The Best Man
Franklin J. Schaffner
Gore Vidal (Play: Gore Vidal)
Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Shelley Berman, Lee Tracy, Ann Sothern, Gene Raymond, Kevin McCarthy, Mahalia Jackson, Howard K. Smith, John Henry Faulk, Richard Arlen
Buy on DVD
With the recent mid-term elections finally at an end, with all its lies and mudslinging, a film like The Best Man plays like a fresh drink of water cleansing the palate of all the distasteful rhetoric. Set at a fictional presidential nomination convention in 1964, Henry Fonda plays William Russell, an idealized version of the model modern politician. He knows the issues, refuses to play dirty, but has a secret that might sink his campaign should it get out. Cliff Robertson plays his chief opponent Joe Cantwell, a ruthless southern politician ready to cut down, expose and vilify anyone who gets in his way. Cantwell and Russell spar like bitter rivals trying to make a play for national attention.
Former president Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy) is the kingmaker. His endorsement could mean a quick end to the nominating convention and both men are desperate for the attention. Privately, he has all but admitted to Russell that he won’t back him for the position because of his inability to make tough, unilateral decisions. Yet, while his plan is to endorse Cantwell, a conversation with his intended leads him to second guess his decision and not until the climactic pre-convention dinner reception do we find out if he will back Cantwell or return to his friend Russell and give him the nod. This isn’t the end of the film by any means as we get into the tense dramatics behind an open convention and the power brokering, jockeying and tough decisions that need to be made in order to clinch the nomination.
The key to watching and loving this film is not that these candidates are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. It’s recognizing a blood thirsty politician ready to do anything to win, including release a stolen psychological profile on his opponent that would reveal his past nervous breakdown, and a conscientious one who can’t decide whether to betray his principles and reveal damning information in his possession or stand up for what he, and the audience, believes is the right thing and fight the battle fairly.
Fonda is probably the best actor that could have been chosen to play this role. After years of portraying generous, kind-spirited men who always sought fairness and equality between all men, William Russell is the charismatic vessel he was born to inhabit. Robertson does a wonderful job as Fonda’s foil, checking him at never move and seldom letting the audience get behind his strict veneer of entitlement. For someone who came from nothing and pulled himself up by the bootstraps, Robertson conveys Cantwell more like a spoiled wealthy brat than his opponent Russell who actually came from money. Tracy is a strong presence in the film, acting as the fulcrum between the two extremes, seeing value in both approaches, but attempting to tilt the balance towards the smarter, less ego-driven man.
Also of special note are two gifted actresses who make terrific work out of their brief bits of onscreen time. Ann Sothern plays a Sue Ellen Gamage, a woman constantly referring to what women do and do not want, yet feeling more like a regressive conservative trying to keep those she claims to represent from feeling too put off by the nasty business of politics. The other is Maragaret Leighton as Russell’s lovely, sensible wife Alice. She has few scenes in the film, but sets herself calmly down as the rock on which the foundation of life is built. Her husband has been sleeping around on her and although she’s ready to walk at a moment’s notice and her motive for staying is the potential for power, she conveys love and admiration for her husband despite her hurt and frustrated feelings. It’s that subtle supporting performance that too often is ignored as part of the the background.
Anyone watching this film today might look at it and wonder if there really are any politicians as noble and spirited as Russell as most have made themselves to be cutthroats like Cantwell. And it’s almost impossible to tell these days. The times of Mr. Smith going to Washington are probably long gone, but ideals can still mean something in the right hands. But would we recognize them if we saw them? In The Best Man, it’s easy to see where and why our faith should be placed, however in reality such decisions are nearly impossible. It’s a nice vision of how politics should be run. If every politician could mold themselves after Russell, perhaps the public wouldn’t be so disenchanted with, disheartened and disgusted by politics as usual.
November 8, 2010