The Hound Dog’s Re­venge

Newsweek - - NEWS - JOHN WAL­TERS @jdubs88

woody har­rel­son’s pri­mary

res­i­dence is a beach­front home on Maui, but in the past year, he has spent as much time in Hawaii as your typ­i­cal hon­ey­mooner. On this sun­blessed Oc­to­ber morn­ing, the ac­tor is in New York City pro­mot­ing his per­for­mance as Amer­ica’s 36th pres­i­dent.

LBJ is one of six films in 2017 that star Har­rel­son, and yet he in­sists, “I’m a lazy moth­er­fucker.”

Har­rel­son is ath­letic and boy­ish and still equipped with the goofy, gap-toothed grin that made Woody Boyd such a be­guil­ing char­ac­ter on Cheers more than a quar­ter-cen­tury ago. He ap­pears to be a decade younger than his 56 years but swears he is ex­hausted. “I much pre­fer to be a slacker,” says Har­rel­son, sigh­ing. “I want to go home and live the frickin’ hip­pie life, wear noth­ing but a bathing suit. I don’t re­ally want to work so much.” So why does he? He lists a few of this year’s projects. “A movie like The Glass

Cas­tle [in which he plays the pa­tri­arch of a dys­func­tional fam­ily in the adap­ta­tion of Jean­nette

This is a por­trayal of a mon­u­men­tal states­man. Hamil­ton without the hip-hop.

Walls’s best-sell­ing mem­oir of the same name]—i can’t see not do­ing that. A movie like LBJ... or War for the

Planet of the Apes... even the Star Wars movie, which took eight months.... I was sup­posed to take the sec­ond half of this year off, but I won’t be get­ting back home un­til Novem­ber.”

He’s just a boy who can’t say no. Or per­haps, like Billy Hoyle in the open­ing scene of White Men Can’t

Jump (1992), Har­rel­son is a se­ri­ous baller pulling a con. Be­neath that gee-whiz façade is an ac­tor of un­com­mon in­dus­tri­ous­ness and ver­sa­til­ity, at home pro­vid­ing comic re­lief in

The Hunger Games or play­ing a tor­mented cop in HBO’S best sea­son of True De­tec­tive. He is equal parts Robert Mitchum and Robert Du­vall, and now he’s that Texas hound dog Lyn­don Baines John­son.

If you see LBJ, it may stun you to re­al­ize that Har­rel­son is older than the man he’s de­pict­ing. The movie cov­ers John­son’s ca­reer from the 1960 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, when he was 52, to his 1964 State of the Union ad­dress, us­ing Novem­ber 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was killed, as a ful­crum. As re­cently as two years ago, Har­rel­son stiff-armed the no­tion of play­ing the fel­low Texan, the so-called mas­ter of the Se­nate. “My first room­mate in New York City, Rob Mo­ran, he’s a pro­ducer now, and he told me, ‘You need to play LBJ.’

“‘Dude, I would never play the guy,’” Har­rel­son replied. Why not? “Be­cause of Viet­nam.”

Ah, the quag­mire. The film avoids Viet­nam al­most as as­sid­u­ously as the cur­rent com­man­der in chief once did. LBJ is not a biopic; it is an ex­cerpt—a few chap­ters from a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer that en­deavor to put some pol­ish on a no­to­ri­ously crass man, while also bol­ster­ing his hu­man­ity.

Rob Reiner di­rected the film, and he lob­bied Har­rel­son hard. The ac­tor now be­lieves John­son de­serves re­con­sid­er­a­tion. “LBJ got a lot of shit, but he ac­com­plished more than any­one other than FDR,” he says. “Medi­care, Med­i­caid, civil rights leg­is­la­tion. Sure, he got bogged down in the war, but other than that, he was an amaz­ing pres­i­dent.”

Reiner did a sim­i­lar about-face. “I was of draft age dur­ing Viet­nam, and here was this man who could send me to my death,” says the di­rec­tor, who, like Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, re­ceived a med­i­cal de­fer­ment. “I hated him. I just hated him. That’s the only view of Lyn­don John­son I had.”

