OK Mr President, we're ready for your close-up

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The Independent Culture

Film Studies

Film Studies

I am writing this on August 15th, and I'm excited because the night before Bill Clinton made his last great speech to his nation, at the Democratic Convention, in the city he chose for its site, Los Angeles. (His Los Angeles, let's say, a place where he has friends, and maybe a future.) But what made it exciting was not just his evident pleasure and skill in addressing the nation but the way he controlled his Kubrick-like entrance, as if he were directing himself in a movie...

It does not minimise the contest between Gore and Bush to guess that, if he could run again, this November, Bill would be voted back as president. He has run a surgent economy; he is a package of smarts, charm, feeling and charisma that makes Gore and Bush look like bodyguards; and he is still Bill Clinton, who would flirt with a telephone operator rather than settle for dead air. He has restored flirtation to its proper place in discourse; yet he has asked us to regard sexual behaviour as deservedly private.

What put me in this mind is reading Joe Eszterhas's new, scummy book, American Rhapsody, which is an endless, reactionary psycho-biography about Bill, Monica and the sexual imagination of most modern American politicians.

Eszterhas, 56, was born in Hungary. He was famous a few years ago as Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter - one day he boasted to me that he had done some doctoring on someone else's script for as little as $600,000 a week. He exulted in the brutality of the numbers, the rape of another's work, and in shocking me - a serious film critic.

Joe has always been sensitive to critics. As I list his movies, let me put them in two groups - as Joe likes to do. You see, he could be himself, like the journalist he had been, doing investigative reports. Or the other guy, "the twisted little man inside me". The good Joe wrote Music Box, Telling Lies in America, F.I.S.T., and Betrayed; while the scuzzball did Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Sliver and Jade.

In time, Joe felt that this division of labour threatened his artistic soul. He was also afraid that his "public persona as a screenwriter was overwhelming my creative life". (Though no one had done more to cultivate that persona.) So he took his new wife and their children to Maui. He "let the sun beat me up", and unaware of how the one can block the other, he "thought about things". The result is American Rhapsody, which is so deaf to American public reactions that it insists on going through all the sordid evidence for impeachment one more time.

This doesn't make for a rhapsody (which has been a Hungarian form over the years). Joe says he likes sex, personally; and that he always saw Clinton as his kind of guy, a sexy fellow out of the rock'n'roll generation. But for 400 drab, relentless pages, he amasses the details of furtive sexual behaviour as if sex itself were dirty, shameful and a way in which great men betray themselves. Most of America, and much of the world, may share that dread. But American reactions to the impeachment process were let it go, don't spell it all out, let the sex stay private. By implication, America was saying, yes, it could endure a sexual outlaw if he was a good president.

That's why I stress the abiding popularity of this painfully weak man. That's how he refuses to conform to the clichéd mean-mindedness of Joe Eszterhas's screenwriting approach. To be precise, Bill Clinton is so much more interesting than, say, the Michael Douglas character in Basic Instinct. I'd still like to see a real movie, or read a good book, about Bill and Monica. But it would have to let me feel the desperation, the passion, the silliness with which those two fell in love. For I think that's what happened.

In turn, I still want to know what Bill and Hillary ever saw in each other, and feel the way in which a man of great power and authority, frustrated in, say, health care policy, might need to reassert his ego with a squalid, stupid affair - and then need to call it love because sincerity meant so much to him.

Even at Joe's grinding level, there are great human mysteries in this story - the elements of rhapsody as opposed to exposé. I give extraordinary credit to Bill Clinton for having risen above his own disaster. Richard Nixon, for instance, never did. He was traumatised by shame and depression. Clinton was humiliated - not so very long ago, he was a laughing stock, the jerk on the end of a cigar. He stood up and sucked it in, without ever giving up on his faith in people, in love, in sex even.I don't think his silliness has taken a dent.

I do not mean to excuse him: he lied to the nation, he manipulated the law, and for those things he might have resigned. But Bill Clinton acted out several difficult ideas - not least that a great man can commit stupid mistakes; that old-fashioned family values can accommodate adultery (and take grown-up responsibility for it); that sincerity can be poisoned and still keep the faith. No wonder Hollywood loves him so much. No wonder there are so many creative minds - his, foremost - wondering if that town's special art and business can't give this most youthful of ex-presidents a second career. Bill Clinton knows something denied to Joe Eszterhas: that the upright fellow and the twisted little man are one and the same.