As I anxiously wait for the polls to close on this Election Day, what better movie to write about than “The Best Man,” that terrific look at presidential campaign politics from 1964? (A mere coincidence, though — I am way behind on my movie reporting, and I actually saw this more than a month ago.) The movie is based on Gore Vidal’s play of the same name from 1960, and he wrote the movie as well.
My theater’s writeup: “In Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (based on Vidal’s play of the same name), Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson square off as political adversaries during a presidential primary in this sardonic, insightful drama that brings out the best, and worst, in American politics.
Released during the Presidential campaign of 1964, The Best Man is a caustic political drama which kept a lot of critics and filmgoers guessing which real-life politicians inspired the lead characters. In one corner, you have William Russell (Fonda), the older, more idealistic candidate whose wife is on the verge of divorcing him. In the other corner, you have Joe Cantwell (Robertson), the younger, more opportunistic candidate who doesn’t hesitate in using smear tactics if necessary. In the middle is the former President (Lee Tracy) who still hasn’t decided which candidate to endorse.”
(I shall miss Gore Vidal — I wish he had written more memoirs. His acerbic take on people celebrity-worshipped by most Americans was at times startling but nonetheless a nice counter to that blind approval of people in the public eye. For example, he held no love for the Kennedy family and shared the anecdotes to demonstrate why. )
But back to the movie. It tells the story of a party convention, back in the days when decisions were actually made at these events (I do remember watching them on TV and enjoying the colorful voting of the states…). Two candidates vie to be nominated to become the next President of the United States (apparently the other party is in disarray and isn’t in contention), one played by Henry Fonda and one by Dale Robertson. The Henry Fonda character is portrayed as an intellectual, a man of conscience who is widely believed to be modeled on Adlai Stevenson. The Dale Robertson character is a firebrand who will do or say whatever it takes to reach his goal; he’s considered to be based on John F. Kennedy (see above re Vidal’s attitude) with perhaps bits of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon.
Digression: I wasn’t paying attention when this particular movie came out, but I do remember when Dale Robertson played JFK in the PT 109 movie. Isn’t it interesting that he got to play him twice — once as a hero and once as a villain!
There is not a lot more I can think of to say without giving away the full plot. I don’t know why they chose to make it in black-and-white — oh, symbolism much LOL? — because the spectacle at the convention would have been good in color. Also, I would have liked to see the room decor and the attire of the women characters in color.
Speaking of the women, Henry Fonda’s wife was played by Margaret Leighton, whom I can’t remember seeing in any other roles. She was 42 at the time but seemed a lot older to me — possibly that is just the effect of distance in time upon perception of fashion and coiffures; I often have trouble figuring out how old some people are supposed to be in old movies. She also had an English accent, which they never explained. Dale Robertson’s wife was played by Edie Adams (age 37), who did a nice job with the downscale character. (Vidal got in a nice dig at Jacqueline Kennedy, too, placed in the mouth of Fonda’s character.)
Other interesting parts were played by the comedian Shelley Berman, whom I had never seen in a dramatic (though here comedic) role, and a young-looking Kevin McCarthy (though he was actually 50 at the time — he died in 2010 at 96; I had no idea he was that old), who, Wikipedia tells us, was a real-life cousin of the other McCarthy, Eugene. The ex-President Hofstader, played by Lee Tracy (who was the only carryover from the stage version), seemed like a real throwback to pre-WWII movies — that must have been the right way to do it, though, because he did get an academy award nomination for it.
One more comment, about the plot — it had a nice twist at the end. I didn’t see it coming. Maybe I will go read more Gore Vidal fiction and hope for more such interesting surprises. Except for “Myra Breckinridge,” which my peers and I read when it came out for its shock value rather than its literary value, I think I have only read historical fiction by him. I carried one of his books about ancient Rome as my subway reading back in the 70s — it took months to finish. Not an inspiring experience. But now I am older and wiser. If I do read some Vidal, I will report on it.