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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.

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.

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