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In ‘Gaslit,’ a Victim of Watergate and History Finds Rescue


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.

Penn was in junior high during the scandal and remembers being glued to the developments. “When this thing hit, I was obsessed. I couldn’t leave the television,” he said.

But he didn’t recall much about John Mitchell, so he turned to “The Strong Man,” the 2008 biography by James Rosen, and spoke to experts. “You play around with stuff based on your best hunch,” Penn said. “While it’s a true story, it’s also got a rhythm of its own right.”

The makeup and costume teams went to great lengths to make the main characters look like the real things. To turn Penn into a hefty, jowly John Mitchell, the actor recruited Kazu Hiro, a makeup and prosthetics artist who transformed Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for “Darkest Hour.” Hiro created nose, cheek, chin and neck pieces with platinum silicone so that they would have the feel and appearance of real skin. It took about two and a half hours before every day of production to apply.

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.”



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