The Best Man(1964)
Always have had a love of "political" drama. Unfortunately the genre tends to be box office poison so such movies rarely get made. But because of that when they do get made they tend to be prestige projects, close to somebody's heart, and every few years we get such an attempt. George Clooney's recent The Ides of March is a perfect example.
The Best Man, considered one of the classics of the genre, was directed by Franklin Schaffner from a Gore Vidal script based on his own play. Schaffner got his start in the 50s in so-called "Golden Age" television (Playhouse 90) and of course went on to direct Planet of the Apes and Patton. Vidal was raised here in DC in a political family. His father worked for FDR and his grandfather was a senator for many years. This gave him a unique perspective and when he wrote the original play he had an insider's view of how politics in this country really worked. The cast is strictly "A" list for the time, starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Kevin McCarthy and a whole host of instantly recognizable character actors.
For all the firepower the film is not much seen. It is available only as a made on demand DVD-R and from all reports the transfer is very poor. I'm not sure why this is. The print I saw last night at the AFI Silver Theater was excellent. (Of course I've probably provided my own answer. If MGM went to all the trouble to restore and release the movie it could count on a limited audience for all its trouble.)
The film concerns a hypothetical 1964 political convention and the behind the scenes struggle between two candidates from the same party (Fonda and Robertson) to win the endorsement of the outgoing incumbent (wonderfully played by Lee Tracy) thus guaranteeing the nomination and almost certain victory in the general election. As the title suggests the movie is a character study. Because he has no fairy dust in his eyes Vidal has been accused of being cynical (and there is a bit of dark humor in the movie) but the movie is not cynical – anything but. Vidal seems to suggest that politics is a messy business and to participate requires one to acknowledge that and be willing to get your hands dirty. But also to realize that political power is an awesome and dangerous weapon and should never be ceded to either the saint or the ideologue.
Critics have had fun trying to match the characters in the movie to political figures of the period. It’s easy to see Adlai Stevenson in Henry Fonda’s academically brilliant but Hamlet-like portrayal but the real subtle character is Robertson’s. He is Nixonian for sure but he is just as much JFK, and it is a testimony to Vidal’s brilliance and clear eye that he can see that relationship and what the two had in common no matter their philosophical differences.
It’s said that it is better not to actually see how laws and sausages get made and certainly Americans have a view of ourselves not too terribly tied to reality. Here we are in another election year and the depressing part of watching this movie is to realize how little has changed.
“We must not always talk in the marketplace,” Hester Prynne said, “of what happens to us in the forest.”
-Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter