Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nicholas Wapshott's "The Sphinx"

Nicholas Wapshott's books include Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage. A former senior editor at the London Times and the New York Sun, he is now international editor at Newsweek.

Here Wapshott dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and the Road to World War II:
If they make The Sphinx into a film, here's who I'd like to play the lead role(s):

Franklin Roosevelt: John Lithgow
Winston Churchill: Charles Laughton
Eleanor Roosevelt: Katharine Hepburn
Adolf Hitler: Charles Chaplin (playing it ultra-straight, not as in The Great Dictator, as a buffoon)
King George VI: Ronald Reagan
Joseph Kennedy: Benedict Cumberbatch
Charles Lindbergh: Leonardo di Caprio
Father Charles Coughlin: Claude Rains
William Randolph Hearst: Orson Welles
Henry Ford: Daniel Day Lewis
Walt Disney: Ronald Coleman

The characters in my book were so strong I did not need to imagine who would play them. The trick for a film maker (I would ask Michael “Red Shoes” Powell, or Carol “Third Man” Reed) is to find actors who would be forceful enough to play such powerful characters.

Plainly the person playing FDR is key and while I greatly admired the recent portrayal of him by Bill Murray in Hyde Park on the Hudson to be credible and rich, I feel that Lithgow could add the level of stage theatricality that FDR always seemed to enjoy. FDR was a consummate actor, charming and persuading everyone he was on their side – hence The Sphinx -- and he always played himself to perfection.

The same is true of Churchill and if Laughton were not available (btw he was a fine director; if you only make one movie, The Night of the Hunter would be the one), Anthony Hopkins would do the cigar-chomping, champagne and whiskey swilling prime minister to perfection. Katie Hepburn has the right level of faux Englishness and down-to-earth aristo-confidence to play the greatest American woman who ever lived. Di Caprio has already played the flier Howard Hughes for Marty Scorsese, and his boyish looks would bring Lindbergh to frightening, plausible life. Welles has played Hearst before, but this time we would probably face a thumping great lawsuit for going head on with The Chief. Dan Day Lewis is not only a fine actor, he actually looks like the wretched Ford.

The great thing about this story – and any film that might ensue – is that these are no mere cameo roles: they were big characters playing for the big prize, the future of western civilization no less, and each used the last ounce of their fame, celebrity and personality to stamp themselves on history. Happily the right characters won in the end, but it was a close run thing.

For instance, if The Sphinx were to be a comedy, I might try: FDR – Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill – W.C. Fields, Eleanor – Margaret Dumont, Joe Kennedy – Spike Jones (without his City Slickers), King George VI – Ronald Reagan, Henry Ford -- Edward Everett Horton, Hitler – Charles Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh – Justin Bieber, William Randolph Hearst – Orson Welles, Rose Kennedy – Phyllis Diller... Directed by Billy Wilder.

Thanks for asking me to do this. Enormous fun and a brilliant dinner party game. We used to play it at the London Observer, so that whenever there was a news story with big characters we would cast it, often with hilarious results.
Learn more about The Sphinx at the publisher's website and follow Nicholas Wapshott on Twitter.

--Marshal Zeringue