A Movie A Week: THE BEST MAN (1964) I don't believe in polls, accurate or not.
Published at: May 25, 2009, 8:01 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
Today we take a look at a flick called THE BEST MAN, following actor Cliff Robertson over from last week’s Robert Aldrich WW2 movie TOO LATE THE HERO.
Now, this one isn’t available on DVD here in the states. I recorded it off of TCM a while back and finally got a chance to fit it into my movie schedule.
And I’m glad I did. This is a whopper of a movie, still as politically relevant today as it was 45 years ago when it saw release. Swap out integration for gay rights and the commies for the terrorists… and you can also see a lot of Barack Obama in Henry Fonda’s William Russell.
Gore Vidal apparently based the character on Adlai Stevenson who ran for president multiple times and lost to Eisenhower, but it’s fascinating to me to see the parallels to our current president. His character is an intellectual, his faith is called into question, his ability to make tough decisions is unknown, he raises a lot of money for the campaign and is laid back, charming the pants off of the press and other politicians.
And while looking forward at presidential parallels that couldn’t possibly have influenced Gore Vidal’s original play, Cliff Robertson is more of a Richard Nixon type, but mix in a little JFK charm and a McCarthy tendency to witch-hunt and you get a bizarre amalgam that is ruthless, but also personable. Yes, I realize Nixon was a political fixture long before he was president, but I think his presidential legacy is very much foreshadowed in the dirty politics Robertson’s character dabbles in.
Fonda’s William Russell and Robertson’s Joe Cantwell are neck and neck for their party’s nomination for the presidential race. It’s strange considering how radically different political personalities these two are and doubly strange that they’re in the same party. These days Russell would be the super-liberal and Cantwell would be the neo-Con.
One of the first things that hit me was just how fast-paced the film was. We land right in the thick of things as the polls are putting Fonda in the lead for the race to the white house. Fonda watches them come in with a gaggle of press and suddenly the rapid-fire dialogue flies as the reporters shout out questions. “What about the recent Gallup polls?” “I don’t believe in polls, accurate or not.” Etc.
We spend the beginning of the movie with Fonda, getting to know his character a bit as he’s hustled about by his campaign manager, played by the great Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). We see his strengths, his intelligent politicking, but we also see his weaknesses. Russell is having marital trouble, his wife (Margaret Leighton) only agreeing to stay with him because she senses a move to the White House. She makes no bones about it. If he loses the nomination he loses her as well.
Although they don’t dwell on it it’s pretty clear that Russell has a bit of a JFK playboy problem, which most likely lead to the distance between his wife and himself. But his faults only seem to strengthen his resolve to change politics and be the better man.
Then we’re introduced to Robertson’s Cantwell, who rose to fame rooting up communist ties to the mafia and running a ton of show-trials, which made him a figurehead for the completely right wing and a face known to every American. He’s trailing Russell as the convention begins and is determined to win at any cost.
The wild card is former president Art Hockstader, played by Lee Tracy. At first he appears as a smiling, affable man always able to keep things light and friendly, but as the movie progresses you see that is a front that hides a real political beast.
Hockstader’s endorsement could be the clincher for Russell or the final boost Cantwell needs to pull ahead in the race. He visits both candidates and both scenes are perfect examples of character-driven storytelling. Hockstader clearly thinks Russell is the better man, but he thinks Cantwell is the stronger candidate.
So what does he do? Does he go with his heart or his head?
You only see the political beast show up whenever he goes to meet with Cantwell, who unloads on the man, thinking he’s going for Russell. Bad move. The friendly demeanor drops, a line has been crossed and Hockstader not only pulls his support from Cantwell he informs him that he’ll do everything in his power to end his career.
But that doesn’t mean the ex-president is supporting Russell. He’s hesitant because he thinks Russell is too empathetic, too book-smart to act on his gut when he needs to.
It’s a fantastic role, complex and layered. It’s no surprise to me Tracy was nominated (he lost to Peter Ustinov for the caper flick TOPKAPI).
Cantwell has a dirty political bomb he plans on dropping as Russell gets closer and closer to the nomination, but something equally damaging to Cantwell just falls into Russell’s lap and the second half of the movie is on Fonda as his character faces a moral conundrum. If Robertson goes ahead with his plans and releases these documents Fonda loses the race, but if Fonda uses the information he has (a huge announcement that might or might not be true, but either way would be character assassination for Robertson) then he’s no better than his rival.
All the while the ex-president is pushing Fonda to make the dirty decision, saying that the office is power and is not given, only taken by the person with the biggest drive and ambition. He’ll view Fonda’s refusal to run a smear campaign as weakness, but Fonda doesn’t want to win with dirty tricks, being just another dickhead politician.
Vidal’s screenplay is a perfectly constructed character study, surprisingly forward-thinking. There’s a speech given by Lee Tracy that says they have nominated a Catholic president and that some day we’ll see a Jewish president, a “negro” president (his words, not mine) and after all minorities have had a turn he jokes we’ll finally see a woman president.
The political commentary is sharp, but cuts both ways. The overly ambitious, dirty politics are frowned upon, but so is pure idealism. Nobody comes off as a wholly good or wholly horrible person in this film, which I love. I talk about gray area a lot in my observations on film, so it’s only natural that this movie really hits home with me. I love complex characters, but Vidal’s strength here is that he’s able to make this movie fun at the same time.
Fonda and Robertson bring their all to the film. Fonda is just the right mix of likable, charming and flawed and Robertson is all cold steel and ambition.
A lot of the credit also goes to director Franklin Schaffer (who directed a lot of great P movies… PATTON, PAPILLON and PLANET OF THE APES) for keeping the pace up and picking just the right moments to take a breather. It’s in these moments that the best character moments come up.
Final Thoughts: It astounds me this film wasn’t released during the lengthy 2008 campaigning. Gore Vidal is an unabashed liberal, but like I mentioned in the review the movie cuts both ways, not taking a strong stance for either side. There are those who will see Robertson as the best man and some who will see Fonda as the best man. Just like politics. Oh, and in case you’ve made it this far and are totally confused, Taye Diggs isn’t in this movie. That’s a different THE BEST MAN. But how amazing would it be to combine the two… I think someone needs to get Hollywood on the phone…
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, June 1st: THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956)
Monday, June 8th: THE QUIET MAN (1952)
Monday, June 15th: RIO GRANDE (1950)
Monday, June 22nd: THE GETAWAY (1972)
Another big title, this time from Sam Peckinpah. Given my huge crush on Ali MacGraw from this era, I think I’m predisposed to like this one. Can’t wait!
Next week we get into another not-on-DVD title, THE CATERED AFFAIR via Gore Vidal, this time adapting Paddy Chayefsky’s play instead of his own. The flick stars Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine and Debbie Reynolds. See you next Monday for that discussion!
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