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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Patton': When an Oscar movie really mattered

February 13, 2009 |  6:30 pm

Patton Everyone wants to make an Oscar movie that speaks to its time. You could argue that "Milk," one of this year's best picture nominees, might fit that bill, coming on the heels of a controversial anti-gay marriage California proposition battle that was eerily similar to a proposition fight that represented the biggest political triumph of Harvey Milk's career back in the late 1970s. 2005's best picture winner "Crash" certainly felt like a thoughtful commentary on the culture of its time, as did "Traffic," one of 2000's best picture nominees. But no Oscar-nominated movie really hit the pop culture bullseye the way 1970's "Patton" did, a film that was the third-highest grossing movie of the year, winning seven Oscars, including best picture, best actor (George C. Scott) and best original screenplay, was shared by the young Francis Ford Coppola, a week after his 32nd birthday.

It's amazing, in retrospect, that "Patton" won so many awards. Arriving in theaters in the early years of the Nixon administration, near the height of the public's disaffection over the gory Vietnam War, it bitterly divided critics and audiences at the time. Although the movie was set during World War 2, nearly everyone viewed "Patton" through the prism of their feelings about Vietnam; for every moviegoer who saw it as a paean to a ruthless, rogue general in love with the glamour of war, there was another moviegoer who saw it as a satire on militarism gone mad. Liberals were frustrated, even enraged that the film, coming just months after Life magazine had run huge color photos of the My Lai massacre, imagined George S. Patton as much of a stubborn hero as a crazed, despotic killer, happily sacrificing grunt soldiers for his greater glory.

In her review at the time, Pauline Kael dismissed the film as dangerous and dishonest, saying, "The Patton shown here appears to be deliberately planned as a Rorschach test.... This movie is both a satirical epic and a square celebration, yet the satire backfires. The film's style itself validates Patton the war lover as a hero." On the other hand, "Patton" had, as its biggest fan, Richard Nixon, the president of the United States. For the past month or so, I've been reading "Nixonland," a wonderful history by Rick Perlstein of Nixon's rise to power and his invention of the politics of resentment that remained in vogue all the way through the Karl Rove years of the second Bush presidency. At 750 pages, "Nixonland" is quite a hefty load, but Perlstein is a shrewd cultural observer of the tumultuous times. He suspects that it wasn't entirely coincidental that in the days leading up to Nixon's invasion of Cambodia--which sparked some of the most violent campus protests of the entire Vietnam era--that Nixon screened "Patton" over and over, like a film critic watching a powerful new blockbuster, searching for the keys to its embrace by a mass audience.

What did Nixon see in "Patton"? Keep reading:

Nixon didn't leave any written reviews of the film, but as a longtime admirer of Patton--Nixon slept with a copy of a Patton biography by his bed--the president couldn't stop talking about the movie, even ordering his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to watch it as well. Nixon screened the movie four times in the month of April 1970, often drinking heavily afterward. He was such a wide-eyed admirer of the movie that in the weeks before Nixon's famous trip to Red China, Nixon prepared for his visit by reading the memoirs of Andre Malraux, who'd met Chairman Mao during the Long March; the Chinese prepared by watching "Patton."

Nixon clearly identified with Patton in a big way. In an era in which Nixon's critics were often bitterly criticizing the White House's expansion of the Vietnam War, especially with its incursions into Laos and Cambodia, Nixon was one at heart with Patton, who is seen in the film complaining about "politicians who always stop us short and leave us with another fight." Obsessed with not allowing America to be transformed into a piteous, helpless giant, Nixon relished Patton's gung-ho ardor. In the film, Patton barks: "Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser." As Perlstein adds: "Nixon could have said it himself."

"Patton" was a dandy, always wearing ivory-handled revolvers. Nixon, as it turns out, had a similar fondness for pomp and circumstance, dressing the White House police "in uniforms that resembled monarchical livery, until the press started making fun of him." As Perlstein points out, much of "Patton's" dialogue surely struck a deeply responsive chord with the beleaguered wartime president, particularly when the general growls: "All this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung." Like Nixon, Patton also loathed the liberal media, whom he referred to as "bilious bastards who don't know anything more about real battle than they know about fornicating!"

Nixon and Patton had other elements in common: Nixon saw himself as a victim of Eastern elites who claimed to be his betters and who victimized him for being too tough. Like Patton in the film, Nixon loved reading adoring fan mail. Furious with the U.S. Senate, which at the time had rejected a series of his Supreme Court appointments, Nixon especially identified with a scene in the film in which one of Patton's aides pins a new star on his collar, signifying his promotion to three-star general. The far more politically savvy Gen. Omar Bradley, played by Karl Malden, gives Patton a disapproving look.

"What's the matter, Brad?" Patton says. "I've been nominated by the president." Bradley demurs: "But it doesn't become official until it's approved by the Senate." "I know," Patton says with a snort of derision. "But they have their schedule and I have mine."

I guess it's somehow fitting that Nixon, in the form of Frank Langella's sublime performance, is back at the Oscars this year, via "Frost/Nixon." Even though it never shows up on any White House tapes, it's hard not to imagine Nixon, at home in the White House, watching "Patton" sweeping the Oscars in the spring of 1971, saying with grim satisfaction, "For once, the damn academy got it right."

By the way, Nixon was the tie-breaker answer in our "Ebony and Ivory" trivia quiz. Thanks for playing along. As you may have noticed from our comments, the two actresses who received Oscar nominations for playing black women were Susan Kohner (for 1959's "Imitation of Life") and Jeanne Crain (for 1949's "Pinky").

Photo of George C. Scott in "Patton" from the Associated Press

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