President Ronald Reagan is the only standing president who made an earlier career off being a Hollywood actor, and yet the Hollywood career of his two wives remains in the shadows…until now. Author Bernard K. Dick’s written extensively about Hollywood stars, predominately for University Press of Mississippi’s Hollywood Legends series. (He wrote Loretta Young: Hollywood Madonna which I reviewed at the blog’s beginning and can be found here). There are moments of fascination within The President’s Ladies, but Dick’s bitten off more than he can chew, turning what should be three separate books into one uneven book with too much reliance plot summary and not enough biography.
Bernard’s premise explores the lives and career intersections of Reagan’s two wives, Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis nee Reagan. However, the book is firmly in Wyman’s favor with over 50% of the story devoted to tracking her career. Obviously, Wyman’s career was longer and varied in comparison to Davis, but why not just write a straightforward biography on Jane Wyman? The scales also tip in favor of contrasting the roles the two women played despite Dick’s attempts to compare them. While neither woman played femme fatales, Davis’ roles were lighter and frivolous in comparison to Wyman who won an Academy Award for her role as a deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda. Dick tries to mitigate events by saying Davis was never interested in fame, and her life turned out far better as First Lady.
Dick’s near-constant backpedaling becomes tiresome, especially when every 20 pages or so he has to remind the audience that Reagan would become President and his wife First Lady. The title “The President’s Ladies” wasn’t a tip-off? He also struggles to punctuate every event in Reagan and Davis’ career as a lead-in to their portentous “destiny” with the White House. Thankfully, Dick refrains from commenting on either person’s political beliefs but fails to properly give any background on any person other than Wyman. Part of this is due to wanting to remain focused, but I found myself confused on who was married to whom at certain points. Furthermore, the story is incredibly scattered, with Dick retracing his own footsteps at several points; he’ll go into detail on a movie only to go back to a previous event while reintegrating the film he just discussed into the new timeline. At a certain point it feels like you’re reading the same titles over and over.
Like Hollywood Madonna, Dick loves to rehash plot summary, great for a book exploring someone’s filmography, or if someone is going to analyze the feature but poor if you have little interest in what amounts of a long-winded box cover. Dick feels the need to spend almost an entire chapter laying out the various plots and schemes of Falcon Crest – a soap Wyman starred in during her twilight years – with no reason other than it’s entertaining to read. If you’ve ever wanted to read a lengthy TV Guide-esque synopsis on what you missed on Falcon Crest, this book’s got you covered.
Dick provides a few insights into the struggles of Wyman’s life, and I was fascinated reading about her children and their mixed reactions to her. However, there just isn’t enough biographical insight into any of the people involved. Much like Hollywood Madonna, this movie is a filmography first and biography second with little research to it despite a bibliography. It’s an entertaining read if you’re intrigued in Regan, Davis, and Wyman’s acting careers and probably one of the more comprehensive books written on that front, eschewing politics.
The President’s Ladies hits bookshelves tomorrow, April 1st.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.