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Method Acting As A Political Tool

December 19, 2007

People often talk about Ronald Reagan's formidable acting skills. Of all the U.S. Presidents in recent history, Reagan is credited as being the best performer. What does that really mean though? It means that a politician is able to sustain the illusion that he is speaking his mind. In the case of Reagan, the power of this illusion was made all the stronger by the fact that he too believed in the illusion. Herein lay his power as an actor.

The playwright Arthur Miller captures the depth of Reagan's Method Acting abilities in his extended essay, On Politics and the Art of Acting:

"No differently than with actors, the single most important characteristic a politician needs to display is relaxed sincerity. Ronald Reagan disarmed his opponents by never showing the slightest sign of inner conflict about the truth of what he was saying. Simple-minded though his critics found his ideas and remarks, cynical and manipulative as he may have been in actuality, he seemed to believe every word he said; he could tell you that atmospheric pollution came from trees or that ketchup was a vegetable in school lunches, or leave the implication that he had seen action in World War II rather than in a movie he had made or perhaps only seen, and if you didn't believe these things you were still kind of amused by how sincerely he said them. Sincerity implies honesty, an absence of moral conflict in the mind of its possessor. Of course this can also indicate insensitivity or even stupidity. It is hard, for example, to think of another American official whose reputation would not have been stained by saluting a cemetery of Nazi dead with heartfelt solemnity while failing to mention the tens of millions of victims of their vile regime, including Americans. But Reagan was not only an actor, he loved acting and it can be said that at least in public he not only acted all the time but did so sincerely."

Reagan went further than many Method actors in that he was able to combine this introverted approach to performance with a very extroverted delivery -- kind of like someone who'd studied under Grotowski or was part of an Elizabethan acting troupe. "He had this ability to project out of himself," Patty Reagan says in the 1998 PBS documentary about her father (Reagan: American Experience). "That's what actors do. They make you happy or sad. They make you laugh and cry. They make you feel all of the emotions. And so when you're in politics and you want to get a message across to people, you have to be able to go infront of yourself and to project out to those people."

This is exactly what Reagan was able to do: Combine the sincerity of a Method actor with the projection of an opera star reaching the nosebleeds at the Met. He was in himself and infront of himself at the same time. This is quite an achievement for any actor, I'd say.

This ability probably explains why his aides felt they could just wind him up and let him go. As Michael K. Deaver, Reagan's Deputy Chief of Staff says in the PBS film: "All you wanted to do was fix the camera on his head and let him talk. You didn't need him to walk around the desk or sit in the corner and do all those things that people have to do to make politicians interesting."

Of course, what Deaver doesn't say on TV is that Reagan's face was enough to keep people transfixed. He could have been reading the phone book and people would still have kept their eyes glued to him. As a young man, it was because of his good looks. The curl of his lip, the quiff in his hair. But as an older man, that face kept people captivated because it was so damn mobile. The illness he suffered in his dotage kept the muscles moving. He could never keep his jowls still. The effect, as a result, was kind of mesmerizing, like watching a fly buzz around a room.

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