoyed Top Gun, perhaps not least because it was one of the biggest Hollywood movies in a long time that was unabashedly pro-military,” the author writes. The film, “released more than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, was not afraid to portray the American military unequivocally as the ‘good guys,’ and that was certainly more in line with Reagan’s own thinking.”
When Cruise appeared in Reagan’s offices a few years after the film’s release, he drove himself and had “no chauffeur, no security, and no entourage, and was wearing a dark suit and tie to meet my boss,” writes Weinberg.
After they were served “water and jelly beans from a crystal jar bearing the presidential seal,” the two men discussed the movie industry and politics before comparing their careers in Hollywood.
“For his part, the younger actor listened intently to Reagan’s stories from the earlier days and how his acting experience had compared with serving as president,” the author writes. “Reagan talked, longingly, to my ear, about the old studio system that used to run Hollywood, comparing working for a studio to being part of a big family.”
After an hour, their meeting was over. In Weinberg’s mind, he’d “just witnessed a meeting between two of the most popular individuals in America.” Paula Wagner, Cruise’s talent agent at the time, remembers that both she and Cruise “were amazed to be in a room with a man who had been president of the United States.”
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For Reagan, the meeting was proof that though he had morphed from actor into president he never stopped valuing his former profession.
“To the consternation of his staff, Ronald Reagan would sometimes say he did not see how someone could do the job of president without having been an actor,” Weinberg writes. “… the modern-day US presidency required an understanding of how to influence the public opinion in a new way. He was keenly aware that most people formed their opinions based on what they saw on-screen, and that a simple gesture, expression, or image could have far more impact than a perfectly crafted policy platform or speech.”
Reagan’s love for the film industry was great, but he was upset that he didn’t get the same love in return — specifically in the form of an honorary Oscar.
The former president once told Weinberg while they were in his office in Los Angeles: “You would think that after what I’ve done — being the only one from that profession to do so — they would commemorate it in some way. But I guess their political agenda has taken over good manners.”
Weinberg explains: “Reagan was a little bothered that Hollywood never officially acknowledged that one of their own had ascended to the presidency. He thought an honorary Oscar might have been in order — and felt that had he been a Democrat, he would have received one.”
Movie Nights with the Reagans releases on Feb. 27.