The Donald Trump Cinematic Universe
John Derek had become keenly aware of his mortality.
In the summer of 1986, the 59-year-old writer-director who had recently turned his eye to B-movie smut and, occasionally, outright pornography, suffered a mild heart attack at his home in Santa Barbara. Derek survived, but the experience moved him enough to add a touch of autobiography to his next grand feature—1989’s Ghosts Can’t Do It.
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That film turned out to be an execrable, ill-conceived, comically offensive sex comedy wherein a widow (portrayed by ‘80s pinup and Derek’s real-life spouse, Bo Derek) attempts to find a young man to murder so that the ghost of her deceased husband can possess him and regain his virility. A senescent Anthony Quinn plays the John Derek stand-in, who spectrally advises his wife in a key business dispute with a young wheeler-dealer who clearly has designs on the widow.
But who to cast in such a role? Who could possibly bring the right combination of authority, suavity, and acumen that Quinn’s character would be moved to simultaneously possess and destroy?
See if you can guess, from this contemporaneous description of his on-set behavior:
“’They shot around him,’ said [a production] aide. ‘He’d come in and out of meetings and shoot a take or two, then leave. They gave him a script, but I don’t think he ever sat down and learned his lines. I think he ad-libbed most of it, but everybody seemed pleased.’”
No points for getting it right. Derek’s skeezy romp marked the first screen credit for our ad-libber-in-chief himself, the pathological crowd-pleaser and cue-card scofflaw we now refer to as Mr. President. Donald J. Trump’s appearance in Ghosts Can’t Do It was the first of more than a dozen cinematic cameos spanning the last four decades. From family fare like Home Alone 2: Lost in New York to the Sandra Bullock rom-com Two Weeks Notice, Trump appeared repeatedly as himself, mostly in New York-centric films, attempting to maintain his public reputation at a time when his business empire was on the brink.
Over the course of the 1990s, Trump’s film (and a few television) cameos reinforced his imperious, world-beating persona at a time when his personal life and balance sheet were crumbling. By imprinting himself in the cultural consciousness, against all empirical evidence, as a near-omniscient mogul, Trump carved out a space that would lead to his Apprentice run and, ultimately, the White House.
The films that comprise the Trump Cinematic Universe tell the story of how Donald Trump went from an actual businessman to a guy who played one on TV. Once that performance was beamed into millions of households on a weekly basis, the narrative superseded reality. Trump has, by now, turned that phenomenon into a governing philosophy. For longer than we’ve maybe been aware, the president has been the triple-threat producer-writer-star in the drama of his self-construction, and we’re tossing popcorn in the cheap seats—whether we willingly paid for a ticket or not.
With a few vocal exceptions, Hollywood isn’t as tolerant of the current president as it once was. In November 2017, Ben Affleck, our current Batman, totemic national sad dad and Hollywood liberal par excellence, appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a pointed anecdote about Trump’s filmic history:
“I heard that in order to get permission to film at his properties, he insisted on being put in the movie as an extra,” Affleck explained. “So you had to go through this whole ritual of pretending, ‘OK, now is the scene, Donald. Action!’ And then they’d say ‘Cut,’ and he’d go home, and it never ended up in any of the movies.’”
Affleck running buddy Matt Damon shared a similar story with The Hollywood Reporter last September:
“[Midnight Run director] Martin Brest had to write something in Scent of a Woman—and the whole crew was in on it,” Damon told them. “You have to waste an hour of your day with a bullshit shot: Donald Trump walks in and Al Pacino’s like, ‘Hello, Mr. Trump!’—you had to call him by name—and then he exits.”
While Affleck and Damon clearly have an axe to grind as dyed-in-the-wool members of the Californian #Resistance, in the process of dunking on the president’s vanity they illuminate a key aspect of his cultural staying power: major studios and directors wanted to film on Trump’s properties. Trump Tower, the Plaza Hotel, the Trump International Hotel in Chicago—they all feature in Trump’s cinematic tableau, and whether they were selected by filmmakers due to their location, their aesthetics or their prestige, Trump had the vision to realize what cultural cache would come with their ownership, whatever the personal cost.