By Joseph Willits
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At the Conservative Home / Women2Win screening of "the Iron Lady", Virginia Bottomley referred in passing to the Alzheimer's of Ronald Reagan . Perhaps in an indication of the sensitivity of the topic raised, Bottomley didn't elaborate, however her comment hinted at something this famously friendly duo, the Baroness and the President, had in common later in life. Her comment prompts us to notice the difference in the way these two dealt in public with the problem of ageing – and perhaps to wonder whose approach is to be preferred.
In a touching letter to the American people five years after leaving office, Reagan bluntly and honestly stated:
"I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease".
Conscious of having to live with the reality of the condition, he discusses the tough decision on whether to "keep this a private matter" or "make this news known in a public way", concluding:
"We feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it."
If given the chance (and we cannot assume she had Reagan's foreknowledge) could Lady Thatcher have herself been blunt about her frailty, an illness that commonly attends old age, and if so, should she have been? How would we then be responding to the film? It was after all left to her daughter Carol to speak publicly of her mother's dementia, bringing it into the public spotlight, arguably inspiring "the Iron Lady's" theme, perhaps even to the exclusion of her political legacy.
Oddly enough, an attack on the content of Carol's book, A Swim-On Part In The Goldfish Bowl, came from Reagan's son, Ronald Reagan Jr:
"What exactly does the public learn when we hear she doesn't recognise her family?Everyone knows what it does and what happens: You forget names, places, things. To detail that is shameful."
Responding to the "self-appointed guardians of the Thatcher legacy", who have attacked the dramatisation of dementia in 'the Iron Lady', Matthew Parris suggests that Lady Thatcher and "her legacy have made themselves public property, part of our history". At the ConservativeHome screening, Norman Tebbit asked whether a film would have ever been made about Harold Wilson's illness, concluding that his premiership was not important enough, his character not as interesting. Tebbit is right; Wilson's legacy is so much less substantial than hers that his illness has seemed of less public interest – although it is probably (in retrospect) the explanation for his apparently mysterious decision to stand down early. Despite what Parris says, it's easier to argue that we had a right to know about Wilson's Alzheimer's – or Winston Churchill's senility in office – than it is in Thatcher's case, for it never affected her premiership.
Unlike Parris I wouldn't therefore argue that we (or film directors) have a "right" to dwell on a long-retired statesman's infirmity. I would simply argue that there is no shame in the forgetfulness of old age, no "indignity" in Alzheimer's, and that Lady Thatcher and her legacy are in no way diminished by a sensitive treatment of the decline that comes with advancing years. In Britain and Europe dementia has been treated as something of a taboo, a "tragedy" – even though it will be the common lot of millions of us.
In America attitudes seem to have moved on from our embarrassed European looking-away from this condition. It's more than three decades since the American sitcom "the Golden Girls" dealt tactfully but hilariously with the forgetfulness of old age – and it wasn't a sitcom that would have been made in Britain. US reviewers of "the Iron Lady" don't seem to have made much of a big deal of the dementia issue. Unlike British criticism of the film, in the U.S the poignancy of the dementia element to Lady Thatcher's portrayal does not dominate the press so heavily. The impact of the offence caused to her friends through the dramatisation of dementia would not be such big news. The New York Times' film critic A. O. Scott labels "the Iron Lady" as "the story of a widow and a half-abandoned mother" with the film creating "the impression of an old woman who can’t quite remember who she used to be ". In the Los Angeles Times, Betsy Sharkey rather flippantly discusses the role of Carol Thatcher, who "drops by to check on Mum, keeping her [Thatcher's] frustration in check".
Like Danny Finkelstein writing in the Times on Wednesday, to me the portrayal of Lady Thatcher was a strong one – not the pathetic, hopeless and demented elderly lady which so many people have been insulted by, but the strong and brave person who comes through even those travails. Perhaps Streep's Thatcher was only her in appearance and voice, but the intended courage and pursuit to battle and overcome grief, like anything else in her political legacy, was a remarkably positive characterisation. Whether it was dementia or not, I was inspired by this character's ability to outwit even her own frailty.
It is perhaps the fact that since leaving office, and possibly before, Lady Thatcher has become a mythical figure (to quote Charles Moore at the ConservativeHome screening). To many who didn't know her, there are truths, half truths and lies continually circulating. It is her refusal to succumb, and show any sign of weakness that is paramount. It was never really publicised, that as Prime Minister Thatcher underwent some dental surgery, and had difficulty pronouncing her s's for a time. Thatcher was even self-conscious that public awareness about her teeth could suggest weakness. Most of us will sympathise. Contrast this perhaps to Ed Miliband who has been quite keen, rightly or wrongly, to speak of his nasal surgery.
Is dementia a cause for shame or isn't it? Lady Thatcher's own jealous guarding of her privacy is her right, and most of us will empathise with her; as is her lifelong aversion to showing weakness or talking about her own feelings – which is also admirable in its way. But you cannot simultaneously claim both that dementia is not demeaning, and that this film demeans Lady Thatcher. Many will feel that it treats both its heroine, and her old age, in a dignified, respectful and admiring way.