News and Features

Legacy of the Assassin

lee-harvey-oswald-in-custodyLee Harvey Oswald in Dallas Police custody

For 50 years, the Kennedy assassination has horrified, fascinated and mystified Americans. KERA News is presenting an ongoing series on how artists are commemorating the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death. In this installment, KERA’s Jerome Weeks looks at how artists have responded to the legacy of his accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

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There’s an early scene in The Parallax View, the 1974 political thriller starring Warren Beatty and Suzanne Pleshette. They both play reporters who witnessed the assassination of a senator; he was shot on top of Seattle’s Space Needle, a rather Hitchcockian location. Since then, Pleshette’s character has become a nervous wreck, repeatedly calling on Beatty for emotional support. She brings him a newspaper clipping to show him that in the past three years, six of the assassination’s witnesses have died in various kinds of accidents.

Beatty assures her no one’s trying to kill her; he once believed there was another shooter, but now he says, the second shooter theory was just a desperate attempt at making sense of things. “People were crazy for any kind of an explanation then. Every time you turned around some kind of nut was knocking off one of the best men in the country.”

Sobbing but slowly calming herself, Pleshette agrees.

And, of course, in the next scene, she’s dead.

The fact that we know that’s likely to happen shows how we are all children of conspiracy, how our popular culture has absorbed the tropes of assassination, cover-up, betrayal and secret plots — particularly as they’ve played out in Hollywood films and TV shows. “There is a world inside the world,” as Don DeLillo writes in his brilliant assassination novel, Libra. The Parallax View was one of several films from the late ‘60s and ‘70s directly or indirectly inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the conspiracy theories it spawned. Films such as Executive Action, Winter Kills, even The Conversation are filled with dread and distrust, hidden power and threats of violence – in a word, paranoia.

500px-Manch_24Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate

SMU film professor Rick Worland argues that the Kennedy assassination didn’t generate this cultural atmosphere on its own. The official lies associated with Vietnam, the FBI’s attempt to disrupt the civil rights movement via its secret COINTELPRO efforts, the Watergate break-in and cover-up: The period was tense with suspicions, deceptions and conflicts. The fact that perhaps the single most influential assassination film, The Manchurian Candidate, was released the year before Kennedy was shot is an indication that the tide was flowing in that direction already, thanks to the Cold War and its tensions. Yet it also shows how quickly these general concerns and fears were codified that writers such as Thomas Pynchon and DeLillo, novelists with their own interests in historical conspiracies and plots, were soon dubbed “the paranoid school of American fiction.”

A legacy of all this was the figure of the lone gunman, the assassin. Novelists like DeLillo, as well as more popular thriller writers like Richard Condon (Winter Kills, Manchurian Candidate), and Hollywood directors like Oliver Stone with his longwinded film JFK, have treated the assassin as pawn or mastermind, as an embodiment of destructive forces or of mysterious powers. He’s not unlike the way the figure of the ‘terrorist’ functions today. Bill Minutaglio, co-author of a new history called Dallas 1963, says one reason the lone gunman can fit into different, fearful scenarios is that Lee Harvey Oswald himself was a wild card. “No one could have predicted him,” he says. Or as the head of the Secret Service team (Billy Bob Thornton) declares in the new film Parkland: “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Given Dallas’ angry conservative politics of the time, people might have expected some violent outburst during Kennedy’s visit — and, in fact, many in Dallas and Washington feared precisely that. But who would have thought it would come from a young ex-Marine who’d defected to the Soviet Union, then defected back and by the end was dreaming of defecting to Cuba? Who shot at General Edwin Walker, a conservative leader, but then shot a liberal president?

“I think it’s too easy for people to paint him as this ideologue,” Minutaglio says of Oswald. He was too confused, too angry, too hungry for any kind of public recognition to slot easily into a particular party organization. “He just really wanted to be part of the churning of current events.”

Oswald anticipates later, unmoored assassins and celebrity hunters like Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon but began with a long shopping list of names including Walter Cronkite and Jackie Kennedy, or Arthur Bremer, who shot Democratic presidential candidate George C. Wallace, but only after he’d stalked Republican President Richard Nixon. His intention, Bremer wrote in his diary, was “to do SOMETHING BOLD AND DRAMATIC, FORCEFUL & DYNAMIC, A STATEMENT of my manhood for the world to see.”

