Friday, July 29, 2022

Choosing the Best Man

 Watching The Best Man, based on Gore Vidal’s hit Broadway play, I’m reminded of how much has—and hasn’t—changed in American politics over the past six decades. In 1960, when Vidal wrote his play, presidential candidates for the two major parties were still chosen at raucous political conventions whose outcomes were generally uncertain. And of course everyone was white and male, except for the dutiful spouses of the candidates, who knew how to smile on cue. But much remains the same: the party hacks running the show, the reporters eager for a scoop, the fact that some candidates will do just about anything to come out on top. To be, in other words, anointed the best man for the highest office in the land.

 Within the scope of the play, the political party in question was never named. But Vidal, who had strong (and sometimes cranky) political opinions, was clearly committed to putting his own views into a lively story about political skullduggery on the highest level. The play opened early in the same year that the Democrats were planning a presidential nominating convention in Los Angeles. The folksy but ultimately shrewd former president is clearly based on Harry Truman. (He was played both on stage and on screen by the invaluable Lee Tracy, who was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for this role.) One leading candidate, a witty intellectual, reflects the style of Adlai Stevenson, who was twice the Democratic nominee against Dwight D. Eisenhower. His chief rival, who has adopted a far more grandstanding manner, is apparently a combination of the politicos Vidal distrusted: the up-and-coming John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, et al.

 When the film was made four years later, the 1960 election was long over. But viewers can identify L.A. landmarks of the era: the Ambassador Hotel; the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Sports Arena where the real JFK accepted his party’s nomination. And the hurly-burly of the convention floor is shot very effectively, conveying a true sense of being present as history unfolds. (Franklin Schaffner, mostly known for TV in 1964, kicked off a major film directing career with The Best Man.) The two rival candidates are played by Henry Fonda—as an idealist who can’t easily bring himself to fight dirty—and Cliff Robertson, as a pragmatist with the guts to do what it takes to win.  Which of them will make the better president? The former president’s all-important endorsement is up for grabs, and there’s a lot of dirty linen around, just waiting to be aired. Far be it from me to spill all the beans, but this was the first Hollywood film ever to use the word “homosexual.” Vidal’s well-structured story keeps us continually off-balance, leading to an ending that’s both happy and sad . . . and altogether satisfactory as a way to wrap up this mesmerizing tale.

 I should mention the rest of the strong cast, which includes Margaret Leighton as Fonda’s starchy British wife, Edie Adams as Robertson’s kittenish spouse, and (surprisingly) funnyman Shelly Berman in a small but key role. There’s also Ann Sothern as the rare female party operative, one who thinks of herself as the spokesperson for every woman in America. And I don’t want to overlook the film’s producers, who include veteran Stuart Millar and his protégé, the young Lawrence Turman. Turman, who yearned to produce a hit film all on his own, got his wish in 1967, with The Graduate. Larry was a huge help to me on my Seduced by Mrs.  Robinson. He’s now 95, and I wish him continued health.


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