Two films from nearly 60 years ago, mostly forgotten by fans, but riveting political dramas. Both starred Henry Fonda, in very low-key, highly moral and thoughtful roles.
Fonda had a knack for these somewhat righteous roles, characters driven by conviction: 12 Angry Men, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath.
These films are stories of backroom deals, threats and the ugliness of politics. This was the time when much of Washington took place out of public view, nothing like today with the Internet, 24-hour cable “news” shows and leaked emails. These films are about old world political dealing and arm-bending.
Advise & Consent (1962)
The President’s nominee for Secretary of State gets caught up in a lot of nastiness during his confirmation hearing. Communism, homosexuality, perjury and political grudges are all in the mix. Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alan Drury, and directed by Otto Preminger (Exodus, Anatomy of a Murder), known for his frank, adult-oriented material. There is a lot of intrigue in this film as most of the drama takes place in backroom discussions and calculated plays involving the President, Vice President and members of the Senate.
Henry Fonda plays the nominee, who has a complicated past, and asks that his name is withdrawn from consideration, which the President rejects. The nomination immediately runs into trouble with Senators. He is accused of being a Communist and while he is able to leap the first inquiry it is discovered that he was less than truthful under oath. This sets up a battle between the President, played by Franchot Tone, who is ill and trying to set in place the players who will continue his efforts, and Senator Cooley, played with cunning and gusto by Charles Laughton, in his last film role.
The featured cast is superb with everyone from Lew Ayres as the Vice President, to Don Murray as the chair of a subcommittee who has a powerful secret, and Betty White as Senator Bessie Adams from Kansas.
After watching this film you want to take a shower, the maneuvering and dirty tricks makes you want to believe this does not take place. It might have been shocking in 1962, but it feels tame by 2019 standards.
The Best Man (1964)
In this film, Fonda coincidentally plays a former Secretary of State who is a candidate for President. Again, he plays an intellectual (typecasting?) who becomes part of a political process that opens up his reputation and personal life to scrutiny and rough and rumble political sport. Cliff Robertson plays his political opponent.
The film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes, Papillion) with a screenplay by Gore Vidal, based on his play of the same title. Schaffner also directed the play.
The film follows the political maneuvering between the candidates and their supporters leading up to and including the party’s nominating convention. The Fonda character, supposedly based on Adlai Stevenson, is a man of principles, and liberal ideology, but has many underlying character flaws. In his past is mental illness that he has kept hidden, plus his wife is about to file for divorce. He would be a great candidate today.
The Robertson character is ruthless and a rabid anti-communist. He stirs the emotions and dives deep into inflammatory rhetoric. Oh, and he’s a conservative who once had a homosexual affair. Just the usual skeletons in the closet, so to speak.
Both men have a strong chance for the nomination, what is needed is an edge, and it could come down to playing a trump card (like that reference?). The current President is dying and each man wants his endorsement. This is 1964, so the President is obviously a man. The Fonda character has a piece of information that he is waffling on whether to use (the homosexuality), which would likely lock up the nomination. A politician with a conscientious.
Vidal tapped into several political figures of the time in drawing his major characters. As a political film it certainly has some moments of profound irony, given the current political environment. You don’t want to believe how political sausage is made, but alas, it’s worse than you think.
Of the two films, The Best Man is the lesser of the two, sudsier and a bit more contrived. Still, each film tackles a tough subject, revealing the warts and slime of high-stakes politics. Both films boast excellent casts and powerful direction. This was still the era where dramatic, realistic stories were filmed in gritty black and white photography.
The good thing about these films is when they are over, we are glad to depart their political worlds. The bad news, we return to our own.