Tomorrow, on Halloween, a few minutes after 6 am, on a major cable channel, the thirty-seventh president of the United States will intone the passage of his August 8, 1974 speech to the nation that starts, “I am not a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body…” and concludes, “…I shall resign the presidency at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in at that hour in this office.”
A few minutes after 8 am, he will speak those words again. And again after 10 am. And so on, every two hours, until after 4 am on Monday.
Well…. if you’re between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five, and have thrown rice and toast at a movie screen at least once in the last thirty or so years, you’ve figured out what I’m talking about: the Fox Movie Channel is running the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show twelve times in a row, as part of a sizable media push to promote the ultimate cult movie’s 35th anniversary. (Other aspects of the promotion have been an episode of Glee centering around the film that scored even higher ratings than usual for that massive hit, and an all-star stage extravaganza in LA, of which more in a moment.)
It’s a sure bet that a considerable number of Americans – and, indeed, citizens of other lands – have watched the movie enough times to memorize every line in it, including Nixon’s. But unless they saw the movie before fan participation started (like me, when I saw the movie with just three other people in a Louisville theater when it played that city the first time, in the spring of 1976), they would have had to wait until 1990, when the video came out, to get started on that. Jeffrey Weinstock, a Michigan professor and author of a high-toned academic study of the Rocky Horror phenomenon, writes that during all the dozens of times he saw the movie in theaters as a college student and afterwards, he didn’t even know that RN’s speech was in it because of the audience noise, which included the whoosh of dozens of windshield wipers being waved.
I don’t know if President Nixon was ever mentioned when The Rocky Horror Show, as Richard O’Brien’s stage musical was called, was running in London, then Los Angeles and Sydney, then on Broadway in the early 1970s….although I seem to recall reading that the occasional topical ad-lib would be thrown into the Australian production, so maybe he was.
But the circumstances behind RN’s voice coming out of a crackly car radio on a rainy night (which is where the wipers come in), while Brad and Janet drive to their rendezvous with Frank N. Furter, Riff Raff, Magenta, Columbia, Dr. Scott, Rocky and the rest of the gang, are rather interesting. (Here, I should suggest that readers who have not seen the movie open up a window and have Wikipedia handy.)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show was shot in England between October 21 and December 19, 1974. The first stage production in London, in 1972, had vaguely set the story in Britain, and Tim Curry, when he started performing his signature role as Dr. Furter, had used a German accent. When the show opened in LA, then in New York, the locale was changed to the States, and by then Curry was speaking with his own quintessentially plummy Brit accent.
But the movie’s executive producer, Lou Adler, wanted to increase the film’s appeal to an American audience, so instructions were given that the movie have a more definite Stateside setting. Director Jim Sharman and writer O’Brien reacted by throwing in the Grant Wood American Gothic references in the film’s opening minutes, and by having Susan Sarandon, as Janet, cover her head from the rain after emerging from the car with a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, thus suggesting that the interplanetary spaceship posing as a Gothic castle has settled itself somewhere in northeast Ohio, northwest Pennsylvania, or maybe the West Virginia panhandle not far from Blennerhasset Island.
Another way of emphasizing the American setting was to put President Nixon’s speech on the car radio, so that was done. (It was probably also thought that using the speech would add to the sinister atmosphere that sets in when the black-clad bikers start zipping past the car. And it’s worth noting that Lou Adler was one of the financial backers of Gore Vidal’s 1972 Broadway play An Evening With Richard Nixon.)
But then came blooper time. In his wonderfully sardonic way, Rocky Horror’s Narrator, the late Charles Gray, informs us that the fateful events in Castle Transylvania took place “late in November.” So why would RN’s speech be on the radio nearly four months after it took place, assuming the action is set in the year before the movie came out?
For a few decades, Rocky Horror fans argued this question – first in movie theaters as they sat in their wigs and corsets and mascara waiting for the movie to start (and afterwards at the International House of Pancakes or wherever), then in list-serves in the distant days even before Windows 95, then in chatrooms. The most popular explanation was that Brad was such a true dork (which, during the early period of Rockyhorrormania, was synonymous with Nixon fan) that he had recorded the resignation speech and was playing it on his car’s cassette deck in November.
But when the Rocky Horror DVD came out in 2000, Richard O’Brien told the simple truth in his commentary track: it was just a continuity error. Another thing O’Brien says in the commentary is worth noting: that he never cared for using the resignation speech because he thought it would date the film. In a site called Triviana, John Orr notes this, and comments:
Who cares that the movie is dated by that Nixon speech?
Well, actually, I do.
Because it makes it a better film.
For those of use who were alive and sentient at the time, the Nixon speech helped define Brad’s character, and helped set the stage for what all the film’s decadence was revolting against. Think of Richard Nixon walking on the beach at San Clemente wearing a suit and leather shoes, then think about Tim Curry ripping off his robe to show his silk stockings, garter belt and bustier, and you get, in a nutshell, what many of my generation felt about this film.
For people born after “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” debuted 25 years ago, the connection may be less visceral, but it’s not unimportant. Nixon defines stuffed-shirt politics, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” defines rock ‘n’ roll excess.
So, over the years, Nixon and Rocky Horror have been inseparable. And, as chance would have it, the connection was strengthened this week when Lou Adler put together an evening at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles as a benefit for the Painted Turtle charity for ill children.
The benefit was structured around clips from the film interspersed with live performances of the Rocky Horror songs with a cast that included Evan Rachel Wood (as Magenta), Jack Nicholson (as the Narrator in the opening scenes), Danny DeVito (in the same role later on), George Lopez (as Dr. Scott), a finale of “The Time Warp” that included Barry Bostwick (Brad in the film) and Tim Curry himself, and, carrying the production, Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon as Frank N. Furter. (Adler told one reporter he tried to talk Cher – yes, Cher – into playing the role, but, perhaps fortunately in these already-tumultuous times, failed.)
Julian McMahon’s the one who strengthens the Nixon connection, for his late parents, former Australian prime minister Sir William McMahon and Lady Sonia McMahon, were the guests of honor at a state dinner at the White House in 1971, where Sonia created an international sensation by showing up in a blouse slit down the sides. Indeed, their son would have had to go further than just wearing a corset and heels, as he did this week, to top it.
One final note on the RN-Rocky Horror connection. When the movie opened in eight cities in 1975 to dismal business, a seven-inch record was made with a number of radio spots, all voiced by Richard O’Brien in his Riff Raff character, for use on “hip” FM radio stations. One of these (which can be heard here) went as follows: “This is an open letter to Richard Nixon. Dear Richard, do go and see The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All those… unfortunate incidents… will seem trivial after you’ve seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show. President Ford, he’d love to see it. But he doesn’t have the same amount of freedom you do.”
Leaving aside the informality of O’Brien’s addressing a former Chief Executive by his first name (and he’s a New Zealander, so he doesn’t have quite the excuse he’d have if he were Australian), did RN ever see the movie? Very doubtful. Did he ever know his resignation speech was in it? I have the feeling that unless his granddaughter Jennie saw it on videotape in the early ’90s, he probably didn’t. But nonetheless, a new generation, this weekend, will grow up to have that voice in the night among the things they think of when Richard Nixon comes to mind.