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Cynthia Nixon, Robert Altman’s ‘Tanner ‘88,’ and Running For Public Office Now & Then

Written by Caden Mark Gardner on September 7, 2018 

tanner-88

The Democratic primary for Governor of New York is on Thursday, September 13. Based on polls, it appears that incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo will prevail and run for his third term despite the populist wave and attention around his primary opponent, actress Cynthia Nixon. Nixon, a longtime public-school and education activist, has never been in elected office, and her acting background has been characterized as both a blessing and curse with regard to her visibility and viability as a candidate. Her iconic role as Miranda Hobbes in the television program Sex & the City can be what Cuomo voters point to in not taking her seriously, in addition to her inexperience; meanwhile, Nixon’s campaign created apparel in the “I’m a Miranda Collection,” which includes t-shirts and tote bags with the slogans “I’m a Miranda and I’m voting for Cynthia.” Nixon’s campaign has played a delicate balancing act in what gets her attention and an outlet to be heard when up against an entire party apparatus and status quo. Yet the renegade, populist outsider–underdog candidate–that Cynthia Nixon has been characterized as in running against the establishment-backed Cuomo does bear parallels to a role in her acting career: Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau’s made-for-television HBO mini-series Tanner ‘88, for which Nixon played the daughter of a Presidential candidate for the 1988 Democratic Party nomination — a series where the lines of fiction, real life, and electoral politics blurred. Cynthia Nixon is for real as a candidate for Governor, but back in 1988 she took part in one of the more unique hybrids of fictional and non-fictional political theater, giving one of her strongest performances.

The project came to fruition through HBO, long from finding its hold on the culture (to contextualize what HBO was then in original programming, this was pre-Tales from Crypt), contacting Pulitzer-winning Doonesbury comic strip creator Garry Trudeau to write a fictionalized account of a 1988 Presidential candidate in the first post-Reagan election, a wide-open field. Trudeau agreed on the condition Altman be contacted to direct every episode. Altman was closing out the 1980s — a far cry from his 1970s peak of Three Women, M*A*S*H*, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, best represented in the disastrous critical and financial flop Popeye. Even the films that were well-received during this decade (e.g. the fire-breathing Richard Nixon one-man show Secret Honor and Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean), though completely enthralling as drama, were all contained within a single setting, underscoring how Altman’s scope from a decade earlier felt capped by studios. He had been doing TV movies around that time too, a format where he cut his teeth as a journeyman director decades earlier (his credits included episodes of Bonanza, Route 66, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents) but nothing in the realm of Tanner ‘88. He also agreed and the rest is history. Through 11 episodes broadcast from February to August of 1988, Trudeau, Altman, and their cast — Trudeau would use the news to quickly write out script situations but, also with Altman, heavily leaned on improvisation, inviting real-life figures and candidates to naturally approach their camera and actors — were reacting in real time to the unfolding Democratic primary and the media, all while shooting on location, wondering how they could realistically, compellingly present a doomed-to-fail candidate from the start to end of the primary season.

tanner-88-1The mini-series centers on fictional ex-Michigan Congressman Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) as a candidate re-emerged after leaving public office in the 1970s to run for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination. Tanner would be presented as interacting and be treated like a real-life candidate, Altman and Trudeau inserting him and his campaign at real primary locations and interacting with real-life figures — politicians, journalists, celebrities, and regular citizen– as though Tanner exists in the real world. There is no known direct political inspiration for Tanner and his political leanings (such as being a critic of the War on Drugs). “Think of Tanner not as a pretend candidate, but a novel kind of one. He does not mirror the electoral process and critique it, as we might suppose, but gains access to the workings of that process and physically interacts with it,” critic Gary Kornblau wrote in an essay for the mini-series when it was released on home video in the Criterion Collection. Through Tanner’s candidacy, Tanner ‘88 was about presenting the process, some of which is ripe for comedy and drama mined by Trudeau, Altman, and company.

