The Best Man – Dirty Politics In an Election Year

Introducing our resident classic companion Vaishali Dinakaran who will take you back in time by recommending old Hollywood gems you must revisit.  

1964’s The Best Man, a prescient film about duelling presidential candidates written by Gore Vidal, may have foretold 2016’s Trump vs Clinton face-off.

Director: Franklin J Schaffner

Writer: Gore Vidal

Cast: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy, Margaret Leighton, Edie Adams

“Is there anything more indecent than the human face when it smiles? All those predatory teeth reminding us of our animal descent.”

It’s a Gore Vidal line, if there ever was one. Sharp, cynical, contrarian, but true. And while it might be delivered in passing as William Russell, one of the candidates hoping to become his party’s nominee for the US presidential elections, pauses to look at himself in the mirror, it does in some ways sum up the essence of the film The Best Man. A movie that tells the story of two men. Each with a chance of being chosen as his party’s nominee. Each who hides behind his smiling facade, a substantial amount of mire.

The Best Man that tells the story of two men. Each with a chance of being chosen as his party’s nominee. Each who hides behind his smiling facade, a substantial amount of mire.

Welcome to the 1960s, then, when campaigning for the post of President involved, much like today, having to please the powers that be, the press, and hoi polloi. And, somewhat as an afterthought, the women. Yes, those 1960s women who, with their bouffant hairdos and neatly manicured nails, were treated as a class unto themselves, with interests not entirely political. But more on that later.

First the protagonists. The aforementioned Russell (played by Henry Fonda) is a man with indiscretions in his past. Indiscretions that have caused considerable strain on his marriage. Nonetheless, the intellectual Russell is someone who (those indiscretions aside) appears to have morals and scruples. A man who is willing to fight to be president, but believes in fighting fair, at one point even saying “So far, I’ve not told a single lie in the campaign.” Pretty remarkable.

Then, there’s his opponent, the blue collar Joseph Cantwell (played by Cliff Robertson) – anti-Communist, determined to combat the USSR’s alleged superiority in terms of missile technology, and even more determined to use every trick in the book to get what he wants. That is, to be nominated by his party, which will almost certainly mean that he’ll also win the election and become President of the United States of America. “You’ve got to fight fire with fire,” is Cantwell’s motto.

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Joseph Cantwell, played by Cliff Robertson, is anti-Communist and determined to use every trick in the book to get what he wants.

Where Russell is polite and tactful, Cantwell appears crude and indiscreet. Where Russell is hesitant to use information obtained in an unscrupulous manner against his opponents, Cantwell thrills in doing just that. And so the stage is set – which of the two will blink first? Which of the two will sneak into the other’s closet, steal the skeletons that lurk within, and parade them in front of the delegates at the convention? And who, ultimately, will be the best man?

While Fonda and Robertson both do a stellar job in their roles as Russell and Cantwell respectively, perhaps the real hero is Vidal’s writing.

While Fonda and Robertson both do a stellar job in their roles as Russell and Cantwell respectively, perhaps the real hero is Vidal’s writing. The movie is overflowing with quotable quotes, delivered not only by the protagonists, but also by a cast of supporting characters who prove to be outstanding. Especially Lee Tracy, in his Oscar nominated role as former president Art Hockstader. Tracy gets the good lines. Lines like “Power is not a toy that we give to good children. It’s a weapon, and the strong man takes it.” There are plenty more, but I’ll allow you to watch the movie and savour them first-hand.

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The prospective first ladies are advised against “doing too much” or “doing too little”, instead they must “be like Mrs Eisenhower.”

Then, there are the women. Margaret Leighton plays the smart and capable Alice Russell, whose ultimatum hangs over her husband’s head. Edie Adams plays Mabel Cantwell, the good all-American girl, now a doting wife, always there to cheer her husband on. At various points in the movie you’ll find this othering of women. The nominees are told that they must appeal to “the average American housewife”, that they mustn’t try to be too funny because “the women don’t like that”. The prospective first ladies are advised against “doing too much” or “doing too little”, instead they must “be like Mrs Eisenhower.”

When Vidal wrote the screenplay for the film, which was based his play The Best Man, he modelled the characters of Russell, Cantwell and Hockstader on American politicians Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon and Harry S Truman. It’s been five decades since then. Five decades in which you’d believe so much progress has been made, that the film would fail to evoke the feelings that it does evoke. Of course there has been some progress. After all, the liberal (but politically incorrect in today’s world) Hockstader declares in his speech “someday we will have a negro president…” (sic) and “if someday we have a woman president”. One has happened, and the other just might.

When Vidal wrote the screenplay for the film, which was based his play The Best Man, he modelled the characters of Russell, Cantwell and Hockstader on American politicians Adlai Stevenson, Richard Nixon and Harry S Truman.

However, as the 2016 American election commences its final countdown, the issues we’ve heard the two candidates speak of, seem somewhat similar in varying degrees, to those that Russell and Cantwell discuss in 1964 – women’s rights, integration, the threat posed by communist nations. And then there’s the mudslinging.

If there ever was a presidential election that served to remind the world that politics is a dirty business (one that according to Hockstader only “ends in the grave”), it would appear that the United States of America is facing just that right now. The Best Man, with its clever writing, goes from making one feel terribly cynical, to making one feel optimistic. A feeling we could all do with today. How does it manage this? Well, you’ll have to watch the film to find out.

The Best Man, with its clever writing, goes from making one feel terribly cynical, to making one feel optimistic. A feeling we could all do with today.

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