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It was the summer of 1972, an election year in which George McGovern ran against the incumbent Richard Nixon for President of the United States. Robert Redford had just completed his own political film, The Candidate (1972), and was in Florida doing a press tour via train to promote it when he first learned about the investigation by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the break-in at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., funded in part by the committee to re-elect Nixon. The scandal, which led up to the top level of the Nixon administration, would, within two years, lead to prison for some and for Nixon, resignation.
In discussing Woodward and Bernstein's articles with the reporters who accompanied him on the press tour, Redford was dismayed at their lack of interest. "I said, 'What are you guys going to do about it? You're just sitting here. What are you doing on this train? This is just movies.' And then they gave me a lecture about how I didn't understand how the media worked, how I didn't understand journalism and all that. They said, 'Look, this guy [Nixon] is going in on a landslide and a mandate, and McGovern is going to self-destruct. Nixon's going to get in, everybody knows it; nobody wants to be on the wrong side of this guy because he's got a switchblade mentality. He's vindictive and mean. A lot of people are afraid. And the second thing is, a lot of people know this, they're just not going to talk about it because the Democrats do it, too, it's just the standard dirty tricks thing that happens in D.C., and nobody's going to make that much out of it; people are more interested in whether Hank Aaron is going to break Babe Ruth's record." Without an editor to back them up and a publisher willing to foot the bill to do the investigation, it was impossible to write the story. Redford angrily replied, "So you guys are just going to sit here on your ass; you're not going to do anything about it but smoke your cigars and have our free booze and write a superficial story about what I'm doing and that's it?" It was. At least, until Woodward and Bernstein cracked the story wide open.
Months later, after having read a profile on Woodward and Bernstein, Redford attempted to contact them about making a film; "a little black-and-white movie, very low budget, with two unknown actors, and I would produce it. It would be about what these two guys did that summer that everybody else was afraid to mess around with". To his surprise, Woodward and Bernstein did not return his calls. It wasn't until Redford was filming The Way We Were (1973), several weeks later, that Woodward contacted Redford and gave him the brush-off, saying he and Bernstein were not interested in a film. Redford let the idea go until James McCord, who was the electronics expert convicted in the Watergate burglary, wrote a letter to the judge implicating the Nixon administration and in effect validating Woodward and Bernstein's claims. Redford contacted Woodward again and insisted that they meet. Woodward agreed if Redford could be there the next night, "I'll meet you in a private meeting place. You don't need to do anything, just show up and I'll find you." The following evening, at a promotional dinner for The Candidate, a young man walked up to Redford and whispered, "Woodward. Meet me at the Jefferson Hotel bar in about forty-five minutes." Redford later remarked that "It was very clandestine. The next thing you know I'm in the Jefferson. He admitted in our meeting that they didn't trust me, they weren't sure it was me on the phone." Woodward was nervous, believing he was being followed, and told Redford that he and Bernstein would meet him at his apartment in New York, but that he should stay away from them. "Don't you come near us, let us come to you."
When Redford finally met with Woodward and Bernstein in 1974, he asked to purchase the film rights to the investigation, but was told that they were writing a book about it. The original focus of the book was to be on the perpetrators of the break-in, but Redford thought the more interesting story was of how two young reporters were able to bring down a President. This influenced Woodward and Bernstein to rethink the book that would eventually become All the President's Men (1976).
The publishers, Simon and Schuster, demanded $450,000 for the film rights, which Redford paid through his own company, Wildwood Productions. With the book now a best-seller, Redford knew All the President's Men could no longer be a small "black-and-white" film with unknown actors. The original budget would be inadequate, so he put up $4,000,000 of his own money. Warner Bros was interested and invested another $4,000,000 with the caveat that Redford appear in the film as Woodward. At that time, Redford had been offered and was very interested in playing Jack Nicholson's role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Knowing that it would be impossible to do both films, he declined Cuckoo's Nest with regrets, believing it to be the better acting part. As producer of All the President's Men, he threw himself into the project, getting as little as four hours of sleep a night while overseeing everything from the script by William Goldman (who had written the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ), to the hiring of director Alan J. Pakula, whose Klute (1971) had made a big impression on Redford. As his co-star, Redford chose Dustin Hoffman, who had, ironically, also wanted to purchase the film rights to Woodward and Bernstein's book with the intention of playing Carl Bernstein. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee had reservations about his portrayal in the film, telling Pakula and Redford, 'You're [Pakula] going to go on to make other films, Bob [Redford] will be riding off into the sunset in his next film, and meanwhile I'm going to be stuck for life as being to the American public whoever is playing me in All the President's Men." The role went to Jason Robards, who had worked with Redford over a decade before on television in The Iceman Cometh (1960). Redford, impressed with Robards' talent and remembering his kindness to him when he had been a young actor, hired Robards at a time when it was difficult for him to find work after a drunk-driving accident had scarred his face and damaged his reputation. "I wanted to pay him back for his generosity, which meant a great deal to me." Pakula told Robards, "If you tell me you can do it, knowing my reservations, you've got the job." Robards said, "I can do it. [...] I look like Ben Bradlee, I sound like Ben Bradlee, and I've got to play Ben Bradlee." Robards' salary was only $50,000, but the role would win him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and revitalized a career that lasted until his death in 2000.
