Best Man, The (DVD Review)12 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via Amazon.com CreateSpace.
Stars Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy, Edie Adams.
The movie of Gore Vidal’s Tony-nominated play is too smart and un-dated in certain regards to be called a museum piece, but for those used to seeing elections determined by the primary process, here is perhaps a revelatory window into how the political game was once played.
This screen version, which Vidal penned as well, remains cagey about which political party it concerns. But given that one of the two dominant rival candidates competing in Man’s plot-central primary is a Stevensonian intellectual regarded by some as a waffler (Henry Fonda), it does not sound as if we’re in a hotbed of Republicans. On the other hand, Fonda’s more ruthless Nixon-like rival (Cliff Robertson) has risen to fame by claiming a link between the Mafia and the Communist Party, which does not sound like an assertion that even the young Robert Kennedy at his most zealous would have ever made. What’s more, the ex-president played by Oscar-nominated ‘30s star Lee Tracy (his final film) is definitely a Harry Truman type of straight-shooter who won’t brook pretention.
Though director Franklin Schaffner began his career in black-and-white TV long before home screens got big, he was later more identified with color widescreen spectacles — the best of which are Planet of the Apes, Patton, Papillon and the underrated The War Lord. Here, he’s in his earlier element, and the convention crowd footage has a harsh look that serves the movie well. It was photographed by the great Haskell Wexler early in his career, about two years before he shot Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, speaking of harsh black-and-white.
Fonda had played at least a future president as early as 1939 in John Ford’s sublime Young Mr. Lincoln, but by the early ’60s had cornered the market on cerebral politicians contemporary to the day with 1962’s Advise and Consent (controversial secretary of state designee) and 1964’s Fail-Safe (a president who has to decide whether or not to “press the button”). In this case, the drama turns on whether the Fonda character will elect to expose a personal episode in slimy Robertson’s past that he considers to be off-limits. Failure to do so will mean that Fonda is a) a man of integrity; or b) hasn’t the fire in his belly to deserve the presidency.
The casting walks that fine line between seeming close to being hand-picked and being one a low-budget movie could afford: Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Ann Sothern, Kevin McCarthy, Gene Raymond and real-life newsman Howard K. Smith. Only comedian Shelley Berman, as a creep who knows something about Robertson, (badly) overplays it. Interestingly, and probably not coincidentally, the movie came out in the spring of the ’64 election year, when Goldwaterites took over the Republican Party from the Nixon-Rockefeller establishment in an in-your-face challenge to incumbent LBJ.
Even though he missed appearing in 1931’s The Front Page or its 1940 makeover His Girl Friday, actor Tracy was the movies’ definitive wisecracking newspaper editor/reporter or press agent of the era and had, in fact, starred in Page on Broadway. This was a lucrative twilight role after a career stall (at least in 'A' pictures) for him in the mid-1930s when he was fired from MGM’s Viva Villa! On location and a hard drinker, he urinated from a Mexican balcony onto an official military parade, and the studio had to issue an official apology. Think about this the next time you fill out a resume and come to the question, “Reason for Leaving Last Job.”