Michael Murphy as Jack Tanner is a candidate in identity crisis. Murphy, a longtime Altman player best-known as campaign lackey John Triplette in Nashville for another renegade Altman politician — disembodied, absent Replacement Party nominee Hal Philip Walker (voiced by writer and actor Thomas Hal Phillips) — plays Tanner as a square whose progressive ideas feel untapped. The early episodes focus on that tension of trying to help him gain in the polls and humanize him in ways that mirror the struggles of pretty much every Democratic candidate not named Barack Obama or Bill Clinton since. There is a frank discussion about what it means to be considered an approachable, relatable candidate while also not being “just like” voters (a Jimmy Carter problem) and, rather, a candidate who is “comfortable with power.” His campaign manager, T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed), forms an ad from secretly videotaping him making unscripted comments in his hotel room, branding Tanner’s authenticity as a breath of fresh air to the Presidential race with the campaign slogan,“For Real” (which also doubled as ads for the show itself). Given that the last known tape of a Presidential candidate — an ugly, misogynistic, sexually profane recording of Donald Trump and Access Hollywood host Billy Bush — was considered a potential hazard to Donald Trump’s viability until he won, it seems equally quaint and bizarre now that raw footage of a candidate would be used by the campaign as an asset. Reed’s Cavanaugh rings as more of a decisive presence than Murphy’s Tanner, but also has some pretty human flaws (e.g. repeatedly saying too much to an embedded reporter, confessing as though he is her priest, on the campaign trail) that prove her not to be some proto-Rove architect who could cynically make her candidate a puppet. And then there is Cynthia Nixon as Alexandra “Alex” Tanner, who, for better or worse, feels fives steps ahead of her own father.

Nixon’s Tanner, like Reed’s Cavanaugh, feels more confident and expressive than Murphy, which early on underscores Jack Tanner’s struggles in feeling like a candidate without a voice or control of his own campaign. Her childhood illness is presented in campaign ads as the reason her father, a divorcee, left politics, but said ads quickly reveal themselves as pat and over-simplified. This is not your usual candidate’s daughter. Alex in Tanner ‘88’s entire run is a kind of character never before seen in political campaigns of the real or fictional. This was pre-Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992, where even having an outspoken spouse was seen as radical; here, Nixon portrays an eighteen-year-old idealist who herself often behaves like a candidate. Dropping out of college to participate in the campaign, Alex becomes as a strong, vocal presence within the entire apparatus, and is outspoken over progressive and liberal causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement for South Africa. But she, too, is imperfect, running her mouth and putting her father in pretty precarious positions. And when Jack Tanner falls for a Michael Dukakis campaign lieutenant Joanna Buckley (Wendy Crewson), it throws his run into a tailspin, not to mention pissing off both T.J. and Alex.

Nixon was credited by Altman as the key approachable figure when he and his crew needed access and a level of believability when having figures — from Pat Robertson to Bob Dole to Gary Hart (pre-Monkey Business controversy) — on camera. Altman recalled that Nixon would simply walk up to people in-character, greet them, and say her father was running for President without skipping a beat. Initially, many candidates and news people that appeared on Tanner ‘88 did not know what to make of who they were interacting with, but as the show was broadcast in real-time, implying it was ultimately harmless and not making a complete mockery of the process, it and the cast were welcomed. (Compare the mixture of real and fictional in Steven Soderbergh’s own HBO project, K-Street, on Washington D.C. lobbyists, which was considered too much of a potential liability for politicians and lobbyists that the show was banned from filming in the U.S. Capitol building.) Tanner ‘88 ends on something of a cliffhanger: Tanner’s new wife implores him to publicly back Michael Dukakis, the candidate lying in bed and mulling his options (e.g. a third-party candidacy) in the final shot. Wishing to continue, Altman and Trudeau left it open-ended, even as they did not expect HBO to do so. It was not because they had further commentary on the election–though there are issues that pop up in Tanner ‘88 (the War on Drugs and racial inequality, to name a few) — but because they were having so much fun producing the series. But the show earned a mixed response, the New York Times lede offering this:

“Call it imaginative; call it satire; call it a mixed result. ”Tanner ’88: the Dark Horse” is too real to be funny, but it’s also not real enough. How can a film make fun of politics when politics makes fun of itself?”

