In ‘Gaslit,’ a victim of Watergate and history finds rescue
By Julia Jacobs
With her flamboyant public persona and her proximity to one of Hollywood’s favorite American political scandals, Martha Mitchell seems like a natural figure on which to center a historical screen drama.
So why did it take 50 years after Watergate for her to get one?
As the administration of President Richard Nixon was exposed for its involvement in an illicit espionage scheme and brazen cover-up, Martha Mitchell — the wife of John Mitchell, who had been Nixon’s attorney general and was campaign chief at the beginning of the Watergate affair — was for a time front and center.
A gregarious Southern socialite and conservative pundit, Martha became the first Nixon insider to turn on the administration. But in the decades following, her story was largely excluded from mainstream histories and dramatic adaptations of the scandal, which engulfed the White House from 1972 until Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
It was only after Slate released its Watergate podcast “Slow Burn” (2017) that Hollywood seemed to take notice. Episode 1 of the podcast told Martha’s story and gave TV writer Robbie Pickering the seeds of a scripted adaptation: “Gaslit,” a Starz limited series starring Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as the Mitchells, debuting Sunday.
“I really didn’t want to make a show that was a Wikipedia rundown of Watergate,” Pickering said. “I’m more interested in how complicity destroys people.”
For Pickering, 42, whose mother’s adoration of Nixon has fueled a lifelong obsession with Watergate, the series scratched a personal itch. But it was also a chance, as the show’s creator, to set the record straight on Martha Mitchell. As he revisited books on Watergate, including those written by some of the scandal’s main players, the dearth of substantive material on Martha was glaring, he said. When she was mentioned, the authors tended to describe her as John Mitchell’s “drunk wife” or a troubled woman, not as the audacious but tragic figure that she was.
“You want to scream at these people, ‘She was the first one telling the truth!’” Pickering said.
Amid a sea of existing and pending Watergate material — the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in is in June — “Gaslit” diverges by focusing an otherwise familiar story on two Beltway marriages: One is the Mitchells’; the other is that of Maureen and John W. Dean (Betty Gilpin and Dan Stevens), the White House counsel whose bombshell Senate testimony implicated the president.
The Deans, who remain married, are portrayed as comparatively loving. The Mitchells, who divorced in 1973, were more tumultuous. Roberts acknowledged that she had known few specifics about her character before it was presented to her.
“I saw ‘All the President’s Men’ five times — I figured I knew the whole story,” said Roberts, who is also an executive producer.
That 1976 film, directed by Alan J. Pakula and based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, has imprinted the scandal in our collective memory as a hero’s journey waged by dogged reporters. Pickering and the show’s director, Matt Ross, weren’t interested in another tale like that. Nor were they interested in one like Oliver Stone’s “Nixon.”
“Oliver Stone and Alan Pakula and people who went through this period make it seem very mythic and distant from ours,” Pickering said. “When you actually read the history, it’s a lot more relatable than that and a lot more silly.”
In turn, “Gaslit” goes all in on the absurdity, with a tone at once funny, sleazy and flamboyant. Pickering’s approach is apparent from the first image: a tight zoom on the bloodshot eyes of the man who concocted the Watergate burglary scheme, G. Gordon Liddy (a mustachioed Shea Whigham). As Liddy soliloquizes, the camera backs out slowly to reveal his hand held over a flame, an apparent display of his willingness to endanger himself in service of the president.
History “is written and rewritten by soldiers carrying the banner of kings,” he says with fanatical self-importance. “That is what it means to be strong. That is what it means to be American.”
It seems no accident that three of the actors who play Nixon’s lackeys appeared in the HBO satirical series “Veep”: Patton Oswalt as Chuck Colson, a Nixon adviser; Nelson Franklin as Dick Moore, White House special counsel; and John Carroll Lynch as L. Patrick Gray, the Nixon-allied acting FBI director. Scenes with those characters often turn into comic displays of incompetence or rapid-fire insults.
Gilpin, who as Maureen Dean plays perhaps the most levelheaded character in the show, described the band of co-conspirators as a “bunch of people who thought they were the leads of a different kind of genre of movie when actually they were the supporting characters in an absolute farce.”
But the creative team is wary of classifying the show as a comedy. In one of the most dramatic sequences, Martha Mitchell, known for gabbing to Washington reporters, is forcibly confined in a California hotel by a bodyguard hired by her husband. She is imprisoned there in the hopes that she won’t pick up a newspaper and notice a mug shot of one of the Watergate burglars, James McCord (Chris Bauer), whom her husband had recently employed as a family security guard. But she manages to get hold of a newspaper anyway.
“Gaslit” verges into horror as Martha is terrorized by grim men in suits: The bodyguard yanks the phone from the wall as she tries to talk to a reporter. In the show, her struggle with her bodyguard eventually sends her crashing through a glass table, and the guard roughly pins her onto the couch and sticks a needle in her backside to sedate her.
According to “Slow Burn,” hosted by Leon Neyfakh, and the 2022 book “Watergate: A New History” by Garrett M. Graff, which also sought to revive Martha Mitchell’s story, this struggle was generally true — based on Martha’s telling — with some details changed and with a bit more drama (she cut her hand on a glass patio door rather than falling through a glass table).
As in the show, the real Martha does not keep quiet about her confinement. Her story got some news coverage at the time, but as Graff wrote in his book, the Washington establishment essentially brushed off the allegations.
“This was one of the great tragedies of Martha Mitchell,” Graff said. “America sort of shrugged its shoulders and ignored her and viewed her as more entertainment and a punchline.”
While Martha’s leaks to the press and finger-pointing at the White House were not crucial to the administration’s unraveling, Graff said, she was ultimately one of the people who bore the “highest personal cost for the events of Watergate.”
Although “Gaslit” tried to stay true generally to the history, Pickering allowed room for artistic interpretation. (A 2020 Epix documentary series based on “Slow Burn” offers a more journalistic telling.) The production decided not to interview the Deans — the Mitchells are no longer living — because “every Watergate player except Martha had a chance to paint it their way,” Pickering said.
Despite the Nixon administration’s attempts to silence Martha Mitchell, “the mouth of the South,” as she was called, would not shut up. As detailed in the series, the woman who was once a darling of the Republican Party became a pariah as soon as she began insisting publicly on the president’s corruption. Meanwhile, her husband’s declarations of devotion while scheming behind her back made her feel that she was losing her mind. (Hence the show’s title.) Her addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers made things worse.
After the Mitchells’ separation, the show depicts Martha as profoundly lonely and at times, suicidal. In 1976 — the same year “All the President’s Men” debuted in movie theaters — she died of a rare bone-marrow cancer at age 57.
“I don’t think she ever had the clarity of mind to say, ‘I’m going to rewrite the story of me on my own,’” Roberts said. “She just never had that opportunity.”