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.
Among the maneuvers are the theft of a confidential psychological profile and an accusation of sexual “degeneracy.”
In short, it’s a lot like contemporary political races. In the recent past, presidential
candidates have been accused of fathering a love child (Arizona Sen. John McCain), hiding a drunken driving charge (President George W. Bush) being born in Kenya (President Barack Obama) and even cruelty to dogs (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney).
In short, no holds are barred, and apparently, they never were, notwithstanding the occasional paean to gentler political times.
“This is exactly the sort of thing I went into politics to stop. All the business of gossip instead of issues. Personalities instead of policies,” Russell says when he is urged to peddle compromising information about his rival.
And as many a political operative would respond: You do what you need to do to win.
“Now, I am here to tell you this: That power is not a toy that we give to good children. It is a weapon ... and if you don’t go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you’ve got no business in this big league, because if you don’t fight, this job is not for you,” Hockstader says in response to Russell’s squeamishness.
The film was well-received on its initial release in the spring of 1964.
“It is appropriate that Hollywood should send us one of its occasional melodramatic, gloves-off films about the ferocity and fascination of the great American game of politics,” the late New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote on April 7, 1964.
He compares the film favorably to the staging of the play, writing that “the head-on clash of two threatening character assassins that was made so engrossing on the stage is even more vivid, energetic and lacerating on screen.”
Although the film has fallen a bit off the viewing public’s radar, it has apparently held up well among contemporary film critics.
“I’ve always admired it as both play and movie — it stands with ‘Advise and Consent’ as one of the best political pictures of its era,” David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, said in an email.
The film does feature scenes that hammer home just how far in the past it is set. Much of the movie takes place in the hallowed Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The grand hotel was later marred by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, who was gunned down in its pantry the night he won California’s Democratic presidential primary in 1968. The hotel was demolished in 2006.
Candidates and campaign staffers communicate with enormous walkie-talkies. Robertson at one point takes a “heli-cab” from his hotel to the convention site. But such dated cultural markers don’t detract from the intensity of the contest.
Vidal’s play and the later screenplay came with a political authenticity. In addition to his authorship of historical novels such as “Lincoln,” “Burr” and “Washington D.C.,” Vidal’s political roots run deep.
His grandfather, the late Sen. Thomas Gore (D-Okla.), doted on his grandson, taking him onto the Senate floor. Vidal is also distantly related to former first lady Jackie Kennedy, former Vice President Al Gore and President Jimmy Carter.
He also ran for Congress twice. The first time was for a House seat in upstate New York in 1960, which he lost to incumbent Republican Rep. J. Ernest Wharton. The second time, he ran for Senate in California, losing the 1982 Democratic primary to Gov. Jerry Brown.
While Vidal never made it Congress, he did get to play a Member in the movies. In Tim Robbins’ 1992 satire “Bob Roberts,” Vidal plays liberal Sen. Brickley Paiste, whose mannerisms and beliefs adhere closely to Vidal’s own.
AFI’s screening of “The Best Man” also coincides roughly with the play’s Broadway revival. The play, starring James Earl Jones as Hockstader, John Larroquette as Russell and Eric McCormack as Cantwell, is set for an April 1 opening at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in New York City.
The play was previously revived in 2000 at the Virginia Theatre on Broadway. Cast members included Charles Durning as Hockstader, Spalding Gray as Russell and Chris Noth as Cantwell.
For such a famous history, though, the film is difficult to find, making the AFI screening a bonus for political cinephiles. It’s not available for streaming on video-on-demand outlets such as Netflix or Blockbuster, and it never made it to wide-release DVD.
MGM will burn a DVD-R on a made-to-order basis, but that’s about the extent of the film’s digital footprint.
There are a few lonely VHS copies floating around, but video rental places where one can find such an artifact, such as Potomac Video in Washington, are few and far between.
In general, it’s “not one we remember too well,” said Andrew Mencher, the programming director of Washington’s Avalon Theatre. He noted that when his theater conducted a survey among patrons of top Washington films in March 2008, “The Best Man” didn’t warrant even one write-in vote.
“I am a little surprised that this film hasn’t been revived more. ... But a lot of films from this time period have fallen off the map. So we’re doing our part with the screening this month,” Hitchcock said.