NEW YORK — This year’s Oscar-nominated documentary attempts to tell a story that is largely lost to history.
Half a century ago, Martha Mitchell was one of America’s most famous women. She was the famous wife of John Mitchell, Attorney General when Richard Nixon was President of the United States.
The Watergate scandal forced both men to resign, and as The Martha Mitchell Effect shows, she played a big role in that.
If we think of the scandal that caused President Nixon to be removed from office, we think of All the President’s Men, a book and hit film about the case told from the perspective of two male reporters.
The new documentary seeks to restore Martha Mitchell’s place at the center of the narrative.
Some thought she was crazy. Mitchell wasn’t called the Mouth of the South for nothing. She was one of the first to tell the truth about Nixon, which ultimately led to his resignation.
Her honesty was all the more remarkable given that her husband had served as Nixon’s attorney general. Her habit of drinking multiple drinks and then calling reporters to plates did not endear her in the Nixon White House, where officials went to great lengths to try and silence her.
As shown in the film, she was even held against her will and sedated for days with tranquilizers as the Watergate scandal unfolded.
Nixon himself did not doubt its significance. After he was forced to leave his post, he gave a series of interviews to talk show host David Frost and told him, “I’m convinced that if it wasn’t for Martha, there wouldn’t be Watergate.”
However, her name has been lost to history. The Martha Mitchell Effect co-producer Beth Levison says she knows why.
“I think we really emphasized the role of men in modern politics, and we discredited a lot of women, and she was discredited, so it was easy to erase her from history,” Levison said.
The title of the Netflix documentary, which is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Short Subject category, comes from a term coined by a psychologist, according to the film’s co-director Debra McClatchy.
“The Martha Mitchell effect is when someone is diagnosed as lying or delusional when they are actually telling the truth,” McClatchy said.
The all-female team behind the short film, which is about half an hour long, hopes Oscar recognition will lead to more such stories.
“I realized that the stories are hidden,” says McClatchy. “And they’re pretty effectively hidden, and we need to find those hidden stories and resurrect them.”