Billy-Bob Thornton | Love, Actually

Credit: Universal Pictures

If you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon for extra content, including essays, podcasts, and more!

Isaac Parkinson

As something of an interloper to Love, Actually’s quaint British melodrama, Billy Bob Thornton’s President provides transatlantic opposition for Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister David. In a presciently theatrical press conference, David’s old-fashioned sincerity and Blair-coded crusading patriotism collide with American bravado in line with the implicitly jingoistic spirit of the Christmas Season. As this rogue presence of Americanness, it should be considered how Thornton as a performer embodies an image of Britain’s bullies, both on screen and in the public eye, to enable the desired moral polarisation between him and Grant.

Introduced with the national anthem, accompanied by flags on his car and greeted by demands for photos from journalists, we understand his identity as that of both celebrity and patriot. His character is credited only as “the US President,” reducing his nameless presence to a pure symbol to be projected onto. Similarly, the celebrity of Thornton’s personal life was apparent before he could talk. Born into notoriety as a child of exceptional excess, Thornton claims to have been the fattest baby in Clark County, Arkansas, weighing 30 pounds at only seven months old. His proclivity to make headlines continued beyond his era of infant rotundity. In particular, the intensity of his romantic life provided constant fodder for tabloids to generate material.

He has been married 6 times, gaining the most public attention during number 5 of 6. Angelina Jolie, 20 years his junior, was an equally famous, tabloid-reliable star, guaranteeing the couple to be objects of intrigue. Stories of bizarre actions from the couple have become the stuff of celebrity culture canon. For instance, the two began wearing matching necklaces containing vials of each other’s blood. Thornton noted the extreme hyperbole of coverage, snowballing to headlines suggesting “we were vampires and we lived in a dungeon.”

Then there was the now infamous MTV interview for the 2000 premiere of Gone in 60 Seconds, in which the couple are openly sexual in a fashion rarely seen at a red carpet function. Asked a leading question on what the “most exciting thing” they’ve done in a car is, Thornton cuts right to the chase while Jolie continues to kiss/bite/lick him as he speaks, saying “You want me to be honest? We fucked in the car. On the way here.” 

Thornton stated that his marriage to Jolie was in part tested by their conflicting professional commitments (in spite of their vampiric blood vial connection), specifically noting his role in Monster’s Ball (2001) opposite Halle Berry: “If you are a thousand miles from home on a film set simulating sex with a beautiful woman, it’s even tougher.” 

A similar threat to monogamy presented by a work excursion is evident in Love, Actually, as Thornton’s president is largely defined by his playboy “when-the-cat’s-away” attitude. He mocks David for the PM’s assertion that he’s “not sure that politics and dating really go together.” “Really? I’ve never found that,” POTUS answers, hinting towards a frequency of romantic attachment akin to Thornton himself. His attitude of arrogant political posturing over an unnamed policy is only a secondary crime to his objectification of and crude sexual advances towards Natalie, the subject of David’s chaste affection. Upon first seeing her, Mr. President refers to her as a “pretty little son of a bitch” and asks David “did you see those pipes?” While I genuinely don’t know what “pipes” means in this context, his comments continue into some form of sexual advance for which Natalie later apologises. “He’s the President of the United States,” she says, reinforcing how his perceived status and celebrity is inexorably linked to sexual pressure. David’s eventual public consummation of a similarly disturbing dynamic is therefore framed as a triumph through a swell of confidence to overcome his timid British properness. Without Thornton’s machismo to contend with, this triumph holds less significance.

One of few entirely unsympathetic characters in Curtis’ tapestry, his hollow shell of projected American greed operates as a shield to re-contextualise David’s actions. The Prime Minister’s story inexplicably plays with power dynamics which, in a post-Clinton politician-as-celebrity media landscape, would have seemed to be off-limits. However, by relation to the exaggeratedly aggressive American masculine ideal of political and carnal power, his decision to pursue romance with a staff member is allowed the freedom to be seen as equally sweet and sincere as its surrounding stories. 

Similarly, in sanitising David’s image through this dichotomy, the Blair-era image of a Prime Minister is absolved of responsibility for any 2003-contextual collaborative foreign policy action. In spite of the looming spectre of the Iraq invasion, their discussion of ‘policy’ remains abstract, allowing for a reinforcement of a share of power where the UK is only innocently subservient. David’s rejection of the President’s theoretical greed can be implicitly read as a rejection of their military coalition. However, again this takes a back seat to the more urgent issue of being allowed to act on his romantic attraction. The casting of Thornton weaponises his similarly controversial and seemingly over-active romantic life and public image to reinforce this concept of the insatiable American man, and by extension the righteous British man. It’s one rule for the Hughs and another for the Billy Bobs.