By Chris Wallace
It’s twenty-five years since Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson took his iconic photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at the Reykjavik summit meeting. It was like a dream, Axelsson told Iceland Review recently. “I’ve never experienced anything like it before,” he said. “You could feel their power, although Reagan was also like a very friendly granddad”.
Reagan may well have been on his way to senility. Someone who met him three years later at a UN function in New York tells me he was far gone mentally, wearing rouge to make him look less cadaverous and had a minder steering him round by the elbow.
It would be interesting to know how many filmgoers otherwise attracted to Meryl Streep’s channeling of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady were deterred by director Phyllida Lloyd’s use of dementia as a framing device. Thatcher’s own family, former staffers and colleagues projected a collective chill towards the film that can only have dented ticket sales among Thatcher fans.
Streep’s statements that she was brave, and that whether Thatcher liked it or not she was a feminist, may have encouraged more Thatcher-haters to see it than might otherwise have been the case. (Streep points out that amongst other things Thatcher was pro-choice.)
But laboring the dementia made this Thatcher critic avoid The Iron Lady despite Streep’s casting and despite Streep’s feminist protestations. The dementia framing made me feel like Lloyd was neutering Thatcher, symbolically killing her in an act of revenge for her prime ministership – a metaphorical “It’s safe to come out now – we got her in the end”. Would they have done it to a male prime minister or president? Where’s the Bedtime for Ronzo equivalent showing a demented Ronald Reagan? It’ll never be made. Tea Party vigilantes would stone the red carpet strollers on opening night, for one.
Many who met the Queen on her recent visit to Canberra say a similar thing about her as photographer Ragnar Axelsson said about Reagan – charismatic, powerful but also like a sweet old grandma. Axelsson got a few minutes to shoot Reagan and Gorbachev. Annie Leibovitz got a by comparison princely 25 minutes to shoot the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2007, but Elizabeth was more grizzly than grandmotherly at the outset.
She strode into the palace’s White Drawing Room muttering: “I’ve had enough of dressing like this, thank you very much.” Leibovitz’s then five year old daughter curtsied and presented a posy and Leibovitz introduced her assistants. “I don’t have much time,” was the Queen’s response. “I don’t have much time.” When Leibovitz started snapping, the Queen composed herself and said: “I’m not a very good dresser.” Leibovitz learned later that Elizabeth does her own makeup and gets her hair done once a week – and also like the rest of us she doesn’t enjoy a Nikon lens being stuck in her face.
If the defensive grumpiness was touching, the cultural gulf between the Queen and Leibovitz was positively sitcom-worthy. Leibovitz had organized with Elizabeth’s dresser that she would arrive simply attired and they’d work up from there. Instead she arrived wearing a tiara. Leibovitz was in shock: the dresser hadn’t delivered on the deal. Leibovitz suggested to the Queen she take off her “crown” in the interests of a less dressy look. “Less dressy! What do you think this is?” came the retort. Leibovitz put it down to English humour until she realised the Queen’s staff had withdrawn twenty feet from the firing line. Well, why be a queen if you can’t occasionally throw your weight around like one?
The Buckingham Palace foray shows an image management regime from another era. In At Work, Leibovitz recalls going on the road for the first time with Hunter S Thompson covering the 1972 US Democratic primary campaign for Rolling Stone. “They were awkward,” she says of the pols back then. “They were still putting shoe polish in their hair.”
Image management is so sophisticated now it can be hard to sort out the shonks from the stars and the merely shopsoiled. The trick is to look deep into their eyes. That 1972 presidential election ended up being fought by Richard Nixon and George McGovern before Nixon had been exposed for the paranoid narcissist that he was. But look back at the pictures and look into his eyes: his dodginess is on display if you look for it.
Try it at home on the current batch of Australian political leaders. You may make some interesting discoveries. Alternatively steal a page from Iceland’s broadcasting policy of yore, when television was beamed into Icelanders’ homes every day except Thursday. A TV free day. What a good idea!
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 18 February, 2012