script stumbles

A Brief Look at Will Ferrell’s Brief Involvement With a Ronald Reagan Dementia Movie

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04: Will Ferrell attends a London Fan Screening of the Paramount Pictures film “Zoolander No. 2” at Empire Leicester Square on February 4, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images) Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Variety reported that Will Ferrell would play Ronald Reagan in a movie called Reagan, which he would also produce through his company, Gary Sanchez Productions. Last year, the screenplay for Reagan made the Black List, a collection of unproduced scripts most popular with film executives, and its log line is as follows, emphasis mine: “When Ronald Reagan falls into dementia at the start of his second term, an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the commander-in-chief that he is an actor playing the president in a movie.

That dementia, a big part of the reason why the script made the Black List, is now also the reason why Ferrell will not be playing Reagan — and why this movie might never get made. After the news came out, the Reagan family rushed to condemn the project, with son Michael Reagan tweeting, “#Alzheimers is not a comedy to the 5 million people who are suffering with the decease,it first robs you of your mind and then it kills you.” Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, published an open letter at the Daily Beast further criticizing Ferrell, and the Alzheimer’s Association came down equally hard: “Would filmmakers consider using a fatal form of cancer or another deadly disease for comedy? It’s time to stop this forever.”

Sure enough, by Friday, Ferrell was out, with his reps telling “Page Six” that Ferrell had only been considering the script, and had never actually been attached to star, and, by the way, it’s not an Alzheimer’s comedy, so chill.

That’s a lot of drama for a film that hasn’t even been financed yet, but this is the rare issue where both sides’ positions are perfectly understandable. Let’s start with Ferrell’s. Critics would have you believe that the former George W. Bush impersonator was gleefully searching for newer and more vicious ways to pierce the Republican elite, and in doing so landed on a screenplay that skewers an old man’s descent into a crippling, tragic disease. But in fact, the Reagan script is about as safe a bet as one can make in non-superhero Hollywood, having already landed on the Black List, which has been the launching pad for some very good (and very bad) movies. And reading Reagan on the page, which I have, the defense that it isn’t an “Alzheimer’s comedy” rings somewhat true: The Reagan that Ferrell would’ve played is charismatic, funny, and vivacious; he just happens to think he’s a much younger version of himself, still acting rather than, you know, being president:

Ron, we’re doing this scene in … (Remembering the lingo) …
Cinema Verite. Hidden cameras, like we’re not even filming at all. Just you and your scene partner.

Great. Who’s my scene partner?

Frank sees MIKHAIL GORBACHEV (53, he’s Gorbachev), General Secretary of the USSR. Frank pauses, then:

Its … Ernest Borginine.

Poindexter makes a ‘what the hell?’ face. Reagan beams.

Ernest Borginine!
McHale’s Navy! Airwolf! Talented man.

Meanwhile, as far as portrayals of Republican presidents go, this is a fairly kind one. Oliver Stone’s W. made Bush the Younger look like an eighth-grader who had stumbled into the White House out of sheer vindictiveness and pique, and of the many savage portrayals of Richard Nixon, Philip Baker Hall’s in Robert Altman’s tremendous Secret Honor — made when Nixon was still alive — renders Tricky Dick as a petty, pitiable lunatic.

On the other hand: Alzheimer’s isn’t funny, at all, and it’s hard to blame Reagan’s children about reeling at the idea that their father would be played for comedy while in the throes of it, regardless of whether that was in fact what the script was doing. It would’ve likely taken a strong and enthusiastic defender to push the project’s more debatable aspects beyond the controversy, and even then it probably never would’ve escaped a certain level of scrutiny for that conceit; clearly, however, Ferrell and his team decided very early on that it wasn’t at all worth the trouble that would’ve involved, and they bailed as soon as they had the chance.

Now that it’s been dragged through the media mud, it seems unlikely, though not impossible, that Mike Rosolio’s screenplay will ever get made. Supporters will have to be satisfied with last month’s table read in Los Angeles, starring Lena Dunham and Josh Brolin, and their own ideas about what could have been.

What Happened to Will Ferrell As Ronald Reagan?