Professor of English Harry Keyishian is a well-renowned Shakespeare scholar who has written The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare, as well as numerous articles, reviews and essays in publications like Shakespeare Quarterly and Shakespeare Bulletin. He switches gears in his latest book, Screening Politics, published in July by Scarecrow Press. Keyishian, who also is the director of the editorial committee for Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, gave FDU Magazine a preview.
Q. Your new book is called Screening Politics. Whats it about?
A. Its about American movies that deal with candidates and campaigns and what politicians do in office. I deal with more than 50 movies made between 1931 and 2001.
Q. Isnt it unusual for a Shakespeare scholar to be writing about movies I mean, movies not about Shakespeare?
A. Actually, I found a lot in common between Shakespeare and these movies. Shakespeare wrote in an era that believed in the divine right of kings that saw monarchs as sanctified beings who ruled in the name of God. You would think such ideas would be out of place in a democracy, but I found that in many of these movies especially those made in the 1930s the president was seen as a sanctified person. In one rather notorious movie from 1933, Gabriel Over the White House, an angel inhabits the president and gives him extraordinary powers so that he can get the country out of the Great Depression. Its actually kind of scary, because the film advocates that we suspend democracy and accept dictatorship. Its not the only one, either. I found four or five made around the same time that suggest we put a strong man in power.
Q. Does this idea of presidential divinity always lead to dictatorship?
A. Not at all. There were several movies made about Lincoln in which he was surrounded by an aura of divinity, anticipating his later martyrdom. He was seen both as the ultimate common man and at the same time a holy man, who represented the soul of democracy. And there are lots of movies in which politicians start out as ordinary beings but become larger than life. The most memorable of these movies was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which uses a good deal of Christ imagery, as young Jeff Smith played by James Stewart takes on a corrupt congress. He wins out in the end, of course. This kind of hero I call him the redeeming hero, because he saves the nation is mostly dominant in the 1930s.
Q. Obviously not all movies see politicians that way.
A. Definitely not. After World War II, there was a revisionist trend in movies, starting with a 1948 movie called Alias Nick Beal, in which the well-intentioned hero literally sells his soul to the devil in order to gain political success. That film is followed by lots of others in which politics is seen as a Faustian bargain. All the Kings Men is a great example. The hero, Willy Stark, doesnt literally sell his soul, but he does become corrupt in order to succeed.
Q. So do all politicians fall into this trap?
A. No, but in these post-war movies, they need to make a choice. If they want to save their souls and retain their integrity, they have to leave politics. This happens in such movies as State of the Union (1948) and The Best Man (1963).
Q. So the movies have that struggle as a common theme.
A. Yes, and thats what makes them a genre that holds them together. They all deal, in one way or another, with the struggle between political success and personal integrity.
Q. Do you have a favorite?
A. I agree with most critics that the 1971 movie The Candidate, starring Robert Redford, is the smartest political movie ever made. In it, Redford plays an idealistic young crusader who starts his run for senator out of pure idealism but gradually gets led astray by the pressures of campaigning, and, of course, his own ambitions. I understand that Redford is now making a sequel.
Q. What is the current trend in political movies?
A. Oddly enough, the redeeming hero makes a comeback in the 1980s and 1990s, with the action hero presidents of Armageddon and Air Force One, and, in a different way, with such sweet-natured characters as the presidents in Dave and in The American President. They arent gods, but they do rise above the rest in some quality essential to leadership morality, idealism, integrity. Youve even got Bulworth, in which Warren Beatty becomes transformed from a cynical hero to a semidivine one by singing rap! Theres always a twist out there. Thats what makes movies fun to write about.