Review

Reagan: The Hollywood Years

by Marc Eliot

Ronald Reagan was a self-created man, a one-off legend of the
20th century. In this book we see that he was self-created many
times and, true to his aw-shucks cowboy style, always attributed
each re-creation to The Big Guy looking out for him. It was a style
he learned in Hollywood where, after many Grade-B hero roles, he
became the man in the white hat.

Reagan was born to a modest family in 1913 and early on received
the nickname “Dutch,” which stuck with him ever after.
He finished college with modest athletic accomplishments, had the
usual disappointments and successes in love, and lucked into a job
as a radio sportscaster. His mellifluous, calm vocal style became
his saving grace. On a chance trip to California with the Chicago
Cubs, he met a hopeful starlet who, for reasons known only to
herself, tipped her agent that Ronnie would be a likely movie
prospect. His first screen test confirmed that he was handsome
enough to be a sidekick but not a leading man, and his bland acting
style convinced Jack Warner that "the natural 'all American good
guy' he projected on-screen could very well be worth his weight in
box-office gold."

Reagan never appeared in the great films of his day. He was
always consigned to pictures that just didn't quite come off. He
enjoyed westerns and war movies, loved horses, and used his first
big paycheck to move his parents to California. While he made
movies, he made most of his leading ladies. He married Jane Wyman,
convinced that her success and his were linked, but she kept on
rising while his career remained in the doldrums. Then she strayed
and he strayed, and he started his obsessive round of dating again,
until he ran into the indomitable Nancy Davis, who had only one
thing on her mind: to wed and mold the handsome, laid-back dreamy
guy who once declared he was "too lazy" to get angry.

Initially their union was hardly a recipe for immediate worldly
satisfactions; Reagan went just about broke and Nancy chafed at
being a stepmother and mother instead of a career woman. However,
Reagan still had backers, and his role as President of the Screen
Actors Guild. It turned out that being cast in B-movies wasn't all
that bad when those award-winning Hollywood greats found their own
careers on the skids during the McCarthy era, while the
soft-spoken, steely-eyed Ronnie Reagan stayed clean and clear. His
SAG office gave him a bully pulpit from which to make highly
memorable pronouncements about political issues, and from there, he
began to get work as a speechmaker. Ultimately, he outshone the
first candidate he chose to support, Barry Goldwater, by composing
and delivering the most remembered speech of Goldwater's campaign,
"A Time for Choosing." The rest, of course, is American political
history.

In this well-paced, fully-packed bio, Marc Eliot, author of CARY
GRANT and JIMMY STEWART, has pulled back the curtain on the young,
restless Ronnie Reagan and his early shenanigans. To the
frustration of his many detractors, Reagan is here revealed as
someone who never did much bad stuff and actually took a few tough
stands, but always with the solid backing of his buddies, film
moguls Jack Warner and especially Lew Wasserman, who could be said
to have pulled Reagan's strings throughout his years in Hollywood.
Thanks to a deal struck through the machinations of Wasserman,
Dutch came out looking like the man responsible for negotiating
residual payments to movie actors for replays of their work in the
new medium of television.

If the real facts were a little seedier and the deal a little
more backroom, well, so be it. From situations like those, Ronald
Reagan learned the hands-on work of politics --- lessons he would
carry with him to the highest office in the land, along with his
sincere gaze and that gentle yet fatherly voice.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 23, 2011

Reagan: The Hollywood Years
by Marc Eliot

  • Publication Date: September 9, 2008
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Archetype
  • ISBN-10: 0307405125
  • ISBN-13: 9780307405128