TV & Film

Believing Martha Mitchell

Debra McClutchy ’92’s The Martha Mitchell Effect remembers the woman the Nixon administration wanted everyone to forget.

Film poster for "Martha Mitchell Was Right"

McClutchy’s documentary was nominated for a 2023 Academy Award.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made their names in journalism when they exposed the Watergate scandal in 1972. Martha Mitchell’s name was nearly buried when she tried to do the same.

In The Martha Mitchell Effect, codirector Debra McClutchy ’92 tells the story of an outspoken public figure during the Nixon administration. After trying to defend her husband, United States attorney general John Mitchell, upon the revelation of his role in orchestrating the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, Martha later helped Woodward and Bernstein prove his guilt.

Her accusations of political corruption and her reports of being kidnapped and drugged to prevent her from speaking to the media were frequently dismissed by her husband, the president, and others in politics as symptoms of mental illness. Many of her claims were later corroborated by individuals involved in the scandal. Psychologists now use “the Martha Mitchell effect” to describe situations when an individual’s accurate perception of reality is misdiagnosed as delusional by medical professionals.

“This story is really about the personal fallout for Martha in terms of her love affair with her husband,” McClutchy told “John Mitchell chose Nixon over his wife. … There was no loyalty to her.”

The film opens with a clip of Nixon telling British TV personality David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha, there would have been no Watergate.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but his words have nevertheless grown more poignant over time as the American public continues to recognize Martha Mitchell’s integral role and unjust dismissal in one of history’s most infamous political scandals.

The Martha Mitchell Effect was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary short film category. McClutchy is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose work includes The Booksellers, a feature documentary about New York City’s rare books world.

Published in the Fall 2023 issue


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