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NIXON // THE PLAYERS

Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) used to believe that murderous Hannibal Lecter was his favorite role. Now he says it's Richard Nixon, whose immersions in corruption and paranoia give Nixon a deep sense of Shakespearean tragedy.

Although British, Hopkins was an avid viewer of the Senate Watergate Committee hearings in 1974. His understanding of the scandal led to a suggestion for Nixon cinematographer Robert Richardson, when a shot shows the resigning president viewing a White House portrait of his rival, John F. Kennedy.

Hopkins convinced Richardson to light the scene to resemble a sunset: "The twilight of the American Dream," the actor mused.

"I thought it was a tragic mess, and Nixon was a tragedy for America and for himself. I was very affected by his goodbye speech, the one we do in the film. Little did I know that 20 years later I'd be playing him.

"It was such a great fall from grace. That walk to the helicopter at the end is the loneliest walk any man ever took. I visited the White House and walked that lawn and wondered what he must have been thinking. All his dreams, everything he ever wanted, destroyed. And he did it. He was a damn fool. I always felt sorry for him, and for the American people he betrayed."

Paul Sorvino (The Firm) is the only actor in Oliver Stone's Nixon who attempts a complete impersonation of a White House figure, with blue contact lenses, a fake nose and hair, and the rumbling Germanic accent of U.S. negotiator Henry Kissinger. He's also one of the few Nixon stars who had an opportunity to meet the man he's playing.

"I called (Kissinger's) office . . . and said it would behoove both of us to meet, since he might be remembered to some degree by what I do with him in this movie," Sorvino said.

"He had read the script already. God only knows how he got it. He read it as it came out of Oliver's typewriter, apparently.

"The only thing I did ask, as far as historical reference, was did he actually kneel (when Nixon asked to join him in prayer before resigning).

"At first, he hedged his answer. I asked if he was moved and he said yes. To tears? Because that's how I'm going to play it. At the end of the conversation he said: (in Sorvino's rumbling impersonation) "You may be right, I may have knelt.' "

It's easy to guess where James Woods' sympathies lay during the Vietnam War: "M.I.T., Class of '69," he said. "You think I was out there demonstrating to escalate the Vietnam war?" Woods plays White House crony H.R. Haldeman, for whom he gained a measure of respect missing during the protests.

"Haldeman was Nixon's Iago, if you will. He's always there in his ear, always running everything," Woods said. "But he was very monotone in his approach, which you can see in his diaries. It's like: "Bombed Cambodia today. Took the kids bowling last night.' Totally uninflected. Yet, when he was with underlings, he could explode.

"I came to like the guy more because I didn't know he was a devoted family man, a Christian Scientist, and so loyal to Richard Nixon. Those traits, in general, I admire. I do believe his intentions were not as malicious as we thought then. He was really loyal to a fault, which led him down the slippery slope of corruption, unethical behavior and finally criminal behavior."

Whenever something bad happens in a movie and J.T. Walsh is in the cast, moviegoers have a good idea of who's guilty. Walsh has made quite a career of what he terms "ethically challenged" characters, but his portrayal of White House aide John Ehrlichman makes him appear to be the only rational voice in the Oval Office.

"Ehrlichman was the guy who asked questions like: "Is this legal?' " Walsh said with a chuckle. "It goes a little far to call him the moral conscience of the Nixon administration; he was just a lawyer and those were questions he was meant to ask.

"When you get down into the personal relationships between these people, you find they went to school together; same schools, same fraternities. Watergate was just an extension of those fraternal pranks. It was a McGuffin that opened the door to see the stuff they had been doing all along, which were not pranks, but serious crimes."

Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) submerged his Cockney accent and charm to invoke the intimidating presence of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoskins researched every book and film record of Hoover's career, and later works that suggested Hoover was a homosexual. This possibility led Hoskins and co-star Brian Bedford (as Hoover's companion Clyde Tolson) to suggest to Oliver Stone that they would play the roles in drag.

"We thought Oliver would take it as a joke," Hoskins recalled. "Then we turned up on the set and he had all these dresses for us. We lost our nerve. Was he calling our bluff? With Oliver, you never really know."

Even his extensive research didn't lend many clues about Hoover to Hoskins.

"(Hoover) was so guarded, it was extraordinary," the actor said. "Every single time he appeared in front of a camera he was different. He reinvented himself every time. He was just riddled with self-loathing. He hated himself and that's why he collected all that (expletive deleted) on people; the more he found that people were just as bad as he was, the more he liked it. It was like a drug to him."

Unlike her co-stars, Joan Allen (Searching for Bobby Fischer) didn't have access to reams of information on former First Lady Pat Nixon, who cloaked herself in as much anonymity as her position allowed. A 10-minute interview with Barbara Walters in 1972 served as Allen's primary inspiration, and she turned it into a dead-on performance that already has generated buzz for a best supporting actress Oscar.

"I guess I was one of the few Americans who didn't have a strong feeling about her, one way or the other," Allen said. "That helped me play the part. I wasn't coming in with any judgment of this woman."

Allen pieced together a profile of Pat Nixon's life and marriage, which Stone's film suggest would have been much smoother if her husband hadn't been a politician.

"I think they were happy together in the early years (because) he had no plans for politics at that time," Allen said. "She had a lot of faith in him and thought good things would come, but I don't think she expected a political life. She loved him, but it eroded over the years; took on a different form. It was difficult to express, and so much hurt came with it, that it boiled down to loyalty at the end."

Loyalty prompted Pat Nixon to support her ailing parents during her teenage years, and kept her in the White House while her marriage and the Presidency crumbled.

"She was almost the perfect candidate to be his wife, in terms of being a caretaker in the back seat," Allen said.

Powers Boothe has played cold, calculating characters since his breakthrough performance as Rev. Jim Jones in the 1980 TV-movie Guyana Tragedy. His portrayal of Nixon chief of staff Gen. Alexander Haig didn't turn out as dark as the public reputations of the actor and his subject might suggest.

"You always try to find something to like about whoever you're playing, but it was real easy for me with Haig," Boothe said. "That cold image that people have of him is not the case. He was very charming, very gracious, had a great sense of humor. We yukked it up the whole time.

"And yet, you asked Haig what you wanted to know and he told you. He said Nixon was the brightest of the seven presidents he served, by far. He liked Richard Nixon and respected him. But he also said Nixon did some of the stupidest things and was guilty as hell."

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