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‘The Best Man’ Gets a Campaign Season Revival

Courtesy MGM Limited Edition Collection
The 1964 film “The Best Man” tells the story of a tough, sometimes nasty, presidential primary. It will be screened Presidents Day weekend in Silver Spring, Md., and viewers might see some familiar themes in the midst of the GOP presidential primary.

What better way to take a break from a “good, dirty, low-down” presidential race than to watch a classic movie about a “good, dirty, low-down” presidential race?

Just in time for a small lull in the Republican nomination contests, and for Presidents Day weekend, the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre is screening Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man” from Saturday through Thursday in Silver Spring, Md.

Todd Hitchcock, the AFI Silver Theatre programming director, said he felt the film “was overdue for a screening.”

According to Hitchcock: “I was thinking about primary season originally, just somewhere within mid- to late February. But when I was drafting the calendar, just kind of doing a rough draft, ‘The Best Man’ landed on Presidents Day, and that just seemed too perfect to pass up.”

It’s a rare opportunity to see the 1964 film on the big screen, or anywhere for that matter, as it’s not readily available for streaming or DVD rental. 

Vidal’s screen adaptation of his 1960 play has a storied pedigree. Franklin Schaffner, best known for “Patton” and “Planet of the Apes,” directed. Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson star as the frontrunners angling for the nomination in the midst of an anything-goes convention. And Lee Tracy was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of a former president seeking to pull the strings behind the scenes.

The plot is centered on the Fonda-Robertson contest. Fonda’s character, William Russell, has the edge, if only slightly. But Robertson, as a hard-charging Senator named Joe Cantwell, has dirt that might stick to his rival. 

Hovering over the two is Tracy’s former President Art Hockstader. 

Surrounding them all is a hectic convention. Political conventions are rarely like this anymore, having become more pep rallies than championship bouts. In this movie, however, delegates are wooed on the floor and deals are struck left and right.

The 2012 Republican nominating contest has been defined by its own volatility, and some party power brokers — most recently former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. — have said a drawn-out primary might benefit the party. One of this year’s candidates, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), has repeatedly vowed to take the battle to the August GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., to let delegates decide the nomination in a floor fight.

In Vidal’s story, there’s a similar thirst for the brawl.

“There is nothing like a good, dirty, low-down political fight to bring the roses to your cheeks,” Hockstader says as the mud starts to fly.

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