These days when every senatorial or gubernatorial election is treated with the seriousness of Biblical proportions, I thought it would be fun to look back at Hollywood’s efforts over the years with campaign films. There have been a few admirable ones, most notably 1972’s The Candidate, directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Robert Redford as well as Bob Roberts, the 1992 film directed by and starring Tim Robbins. One that doesn’t get a lot of attention however is The Best Man, a 1964 work starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. It was directed by Frankin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton, Papillon) and featured a wicked screenplay by Gore Vidal; you’d think with those credentials, it would have at least a following, but for some reason, it’s remained pretty much unknown.
The film takes place at the convention for one of the two parties (the screenplay does an excellent job of not letting on which party it concerns); it’s summer 1964 in Los Angeles and this party is about to nominate its candidate for the Presidency. The opening of the film takes place on the day the names of the candidates are put in nomination; while there are five in total, there are only two real front runners: William Russell (Fonda) and Joe Cantwell (Robertson). Though they appear similar at first glance (clean cut, well-educated, politically experienced), they are differ radically in their nature. Russell is a quiet, well-intentioned man who believes in talking about issues and hard work. Cantwell is a street fighter who loves the battle of politics and talks about issues in sound bites. This being 1964 and media at the time becoming a more important part of election coverage, it’s Cantwell who is the one who understands the need for personal style to woo voters, while for Russell, it’s primarily about organization and his campaign staff.
The third major player in this drama is former President Art Hockstader, charmingly portrayed by Lee Tracy (if you’re not familiar with Tracy, join the club. I had to look up his profile at imdb.com and discovered that his work was mainly in television; it’s a shame he didn’t have more movie roles). Hockstader meets with both Russell and Cantwell in their resepctive suites in the Ambassador Hotel (the film does an excellent job of placing the characters in a specific setting) to size them up. He asks both of them if they believe in God and asks what they would do in hypothetical foreign emergencies if they were in the Oval Office. He’s not too thrilled by Russell’s demeanor; he believes Russell is not decisive enough. But after speaking with Cantwell, he decides not to endorse him, as he senses that he is a schemer and cannot be trusted. Later that night at a dinner speech, he tells the assembled throng that one of five men will be the next nominee and that’s it the duty of everyone there to loyally support that candidate. Russell, Cantwell, the three minor candidates and everyone at this banquet know the meaning of this speech, as it’s what the President didn’t say by not coming out for any one particular man.
This means an open convention and let the fur fly. “There’s nothing like a low-down, dirty Presidential fight to put the roses back in your cheeks,” Hockstader says and boy do we get one here. Cantwell immediately threatens to publicize old psychiatric records, evidence that Russell once had a mental breakdown. He’s all set to have his staff distribute this information after the first ballot at the convention, which he and everyone else realize will not result in a majority for any candidate.
Russell on the other hand is pressured by both Hockstader and his campaign manager Dick Jensen (Kevin McCarthy) to fight fire with fire, as it turns out they have dug up charges of homsexuality by Cantwell during his days in the service, thanks to one of his fellow soldiers Sheldon Bascomb (squirmingly played by comic Shelley Berman). Bascomb is an inconsequential little man - a bit of a weasel actually - and he has to be badgered by Hockstader and Jensen to reveal all the dirt on Cantwell.
Trouble is, Russell doesn’t want to use this, as he’s an honorable man. Hockstader urges him to do so and it’s in this section of the film that Vidal’s screenply (based upon his play) is at its most perceptive. Hockstader lectures Russell on the question of attacking another candidate; “Power is not a toy we give to good children. It’s a weapon… If you don’t fight, this job is not for you and never will be.”
Russell replies, “I only want be human,” and asks the former President where all these personal attacks will end. “In the grave,” replies Hockstader. “where the dust is neither good nor bad.”
This is truly Vidal’s film; in fact the title of the film is “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.” He writes sharp, to-the-point dialogue that’s sounds as real today as when he wrote it over 45 years ago; it’s a lot of evil fun. One of my favorite lines is spoken by Russell in referring to another possible nominee; “T.T. Claypool has all the characteristics of a dog, except loyalty.” Another great line from Russell comes in response to reporters about the reaction of his delegates on the convention floor when his name is put up for nomination. “This is spontaneous. We’ve scripted about 22 minutes of spontaneity.”
Vidal’s screenplay also touches upon school integration, a hot-button topic in 1964 as well as marital infidelity and the possibility of a minority candidate being president. The screenplay really is a small gem and it’s the backbone of this movie.
As for Schaffner’s direction, it’s pretty straightforward, as he portrays a world inside hotel suites and campaign staff offices along with a few scenes on the convention floor. There are lots of two-shots and closseups as well as medium shots of half a dozen or so staff members going every which way in their tightly conrolled environment. The great Haskell Wexler was the director of photography and he is able to contribute a few interesting low angle compositions looking up at delegates on the floor as they debate on how to vote during their turn. It’s a shame this isn’t a more pictorial movie and it’s a shame that Schaffner didn’t create a bit more tension in this film by cutting back and forth to the convention floor more often, but to be fair, the mano-a-mano duel between Russell and Cantwell during their confrontation on each other’s charges, is the dramatic high point of the film. Perhaps Schaffner (and Vidal) are saying that the real story of a convention is set in tight spaces, behind closed doors, rather than in the open air of the convention.
So while it’s far from a great film, it is a fascinating, beautifully written look into the business of Presidential politics. From what is presented here on film to what we see today on television, we know that in this field, the more things change, the more they stay the same.