Reiner’s opin­ion shifted as he was work­ing to de­feat Cal­i­for­nia’s Prop- os­i­tion 8 in 2008, which pro­hib­ited mar­riage by same-sex cou­ples; it was passed on the same night Barack Obama was elected pres­i­dent. “I had such mixed feel­ings that night,” he says. “I was elated that our coun­try could be so pro­gres­sive but dis­heart­ened by the vote on Prop. 8.”

As Reiner fought against it, he be­came a stu­dent of how pol­icy, pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment in­ter­sect. Re­search led him to a pro­found ad­mi­ra­tion for LBJ. “We show a scene in the bed­room where Lady Bird [played by Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh] tells him, ‘Kennedy was a man of great ideas. Now we need a man who can de­liver.’ That struck to John­son’s heart, be­cause he knew he could do that,” says Reiner. “He had the deep­est knowl­edge of how gov­ern­ment op­er­ates. He un­der­stood it in his bones.”

The film por­trays a prag­matic po­lit­i­cal grinder (“I’m the only one who knows how to speak South­ern

and how to speak Kennedy,” LBJ quips to a pair of staffers) without re­veal­ing where John­son stood on racial

equal­ity. MLK had a dream, but LBJ had a duty. Late in the film—as the be­lea­guered John­son, now pres­i­dent, is bat­tling South­ern Repub­li­cans to pass the land­mark Civil Rights Act of 1964—he is driven past the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial. He looks out the win­dow of his limou­sine and growls, “This is your god­damn mess I’m clean­ing up.” Dur­ing the shoot, Har­rel­son spent three hours each day in makeup— two to ap­ply the pros­thet­ics and one to re­move them. Still, this phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion may be a more dif­fi­cult sell than the Civil Rights Act. It is a bit of a dis­trac­tion to watch Har­rel­son’s scenes with Richard Jenk­ins (play­ing the racist Se­na­tor Richard Rus­sell), who, in some ways, more closely re­sem­bles LBJ.

Rig­or­ous stu­dents of U.S. his­tory may not rec­og­nize this soft-ped­aled LBJ ei­ther (a noted phi­lan­derer, he is only the de­voted hus­band here). There is the obli­ga­tory scene of Lyn­don dis­cussing his john­son—he was re­put­edly the Mil­ton Berle of Oval Of­fice oc­cu­pants—and an­other in which he sits on the toi­let while talk­ing strat­egy with two staffers (an open-door pol­icy that should have been re­pealed). Still, this is a por­trayal of a mon­u­men­tal states­man;

Hamil­ton mi­nus the hip-hop. In the age of Trump, it might seem cruel to re­lease a movie about a pres­i­dent who, above all, was a prag­ma­tist. It might also seem per­verse to fo­cus on such a pro­foundly am­biva­lent fig­ure. Heroes and mon­sters, after all, usu­ally make bet­ter lead char­ac­ters (see ev­ery comic book block­buster). “But that’s why I wanted to make the film,” says Reiner. “John­son should have gone down as one of the great pres­i­dents. But hav­ing had Viet­nam, it’s all mixed to­gether and bad. That got me to think­ing, Who is this guy?”

“I don’t know what LBJ truly be­lieved in his heart,” says Har­rel­son, who is, as he says this, sit­ting in the shadow of Trump Tower. “We ex­plore the fact that Robert F. Kennedy didn’t trust LBJ in the movie. And I don’t know if I trust LBJ. I just know he was a guy who did shit be­cause it was po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent.”

So how com­pelling will this glasshalf-full char­ac­ter­i­za­tion be for au­di­ences? Lyn­don John­son may be the bet­ter pres­i­dent, but Don­ald Trump will be a bet­ter movie.

THE WOOD MAN LBJ star Har­rel­son, left, with di­rec­tor Reiner.

HIS­TORY IN THE RE­MAK­ING Clock­wise from top left: Reiner on the set; Har­rel­son and Leigh (as Lady Bird) in a scene re-creat­ing John­son’s swear­ing in on Novem­ber 22, 1963, fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy in Dal­las.

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