The Mouse House That Bush Built

Our laughable administration: George W. Bush, Steve Martin and Queen Latifah in 'Bringing Down the House'
Touchstone Pictures

Never mind the auteur theory: These days, the one who cuts the checks can hold more sway over a movie's content than the one who yells "Cut!" Indeed, many of the strongest, most idiosyncratic, and original filmmakers of the modern era work nowhere near the actual set: They're directing movies from the PowerBooks in their corporate boardrooms, from the Blackberries in their GulfStream jets. Yet one of the most commanding members of this new production army--our own president, George W. Bush--has been oddly overlooked by the critical establishment, even though his oeuvre has been in plain sight since the early '80s.

"When George got on the board at Silver Screen in 1983, we didn't expect a whole lot," says a formerly high-ranking Disney production executive who wished to remain anonymous. "But it's funny how the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Making grown-up pictures was a new thing at Disney--and George seemed to know how to do that while keeping the Disney image intact. It was kind of incredible, really."

What this executive is referring to is President Bush's seat--still being warmed for him--on the board of Silver Screen Partners II, the primary manufacturer of Touchstone Pictures' theatrical product of the '80s and today. The job before the board in 1983? Make movies for adults at squeaky-clean Disney--and without alienating Uncle Walt's family audience. Once upon a time, board members compliantly signed off on whatever content the creative types delivered. But the young Bush was a pioneer in turning that equation around.

A major Buena Vista shareholder recalls an early board meeting with the 38-year-old Dubya. "He sat us down and said, 'I want to tell the kind of stories I'd like to see. They're not too complicated, but they're funny; they make us feel a little better about how we're gonna make out in the end; they can be enjoyed by grownups without too much language, and without alienating the kids."

The byproduct of this meeting had Bush laying out a story structure that would serve as the foundation for Touchstone's record-breaking hits of the '80s. "He said he had two kinds of things he always liked to see," asserts a junior White House aide. "One was the fish-out-of-water story--the nice guy, maybe not too bright, who gets stuck in unfamiliar circumstances. You don't have to look too far to figure out where that comes from. The other was the story where the uptight yuppie guy learns to relax with the help of a funny sidekick--often a sidekick of color. Sister Act had that, and so did Down and Out in Beverly Hills. [Bush] just went nuts for that formula."

Though the commander in chief never took a producer's credit, his thumbprints were, as French avant-garde novelist Gustave Flaubert would put it, "present everywhere and visible nowhere." A picture to which the president took a particular shine was Captain Ron--which, unfortunately, failed to connect with the American public in 1992 (the year Dubya's dad ceded the director's chair to Slick Willie). But in it one can find all the hallmarks of the president's personal philosophy. Ron is the tale of Sherman (Martin Short), an ordinary, hardworking, white-collar chap who inherits a mangy boat on a distant island. To get that boat to shore, and sell it to an antique-yacht dealer, Sherman must rely on a swaggering, long-haired, licentious roughneck named Captain Ron (Kurt Russell).

"The president at that time was really interested in the conflict between the regular guy and this character Captain Ron," says producer's assistant Frank Sedgwick, whose most recent credit is as second-unit director of the desert combat scenes that Bush recently sold to Rupert Murdoch for a figure reportedly bordering on that of the Iraqi GNP. "To Mr. Bush, Ron represented all the depravities of the '60s: He drinks, he seems to smoke dope, he looks at Sherman's daughter in a lecherous way. It's eerie the way Captain Ron was almost Clintonesque. And Mr. Bush kept saying to the writers, 'Make him worse!' He even wanted to put in a Captain Queeg/Caine Mutiny kind of thing. But we kept it light."

Captain Ron's waterlogged bounty aside, Bush's unabashed preference for simple stories and uplifting endings has proven a winner all around, from the distribution of Ruthless People worldwide to the birth pangs of democracy in Baghdad. And the funny, easy-to-like archetypes that he created for Silver Screen Partners in the early '80s have continued to bear fruit for the company in recent hits such as Bringing Down the House. "That's a Bush picture if ever I saw one," says Patsy Southgate, a onetime D-girl for the Mouse House. "The way that rich, stuffy Steve Martin gets all loosey-goosey at the end--that's the thing the president liked to see. And obviously a lot of other people did, too."

So: Will the President return to his job as the Lone Star State's own Irving Thalberg when his Oval Office tenure comes to a close? Some say that he might not wait that long. "I don't want to go on record about this, 'cause I could really get it," remarks an anonymous source at Jerry Bruckheimer's company. "But let's just say we get a lot of input. All our scripts get read before they go into production. There isn't a move we make without what I call 'guidance from above.'"

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