In casting "Deep Throat", Woodward's mysterious (and until 2005), anonymous informant, Pakula hired Hal Holbrook, even though he wasn't sure that Deep Throat even existed. He contacted Woodward and asked him if casting Holbrook would be appropriate. "If it was not right, if it's so off the mark, then tell me, because it'll be disastrous in this picture if I cast a man and it turns out, the week before the picture is released, that we find out who Deep Throat was and it turns out to be Tricia Nixon or Golda Meir, or somebody who's so far removed from my casting that it's going to make the picture look ridiculous." Hearing Holbrook's name, Woodward said nothing. Knowing that Woodward could not reveal his source, Pakula took this to be Woodward's approval and kept Holbrook. It would not be until May 31, 2005, that former FBI official W. Mark Felt revealed that he had been Deep Throat, which was later confirmed by Woodward.
With the cast now in place, the screenplay turned in by William Goldman was the next problem to solve. Pakula, Redford, Woodward, Bernstein and even The Washington Post deemed it unacceptable. The Post, in particular, told Redford, "If you make this movie, you've got us against you. This guy [Goldman] is trivializing everything; he makes it sound like it was a joke." The problem, as Redford saw it, was that Goldman was writing Marathon Man (1976) at the same time, so his full attention wasn't being dedicated to the project. Goldman, for his part, blamed what he perceived as Pakula's "indecisiveness" about what he actually wanted in a screenplay. Eventually, Pakula and Redford checked into the Madison Hotel in Washington and rewrote the script themselves, with additional work by Alvin Sargent, although Woodward later stated that he believed Goldman got the framework correct. Redford and Pakula did not publicize the fact that they had done much of the rewrite, nor did they receive credit for it. Ironically, Goldman ended up winning the Academy Award for the screenplay, leaving Redford "blown away" that Goldman actually accepted the award.
The filming of All the President's Men began in Washington, D.C. on May 12, 1975 and on the Warner Bros lot in Burbank on June 26th, where the Washington Post's offices were recreated in painstaking detail. Two soundstages were combined into one by removing a wall. The set, measuring 240 feet by 135 feet, cost $450,000 and was so realistic that trash from the Post was actually shipped to Burbank and put into the bins on the set. Ben Bradlee remarked, "I brought my daughter onto the set in the studio. She could walk right to my desk. She was stunned." To add to a sense of verisimilitude, the role of Frank Wills, the security guard who had discovered the break-in, was played by Wills himself.
All the President's Men had its first public performance in Washington D.C. on April 4, 1976, with the official opening in New York City the next night. Twelve premieres were held in all, as fundraisers for the Citizens Action Fund, an environmental and social reform organization that had Redford on the board of directors. The film was a smash hit with the public and received rave reviews from most critics. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said, "Newspapers and newspapermen have long been favorite subjects for movie makers a surprising number of whom are former newspapermen, and yet not until All the President's Men, the riveting screen adaptation of the Watergate book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, has any film come remotely close to being an accurate picture of American journalism at its best."
The film earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (which it lost to Rocky ), Alan J. Pakula as Best Director, Jane Alexander for Best Supporting Actress and Robert L. Wolfe for Best Editing. The four wins included Robards, Goldman, Best Sound and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. Perhaps the best accolade All the President's Men received was from Ben Bradlee, who had been skeptical at the start. "The question is, does it reflect the verities of journalism and investigative reporting, and what was going on in terms of Nixon and the White House? And I thought it did just that."
Producer: Jon Boorstin, Michael Britton, Walter Coblenz
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay: William Goldman, based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Production Design: George Jenkins
Music: David Shire
Film Editing: Robert L. Wolfe
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Carl Bernstein), Robert Redford (Bob Woodward), Jack Warden (Harry Rosenfeld), Martin Balsam (Howard Simons), Hal Holbrook (Deep Throat), Jason Robards (Ben Bradlee), Jane Alexander (bookkeeper), Meredith Baxter (Debbie Sloan), Ned Beatty (Dardis), Stephen Collins (Hugh Sloan).
C-138m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Brown, Jared Alan J. Pakula: His Life and His Films
Canby, Vincent "President's Men, Spellbinding Film." The New York Times 8 Apr 76
Quirk, Lawrence J. and Schoell, William The Sundance Kid: An Unauthorized Biography of Robert Redford
Sackett, Susan Hollywood Reporter Box Office Hits
Spada, James The Films of Robert Redford