The reason for Will Ferrell‘s recent decision to bail on playing a dementia-afflicted Ronald Reagan in an adaptation of Mike Rosolio’s Reagan basically boiled down to Twitter pushback and more particularly some outraged views posted by Reagan family members and allies.
I’m not saying that Ferrell’s performance as the nation’s 40th president or the film itself would have necessarily been legendary or world-class or even good, but it might have been. Having read the script, I posted an opinion on 4.27 (two days before the Ferrell turnabout) that “if and when it gets made with a decent director in charge, Reagan could turn out to be Ferrell’s most substantive film ever.”
Imagine if the news had somehow gotten around Twitter-style in 1940 that a 25 year-old upstart had persuaded the RKO honchos to greenlight a film that would contain negative, unflattering views of the life of William Randolph Hearst. The Hearst empire (which sought to have the film suppressed or better yet burned after it was completed) would have instantly tried to get RKO to pull the plug, and it’s at least possible that RKO, not having yet committed major funds to the project, might have caved. But somehow this didn’t happen, probably for reasons having to do with character and cojones.
Imagine also if 22 years later U.S. Air Force reps and the family of Gen. Curtis LeMay had gotten wind of Stanley Kubrick‘s intention to savagely lampoon LeMay in a Columbia film about nuclear war, and their combined efforts, assisted by sympathetic newspaper columnists, managed to persuade Columbia to pull out. It could have conceivably happened.
You could probably compile a list of dozens of award-winning, critically-hailed films that might have been stopped in their pre-production tracks if their controversial subject matter and/or approach had gotten around and created serious blowback, resulting in the financiers (or the actors slated to play major roles) turning tail.
Why did Ferrell and his team decide to run from Reagan? It wasn’t just a matter of resistance but inner constitution. Being a good filmmaker isn’t just a matter of talent, judgment and stamina. You also need a little thing called balls.