Starting this Saturday on HBO, you can watch Bryan Cranston slip into Lyndon B. Johnson's shoes in All the Way, a movie adaptation of the Broadway play Cranston also headlined. Between All the Way, Selma, and The Butler, LBJ has been making more movie cameos than usual lately — and he's set to make one more in a biopic starring Woody Harrelson due this October. So what do scholars make of the former president's Hollywood hot streak? We asked Anne Wheeler, the director of communications for the LBJ Presidential Library, to share her thoughts on historical flicks about Lyndon B. Johnson.
What do you think of the casting in All the Way? Did you see the play?
Well actually we premiered the film the other night here at the library. HBO brought Bryan Cranston here, and Anthony Mackie, and the director Jay Roach, and the playwright Robert Schenkkan, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was a consultant on the film. So it was the Austin premiere of the film. Unfortunately I was working and didn’t get to see it. [Laughs] But we’re very familiar with it because it’s based on the play. And I have seen the play -- I saw it here in Austin. Bryan Cranston did a good deal of research here at the library. So we worked with him as he prepared for the play, and then we also worked with him as he prepared for the film. We also worked with the director Jay Roach -- providing them archival material and that kind of information.
Mark Updegrove, who is the director of the library, has seen the film and he says that it’s quite good. He’s very pleased with it. But I think all of us at the library are pleased. The play was on Broadway and it’s been in other cities and now the film will be on HBO. It’s always wonderful to reach new audiences, particularly younger audiences who would be watching HBO. They can learn about that very eventful time in history and what President Johnson accomplished. And why he worked so hard to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
I know the library raised some objections over the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in Selma two years ago. What were you concerned people would gather from that movie?
It wasn’t the portrayal of President Johnson. And again, you can attribute that to Mark Updegrove. He wrote an op-ed in Politico where he pointed out that the film Selma did not portray the working relationship between President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King [correctly]. It was portrayed as more contentious, whereas in reality, they had a very good working relationship, a very productive partnership. They worked together to reach the public and lawmakers about what was going on with race relations at the time and disenfranchisement, to garner public support for passage of the Civil Rights Act. So the issue was not the portrayal of President Johnson or the portrayal of Dr. King, it was the portrayal of their relationship.
Are there other movies that you feel cast Johnson in an inaccurate or unfair light?
Not right now. I really can’t think of anything [recent]. If there has been, I think it was made so many years ago that it's just not on people’s radar anymore. And of course in October, Rob Reiner’s film LBJ will be released. That’s starring Woody Harrelson as LBJ. So you had Selma, and now you have All the Way, and then you have the Rob Reiner film in October. These are all pretty recent.
Did the library also work with Rob Reiner?
Yes. Woody Harrelson came to the library and did research as well.
Do you think he’s a good fit for the role?
You know, it’s so hard to tell. Because you look at Woody Harrelson and the different characters he has played and just to look at him physically… we haven’t seen him made up as LBJ. But I think after seeing Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, it might’ve been hard [for some people] to imagine him as LBJ. Then you see him made up, and he just captured his energy and his facial expressions and the cadence of his voice. So Bryan Cranston for sure, but we don’t know about Woody Harrelson because we haven’t seen him. But he did research and he’s very committed to it and I would be surprised if he did not do a good portrayal of Lyndon Johnson.
Do you think there’s any aspect of Johnson’s personality or work as president that films tend to overlook?
I think one of the aspects of a presidency that’s always hard to capture in a film is what goes on behind the scenes and that’s mainly just because people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. But we’re very lucky because we have the telephone recordings where we can actually hear his voice, when he called members of Congress and was trying to persuade them to pass the bill. We also have lots of film of him. We have lots and lots of photographs of him. So I think the decision-making process of a president is always very fascinating, but that’s sometimes very difficult to capture on film, because it’s such a personal reflection of a president.
It seems that, with recent exceptions, Lyndon Johnson doesn’t get a lot of movies that are just about him. He’s often shoehorned into films or series about the Kennedys or he pops up in sprawling historical sagas like The Butler. Why do you think that is?
Well, he’s not a modern president. And he followed John F. Kennedy, who had such charisma, and I think people will always wonder about Kennedy. There’s always that sense of what he could've done, and what would’ve happened had he lived. So there’s still lots of questions about John F. Kennedy. And then President Johnson has been dead since 1973, so his legacy is just really not known by a lot of people.
Most people categorize him by two issues: The Great Society and Vietnam. And a lot of people don’t even know what The Great Society entailed. For example, you wear a seatbelt in your car today because of a law that was passed during the Johnson administration. When you buy food at the grocery store, the labels that list the ingredients are the result of laws passed during the Johnson administration. When you watch Sesame Street on TV, that’s because it was part of the corporation for public broadcasting, another law passed during the Johnson administration. So I think there are just so many of these laws that were passed back in the ‘60s that have been around for so long, no one even knows they’re associated with Lyndon Johnson.
Feature Image via LBJ Library Flickr