The Best Man (1964)

 


The photo above shows Henry Fonda as Presidential candidate William Russell in The Best Man (1964). This article is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Politics on Film Blogathon. Click here to read more articles from some of the best bloggers in the business. 

The early 1960s was a great era for political movies. One of the best of this cycle of films was the incisive, brilliantly acted adaptation of Gore Vidal's play, The Best Man (1964), which details the seamier side of backroom politics at one party's convention.

The Best Man tells the story of William Russell (Henry Fonda), a well-respected former secretary of state who is running for his party's Presidential nomination (the party's identity is never explicitly stated in the movie, but it seems to be fairly obvious that it is supposed to be a Democratic convention). Russell is a bit too intellectual for some tastes (he likes to quote Bertrand Russell AND Oliver Cromwell in the same sentence) and his history of philandering has led to an uneasy relationship with his longsuffering wife (Margaret Leighton), but he is still regarded with respect by many in his party. 

Russell's chief opponent for the nomination is unctuous senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), whose working-class roots and record of fighting the "communist mafia" have earned him a growing following. Both men are eager to earn the endorsement of plainspoken ex-President Art Hockstader (an Oscar-nominated Lee Tracy), at least until both men's campaigns dig up explosive allegations on their respective opponents.



The Best Man is based on Vidal's highly regarded 1960 Broadway play. United Artists bought the screen rights with the idea of having Frank Capra direct, but to Vidal's horror, Capra rewrote the script, adding a scene where Russell dressed as Abraham Lincoln 😕 storms the convention floor to make an inspiring speech (Vidal dismissed Capra's ideas as "grotesquely sentimentalized" in his autobiography). Fortunately, United Artists executives also expressed reservations about Capra's ideas, and directing duties were turned over to Franklin J. Schaffner with Vidal adapting his play for the big screen.

Viewed today, The Best Man is both a fascinating time capsule of the backroom politics of the 1950s and 1960s, and an all-too relevant morality tale on how the lust for power and position can corrupt otherwise decent, honorable people. Vidal came from a well-connected upper-class family (he was related to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy by marriage, and his grandfather was a senator from Oklahoma). This makes it probable that much of The Best Man's political machinations were based on things that either Vidal witnessed or that he heard about from influential people.


In fact, Vidal was a lifelong political gadfly who ran unsuccessfully for office twice (Congress in 1960; the Senate in 1982), and he always seemed willing to air his political views on any TV program that would have him (If you would like to learn more about Vidal, a good starting point is the documentary, The Best of Enemies, which depicts Vidal's 1968 debates with Conservative William F. Buckley, Jr.). The Best Man offers Vidal's take on the 1960 Presidential election with Russell representing principled progressive Adlai Stevenson (I know many of you won't know who he was, so here's his Wikipedia entry) and Cantwell representing 1960 Republican nominee Richard Nixon with a dash of infamous Communist hunter, Sen. Joe McCarthy, thrown in for good measure. 

Vidal was one of the great chroniclers of American political life (he doesn't get enough credit for this, IMO), and The Best Man is one of his most incisive takes on power politics and the very flawed human beings who participate in the Democratic process. There are no heroes in this film, no white knights in seersucker suits to stand up for truth, justice, and the American way. There are just two deeply flawed men who are running for an office which they are, in very different ways, unqualified to hold. 

Cliff Robertson as Joe Cantwell in The Best Man (1964)

On paper, Russell is the better candidate. He is a principled progressive who spouts all the right liberal talking points, but he lacks the relish for "a red-blooded political fight." Russell is right not to engage in personal attacks, but he folds like a lawn chair (as my grandpa used to say) at the first hint of trouble, which doesn't exactly bode well for a future President.

On the other hand, Cantwell is a populist huckster who has never backed down from a hard-nosed brawl, especially when it involves digging up dirt on those on his well-curated enemies list and/or batting the "communist mafia," a conveniently ambiguous organization that apparently only Cantwell can vanquish. As the film progresses, the audience learns that Cantwell has a deeply embarrassing personal secret (by 1964 standards) that up to this point he has successfully hidden from the public. More importantly, as Robertson's brilliant performance strongly suggests, Cantwell has scrubbed the incident from his own consciousnesses. In the end, the film reveals Cantwell as the most dishonest of liars, the most facile of cowards, and the most lamentable of tragedies: He is a man who cannot acknowledge the truth about himself.


The Best Man will air at 8 pm ET Wednesday, Oct. 28 on TCM. It is also streaming on The Criterion Channel.



Comments

  1. Excellent. You pierced the characters of Russell and Cantwell beautifully. The Best Man always gets my attention. Schaffner made a true cinematic gem from Vidal's play. (What I wouldn't give to have seen that original production!)

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    1. I think Melvyn Douglas was in Fonda's role in the original production. He must have been great (as always) in the role.

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  2. Great take on The Best Man. Love the '60s political films and this is one of the best. I didn't know Capra came close to directing. The mind reels at what that might have looked like. Enjoyed your detailed look at this one and will likely revisit it soon.

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  3. Loved your post. Funny how the 50s, 60s and 70s were such fertile times for political films reflecting those decades with the overriding themes always being the sliminess of the process. Such a wonderful film, so perfectly cast.

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    1. That's a great point. I always think of politicians being more idealistic in that time period, but it was very different for those living through it.

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