But for many, to portray Oswald as just a disgruntled, unstable outsider is troubling. It seems to trivialize the havoc he caused. How much of a hero could Kennedy have been, if he was felled by such a paltry villain? It means the larger narrative of how America and its political leaders play out no longer holds; it presents Oswald as a kind of one-man chaos theory. 

“The notion that one angry, marginalized little man could unleash the kind of pain and grief that Oswald did didn’t make sense to me,” says John Weidman. Weidman wrote the 1990 musical Assassins with composer Stephen Sondheim. Theatre 3 opens the show tonight.

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Gregory Lush, Sam Swanson, Daron Cockerell, and Brian Lewis in Theatre Three’s Assassins. Photo by Jeffrey Schmidt.

Weidman says he and Sondheim had actually considered a musical about Oswald or John Wilkes Booth. But digging into the motivations of a single killer can make for a psychological portrait with little, larger resonance. Weidman says, at the time they were writing Assassins – in the years after Chapman shot Lennon (1980) and John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan (1981) — it felt as if assassination was becoming an American pathology. “Four successful assassinations in a hundreds years,” he points out, “and when you add all the unsuccessful attempts sprinkled around them — that’s a lot of political murder.”

So Assassins is like a musical revue — a form that Sondheim previously used in Pacific Overtures and Company. There is a loose narrative, not really a story. Mostly, it just links the different songs and characters, in this case, nine people who tried to kill a president — from Booth to Hinckley. Most of them have been written off as misfits or mental cases – with good reason. As Weidman points out, plenty of people once tried to kill the czar. But none tried to do it — as Hinkley did when he shot Reagan — to get the attention of a movie star like Jodie Foster.

In short, America’s assassins tend to be quintessentially American: They are not very political or even particularly logical. But taken collectively, as Assassins does, they do represent our underclass, the losers, the people whom the American Dream has failed. Each feels cheated somehow, denied their chance. So they turn to a tried-and-true method to feel like a winner. America doesn’t have a real tradition of overthrowing the government. Instead, we have elections — and then we try to shoot the president.

In the show, Oswald is kept out of any chronological order. He’s saved for last — because, like Booth, he had the most devastating impact. He proved you could re-write your life script. He gave some justification to the other would-be killers. They, too, could change history – if, as the song goes, they just crook their little finger.

Parland oswald2

Jeremy Strong as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland

Considering our 50-year obsession with Oswald and what he may or may not mean, it’s remarkable the latest film to deal with the Kennedy assassination sidelines him. Opening Friday, the new film, Parkland, keeps its focus on the shell-shocked bystanders, people like Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) or the Parkland Hospital surgeons (Zac Effron and Colin Hanks) as they’re overwhelmed by events during that weekend in Dallas. Writer-director Peter Landesman makes his intentions plain in keeping both Kennedy and Oswald at a remove: The only time we see the assassin, he’s on the other side of a jailhouse window. And he remains a smirking enigma, even to his brother Robert.

That’s because “the scene’s really about his brother,” says Landesman, “which is the thread that I followed. I focused on the ordinary people, and Lee Harvey Oswald is in the movie as a way to understand Robert Oswald’s journey.”

In maintaining this close-in, fact-based focus, Parkland sidesteps the entire, conflicting tangle of conspiracy theories that have consumed Americans for decades — a tactic that will not please some. It’s clear Landesman doesn’t care: “Look, I don’t really want to have that dialogue because it’s a circle. It will spin and it will spin. It’s like arguing about the existence of God. There’s just no end.”

And yes, the circle continues to spin. A new conspiracy film called Legacy of Secrecy is in the works as well as a TV adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Kennedy.

But SMU film professor Rick Worland believes there may, one day, be an end to our endless argument about whether Oswald acted alone: “It’s never going to go away until we’re gone,” he says. The baby boomers, that is. The people who were alive and old enough to feel November 22, 1963 as a life-shaking event.

“I think the baby boomers are going to have to pass from the scene before we have some kind of consensus.”