Books: Reagan's Hollywood Years

As Marc Eliot points out in his biography "Reagan: The Hollywood Years," the actor who became president gave short shrift to his Hollywood career in both his memoirs—and when he did mention it, he wasn't always upfront with the facts. Major biographies about Reagan similarly have averted their gaze from his 54 films, most of them forgotten B-movies he made under contract at Warner Bros. Eliot's book intends to be a corrective. "To fully understand Reagan the man," he writes, "one must also understand Reagan the actor … how the characters he played … led him to create the persona he inhabited that eventually served as the God-like narrator of General Electric Theater, the forerunner to his greatest role of all, the president of the United States."

Eliot slogs through the entire Reagan filmography, in which the frustrated actor was usually saddled with thankless best pal parts and—no surprise—the author-ascinéaste finds little to get excited about. Only two of Reagan's movies—"Knute Rockne, All American" and "Kings Row"—succeeded in elevating his status with the public and the studios. What does it say that the summit of his achievement was his cry of anguish, "Where's the rest of me?" when he discovers his legs have been amputated in "Kings Row"? That he would take this brief moment of acting glory as the title of his 1965 memoir might seem pathetic had he not gone on to far greater glory in later life. Aside from the genuine terror he summons in that scene, it's a performance whose cardboard heartiness hasn't worn well with time. He actually seems more comfortable in "Bedtime for Bonzo," playing against a chimp. His earnest comic touch wasn't light, but it was likable.

The passages devoted to Reagan's movies are the least interesting part of what turns out to be a fascinating portrait of an amiable, unflappable young careerist who hitched his wagon to two of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Reagan arrived from the Midwest as a gifted radio sports announcer and had the good fortune of charming Jack Warner and superagent Lew Wasserman—as well as gossip columnist Louella Parsons, the much-feared power broker who gushed over his romances with wives Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis, while averting her eyes from all the starlets he wined, dined and bedded between those marriages. Eliot doesn't neglect his duty to dish.

Neither a hatchet job nor hagiography, "Reagan: The Hollywood Years" is particularly good at compressing the complex political storms that threatened the movie business during the McCarthy witch hunt and the bitter labor disputes that Reagan, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, had to navigate. In these crises, Wasserman, Reagan's agent and head of the talent agency MCA (it later became MCA/Universal Studios), loomed large. Reagan's loyalty to Wasserman outweighed his ethics: SAG cut a secret deal that allowed MCA to both represent talent and produce product—a clear conflict of interest—in return for Universal's agreeing to pay actors residuals when their movies appeared on TV. Reagan left these tales out of his memoirs.

Eliot does a nuanced job charting the actor's metamorphosis from Roosevelt liberal to fierce anti-communist conservative. Reagan's hatred of the Kennedys solidified when RFK opened an investigation into MCA's business practices: though Reagan was forced to admit a conflict of interest in his stake in the General Electric Theater while acting as SAG president, his testimony also revealed his budding skills in the slippery arts of political dodgeball.

Reagan emerges as a curious mix of charisma and passivity. He was dependent on others to push him, whether his tough-cookie first wife, Wyman, who urged him to join the SAG board (and later openly betrayed him with her affair with actor Lew Ayres), or the socially ambitious Nancy, who carefully chose Reagan's new friends from the upper crust of wealthy California Republicans. Many of Eliot's insights come as no surprise, but his ultimate point is hard to contest: Reagan became a great actor only after his acting career came to an end.