The Criterion Collection’s 2004 release offered a new perspective–the explosion of reality television informing a lot of the show’s reappraisal — as well as admiration of Tanner’s grass-roots campaign and Altman’s precision in shooting the project as cinema verite. Dana Stevens would write in Slate, “Between the murky sound mix and the cheap-looking newsroom video, it’s easy to feel that Tanner is a bit of a mess—that is, until you realize that Altman’s freewheeling use of image and sound is the cinematic equivalent of the mess of democracy itself. Tanner is the kind of ensemble comedy that made Altman one of the great maverick filmmakers of the 1970s: People wander in and out of frame, off-camera grumbles overlap with muffled laughter from a separate conversation across the room.”

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Altman and Trudeau would make a sequel (more of a meta-retrospective), Tanner on Tanner, for the Sundance Channel, with Murphy, Reed, and Nixon reprising their roles. (Alex Tanner is now a college professor who is her father’s daughter in ways that make her faults, e.g. ill-advised relationships with students, as a fully formed adult more comic-tragic.) The show came during another flashpoint in the Democratic Party, the 2004 election, but much more from the periphery than in the thick of the process. It would be the second-to-last project Altman completed before dying in 2006. Trudeau still does Doonesbury and created a political show, Alpha House, for Amazon Prime, but Tanner ‘88 remains a special and unique project where that level of access feels, even in the vantage of a fictional campaign, unattainable now.

Looking back at Tanner ‘88, even at a fictional campaign, the relationship to the real candidacies and media remains fascinating, and shows how far along media has come in their electoral role. In election years, 1988 feels like uncovering and examining dinosaur fossils compared to how quickly the media has advanced in this present time. Which, again, brings up Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy. It is not, à la Tanner’s, thrown into chaos with ill-advised decisions, but it too operates as an underdog pleading for attention. Much has been conducted on social media, be it shaming Governor Cuomo’s mishandling of the city subway systems (a daily issue), taking him to task on his office’s shutdown of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission, or calling for him to debate her in a public forum. This challenge was reminiscent of Jack Tanner’s own issues chasing down Governor Michael Dukakis to publicly debate and, when trying to get attention paid to that demand, not come across as desperate. In 1988, Tanner and any real candidate would have this struggle and not been afforded the tools that Nixon and her campaign have with Twitter as a soapbox for issues and strategy. Nixon ultimately got her debate with Cuomo on August 29th, which was as heated as a New York summer, Cuomo calling her a corporate Democrat, denying any responsibility for maintaining the subways, and, more bizarrely, accusing her of being too chummy with New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio when the reason for her correspondence with De Blasio was to ask him to stop helicopters from disrupting performances of Shakespeare in the Park. Nixon explained this in the debate, and the image of low-flying helicopters made me think of Tanner ‘88, where, in fact, a low-flying news helicopter did disrupt Alex Tanner organizing her father and future stepmother’s outdoor dinner. With that public spat, one can dog-ear where this whole gubernatorial primary made a turn for the strange, and it is probably never returning.

To paraphrase the New York Times‘ 1988 review, the state of American politics in 2018 is too real to be funny and does not seem real enough. To no fault of Nixon herself as a candidate, the merging of the cultural and the political, post-Trump, amplify the bizarre uncanny that turn politics into a taxing, inescapable process. But that is the new normal. Democracy is a messy, disorganized theater where much boils down to the actors and players being comfortable on the major stage–where the power is–and, to that extent, Cynthia Nixon is no less real as a candidate than Andrew Cuomo.

Tanner ’88 is now streaming on FilmStruck.


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