Rob Reiner on Judaism, movies and his experience ‘home shuling’
(JTA)-By his own admission, Rob Reiner was not the right person to direct “LBJ,” a film biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States.
“I had a lot of trepidation,” he said in a telephone interview with JTA.
In addition to a successful career as an actor, Reiner is one of the most bankable directors plying the trade today. His films run the gamut from lighthearted fare like “This is Spinal Tap,” “The Princess Bride” and “When Harry Met Sally,” to serious drama such as “A Few Good Men” and “Misery.”
But “LBJ,” which opens Friday, was different because he had a personal connection to the subject.
“I was of draft age during the Vietnam War, and I looked at Johnson as the enemy,” said Reiner, 70. “I thought he could send me to my death.”
But he revised his views of the former president-both as a man and a potential movie subject-when he read Joey Hartstone’s well-researched script. Reiner said additional research, especially Doris Kearns Goodwin’s illuminating “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” and Robert Caro’s multi-volume Johnson bios, clinched the deal.
Reiner discovered a man far more nuanced than he had imagined. Yes, Johnson expanded and prolonged the Vietnam War. But he also delivered on John F. Kennedy’s legacy and bullied a recalcitrant Congress dominated by Dixiecrats to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, increase funding for education, and create Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
“It was like there were two presidents-one for the Vietnam War and the other with great domestic programs,” the actor-director said. “If it wasn’t for Vietnam, he’d have gone down as one of the greatest presidents of all time. I wanted to make a film that would reveal who this guy was.”
It wasn’t just the dichotomy of Johnson’s politics that Reiner wanted to capture, but the contradictions of his personality, which informed his career.
“What surprised me was his insecurity,” Reiner said. “He had this recurring nightmare where he dreamed he was paralyzed.”
Johnson also had a complicated relationship with his mother in which “at times he felt unloved. I thought that was interesting,” Reiner said.
Also interesting was Reiner’s choice for the actor to play the lead: Woody Harrelson, best known as the slow-witted Woody on “Cheers” and for drawling comic roles in “White Men Can’t Jump” and…