Saturday, April 28, 2012

 

Advise and Consent (1962) and The Best Man (1964)

A US political thriller from the early ’60s with Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith, if you were watching BBC2 this time last week you’d have caught Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent. It’s a gripping film, but always blurs in my mind with Franklin Schaffner’s The Best Man from two years later (either side of the far more famous The Manchurian Candidate). While one was written by a conservative and the other by a liberal, they’re remarkably similar in outline: Henry Fonda wants to get a high position; a secret from his past; a dying President; and gay blackmail. Both are strong films, if not stunning – the former more interesting, more complex and shaded in its characters, the second more black and white (though they’re both, in fact, monochrome) but more coherent and driven. They were both unusual in their inclusion of homosexuality at the time – though as a shameful secret, of course – and in their political corruption, though both are more ‘moral’, more hopeful about the system, than the ’70s glum, paranoid conspiracy movies that Frankenheimer’s ’60s thrillers heralded.

Advise and Consent
“Fortunately, our country always manages to survive patriots like you.”
This is a tragedy of history; a dying President wants to secure his legacy by appointing a liberal intellectual Secretary of State who can negotiate for détente (before the term was in use) with the Soviets, but time is catching up with him and the history of everyone involved is creeping up on them. This one’s taken from a 1959 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize-winner by Allen Drury, its title a reference to the US Senate’s role in confirming Presidential nominations, and the crucial candidate is Fonda’s Robert Leffingwell. The film’s key players, though, are really two wily old Senate hands, both from the same party (clearly the Democrats in both films, though unnamed in either, from the days when both parties were much broader churches though, as one old President confesses, still required to ‘talk Church’) but old opponents, the Majority Leader Walter Pidgeon and the cantankerous old conservative Charles Laughton, here in his final screen role, both of whom are willing to do rather more than make speeches to get their own way. Laughton’s Seab Cooley is a virulent anti-communist who sees Leffingwell as a fifth columnist and goes all-out to stop his appointment, both in fiery speeches and in far more dangerous gimlet-eyed observation and plotting. Pidgeon’s Majority Leader is an urbane fixer for his President with a more charming manner but no less ruthless an instinct. And the twin hand grenades tossing between them are the secrets that suddenly near exposure about Leffingwell and the idealistic junior Senator Brig Anderson, hand-picked to see the nomination go through but doing his job rather too conscientiously.

Burgess Meredith, always a terrifically watchable actor, later to find enduring fame as the ’60s Batman series’ Penguin, and aiding the film in muddying the novel’s more strident conservatism by his history as a leftist actor not long since Blacklisted, shows up at the nomination hearing here to explode Leffingwell’s past – testifying that, as young men, both were part of the same Communist cell. It’s a small but vital performance, jittery, passionate, lost; part sneak, part victim. And Leffingwell calmly blows him apart by proving each of his details wrong… Before confessing to the President that while the man may have misremembered names and places, his accusation was true. The President, though, is determined to wave this aside and keep pushing him, just as Cooley is now more determined than ever to push back. And, while from that point Fonda (in theory the focal point of the movie) fades curiously into the background, it’s after this that both push Senator Anderson too far.


Advise & Consent
 
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Don Murray is excellent as Brig Anderson, a young, handsome, upright Mormon who has details of Leffingwell’s Communist past thrust on him… And is then blackmailed in turn for his love affair with another man back when he was in the army. There are some implications, perhaps to make him more favourable to the audience or the censor, that he was only ‘situationally homosexual’ – but it seems to me that there are more than enough hints about his “unexciting marriage” to suggest that he was merely doing what so many gay men did then, and some still do, particularly if seeking political office. This was the first US film to show a gay bar – seedy and shameful, of course, and his literally tossing his ex-lover into the gutter where he belongs! is hardly pro-gay, not to mention then following the traditional plotline for all fictional gays of the time, and yet Brig is handsome, honest and more moral than anyone else in the film, none of which are attributes commonly associated with the Hollywood homosexual (even today, if you can find any). He’s a remarkable contrast with the film’s boo-hiss character – not the Alger Hiss character, that’s Fonda’s – the slimy, blackmailing Left-McCarthy Senator Van Ackerman, who in an interesting choice comes over much more as the cowardly thin streak of nothing that characters coded as gay were portrayed as, while it’s sexy, hairy-chested gay Brig who’s the butch one (the poster, above, bizarrely airbrushes him into a plucked chicken).

Part of the appeal of this film is that it doesn’t pull its punches – but also that it’s more complicated than the headlines allow. The only really despicable character is Van Ackerman, and I suspect he’s the closest to Allen Drury’s original conception: on the one hand, he’s there to scream that people who want to do business with the commies are nasty, unprincipled, untrustworthy and probably misled; on the other, it’s not difficult to see the evil McCarthy figure being one of the far left as Drury protesting too much, while through Twenty-First Century eyes the liberal being the extreme gay-baiter brings a wry smile against a Republican field for which the entry fee is strident homophobia. Perhaps the film’s intriguing balance and layers of character and politics are down to director Preminger’s occasionally deflecting the original text, whether through casting or slight plot changes – and the gay character being a Mormon, too, suggests for US politics today a less black and white approach than many would want to believe (the real-life model, incidentally, was the blackmailing by his fellow Senators of Lester Hunt of Wyoming over his gay son). And if you want a few entertaining incidental details, watch out for the minor Senators – not least an ancient old man who was a real five-term Senator, and a sparkling young woman who, yes, really is Betty White…

The Best Man
“It’s not that I mind you being a bastard. It’s that you’re a stupid bastard.”
Franklin Schaffner’s film has less complicated morals, a much more clean-cut ending and the disadvantage of coming second to Advise and Consent, both on the big screen and in Gore Vidal’s original play coming a year after the former’s book; it’s difficult not to think that it must, at least, have been aware of the crossovers with its predecessor. And yet it still manages to play for bigger stakes – not a Secretary of State, but a potential President – and by choosing Henry Fonda again, it has the confidence to face its critics right down, just as it has more balls-out models in American politics of the day. The central question here is who would make the best President between two candidates, and rather as if caught in Captain Kirk’s infamous transporter accident, one is liberal, moral, but vacillating, the other sexy, confident and a sociopath. But, the film and its aged President say, you need both intelligence and the killer instinct, so could the worst man be, politically, the best? And is this really more about who is the worst?

Henry Fonda’s William Russell here is a far less compromised character than his Robert Leffingwell – and far more his own man than a counter to be moved around between bigger players. Notably, rather than having literally vanished by the end of the movie as an illustration of his powerlessness, here he’s called on to make the crucial decisions and, eventually, makes one. And he’s no ex-Communist – instead, his opponent has got wind of a long-ago nervous breakdown, in some ways still more of a taboo for a political figure today than being gay is (and one that would explode in two Presidential elections’ time after the film was made). And, like the charming Senate Majority Leader in the first film, he’s having an affair – several of them, it seems – though, of course, as long as it’s a woman not your wife you’re involved with the club doesn’t seem to mind in either film, while even the suggestion of a man not your husband (or, worse, that is your husband) would be guaranteed to send voters screaming for the hills. Not that either film has many women, nor any who make an impact on the central plots – I’d wonder if there’s a deliberate subtext about the similarly homosocial environments of politics and the army, but I suspect it’s merely that in the early ’60s no-one in Hollywood or Washington bothered to think that women might make the decisions. At least Russell’s wife has some clout to her, though the ‘What women don’t like in a First Lady’ nagging activist is there only for stereotype and comic relief (when a similarly themed film was made in 2000, with Joan Allen as The Contender, note that the ‘slut-shaming’ is still directed against women, as with gays, and never at straight men who shag around, and whether she did or not). But it’s all the men who do the real machinations, from the jumpy public relations chief to the sharply observed “progressive liberal” Southern governor.


The Best Man
 
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The most mesmerising figure here, though, is Cliff Robertson’s Joe Cantwell, Russell’s rival for the nomination. Apparently Vidal based Russell largely on Adlai Stevenson and Cantwell on Nixon, but while the Russell’s ‘philandering’ suggests a subtext of Kennedy for him, Robertson’s looks and charisma (and hawkishness) suggest a subtext of Kennedy for him, too, throwing sparks into what is plainly a Democratic Party in-fight. You may have seen him in later years as Spiderman’s Fonda-role-alike Uncle Ben (as well as another Batman villain in between); here, he’s terrifying, and when old President Art Hockstader pretty much tells him that with great power comes great responsibility, you can tell that the younger Robertson role doesn’t believe a word of it. It’s ironic that it’s Russell who has the documented mental health issues, as the one with the evident problem here is confident, blazing-eyed, even, Joe Cantwell, whose sociopathic inability to listen to other people extends even to not noticing Lee Tracy’s star turn old President telling him he’s dying.

And the gay plot? Again, this film chooses a simpler path, though the one that might have been expected to turn some of the audience to Joe Cantwell’s side then would ironically turn more stomachs four decades later – again, there’s the ammunition to blackmail him with stories of men shagging together when deprived of women in the army. Can Russell use this against him? Not because it’s anti-gay, you understand, but that blackmail even of that sort of thing makes him wring his hands. Try it, says the terrifying Cantwell in a twist; I have an alibi. Yes, I was named in the investigation into all those gays at that army base… But I wasn’t one of them. I was the one who accused them all. Back then, perhaps Gore Vidal was both ducking the censor by not having any actual ho-mo-sexuals and subtly trying to position the most strident homophobe as the villain; today, the first makes me think the film’s not as confident as it thinks it is, but the second explodes into making you think, this man’s really repellent. What a piece of Santorum.

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