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Although I had seen it when it first came out (I was 18) and again
about about 6 months ago (Winter, 2004), this screening (May, 2005) was
even more insightful.
It really has aged very well, and is, obviously, at least as relevant today as it was in 1962 --"realistic" in its depiction of the congressional situation in its own day, positively prescient in its relation to our own.
Fonda is good, but curiously second fiddle to the other, more subtle characters.
It's Walter Pigeon's best flick (by far), well cast as the Senate Majority Leader and he carries the role off with an almost Shakespearean aplomb.
Almost Charles Laughton's best (only because that's a very hard call), with his hopelessly crumpled white suit and hat, shufflin' gait, positively Irvinesque homespun witticisms and wonderful, drawling, contemptuous "Mis-ter Rob-ert A. Leff-in-well".
Might be Franchot Tone's best, as well, as the ailing, frail, chain-smoking president, a little bit too close to Life (filmed 6 years before he died of lung cancer).
Gene Tierney is very good as the D.C. socialite hostess "Dolly Harrison" --a character clearly based on Averill Harriman's wife Pamela or, as a type, a later Katherine Graham.
Definitely Peter Lawford's best film --which, admittedly, is not saying much, but he's very well cast as a rather dissolute, philandering Kennedyesque senator who is, nonetheless, not without his Qualities.
Lew Ayres' Casper Milquetoast "Vice President Harley M. Hudson" is an excellently wrought character, from his "bucket of warm spit" role as the impotent President of the Senate to the wonderful twist he gives it at the end, which expounds quite beautifully the subtleties and definitiveness of the Reality of Power.
The scenes of D.C. are positively nostalgic --imagine anyone being able to catch a cab to the capital and then walk right up the steps and go inside ; or an aged night-watchman making his rounds as *the* Security for the inside of the Senate building.
As are the various aspects of the underground "Gay Scene" in NYC with the wonderfully cast Larry Tucker, Jerry Fielding's fine music and "the voice of Frank Sinatra" (as credited). (Some might object to the "clichés" in these scenes, but, to me, those clichés are part and parcel of the ambiance of the period of the film and the culture it portrays and should be seen as such --rather like appreciating the overt racism in "Birth of a Nation" for what it is. I am glad that Preminger didn't "sanitize" his presentation of this matter, especially given the crucial nature of it to the plot of the film.)
But the contrast between the civility --albeit occasionally a rather raw one-- of the senate of circa 1960 and that of the present day is not nostalgic quite so much as it is just heart-rending ("The World We Have Lost"), and the roots of our present grotesque, take-no-prisoners congressional savagery are fully exposed in the intertwined plot lines of McCarthyesque ideological rigidity and homosexual blackmail.
All in all, a "Roman à Clef" to the political world of 1960's Washington, vividly relevant to our own time.
As a Congressional correspondent for the New York Times during the
1950s, author Allen Drury had ample opportunity to witness Washington
politicians in their natural habit---and drew upon numerous factual
sources, including the controversial Alger Hiss case and the scandalous
suicide of Senator Lester Hunt, to create the story of a controversial
nominee for Secretary of State. The novel was not only a best seller,
it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
It was also a book that Hollywood could not film under the film industry's notorious Production Code. As it happened, the book fell into the hands of director Otto Preminger, long-time foe of Hollywood's rules for self-censorship. He not only made the film, he flagrantly broke the code; as such, ADVISE AND CONSENT presents our nation's leaders embroiled in a blackmail plot, finds actress Gene Tierney using the word 'bitch,' and became the first Hollywood film to show a gay bar. It was shocking stuff for 1962.
The story is extremely convoluted. An aging and extremely ill President makes a highly controversial nomination for Secretary of State---which is opposed by a member of his own party, who bears the nominee a personal grudge and who attempts to derail the nomination by accusing the nominee of former membership in the Communist Party. This in turn touches off a vicious battle between those in the party who support the nominee and those who don't, a battle that will ultimately result in the suicide of the only character who has the integrity we would like to see in our political leaders.
The cast is indeed remarkable and, from Lew Ayres to Betty White, plays with considerable conviction and tremendous restraint. Henry Fonda is often cited as the star of the film, but in truth he appears in the small but pivotal role of Robert Leffingwell, nominee for Secretary of State. Screen time is divided between Walter Pigeon as the Majority Leader, Charles Laughton as the senator who opposes the nomination, and Don Murray, an idealist who finds himself chairing the nomination committee. All three play extremely well, but it is really Laughton---in his final screen role---who walks off with the film as the devious and openly vicious Senator from South Carolina. The trio is ably supported by a dream cast that includes Franchot Tone as the President, Lew Ayres as the Vice President, George Grizzard as a growling ideologue, Gene Tierney as a society hostess---and yes, Betty White, who offers a brief turn as the Senator from Kansas.
It has become fashionable to dismiss Otto Preminger films of the 1950s and 1960s as ponderous, all-star, and pseudo-intellectual trash, and indeed it is difficult to find much positive to say about films like EXODUS and HURRY SUNDOWN these days. But Preminger is in many ways under-rated; his films have not always dated well in terms of subject, but they hold up extremely well in the way in which they are put together, with ADVISE AND CONSENT a case in point---and it is worth pointing out that accusations of leftism, adultery, and homosexuality are still enough to prompt everything from impeachment to congressional hearings to resignations. Nor has the process of the political dance itself changed greatly between then and now.
The great flaw of the film is its conclusion, which seems facile to the point of being hokey---but this is also the great flaw of the novel, which ends in much the same way--and at times ADVISE AND CONSENT seems more than a little dry. All the same, it remains a movie worth watching, particularly notable for its performances, fluid camera work, and meticulous recreation of party politics. The DVD offers a near-pristine widescreen transfer with good sound quality and an interesting, if occasionally too academic, commentary by film historian Drew Casper. Recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Preminger's masterpiece and one of the greatest of all American films
and yet critical opinion is strongly divided on this one. Some people
believe that the melodramatic elements of the plot, (homosexuality,
blackmail, suicide), denigrates the film's authenticity and takes away
from it as drama but the characters are so beautifully drawn, (and the
performances of such a uniformly high standard), that the mechanics of
the plot seem startlingly real. By being overt about homosexuality in
1962 the film broke new ground, though the gay characters, briefly
seen, are cringe-worthy stereotypes.
What makes the film a masterpiece is Preminger's extraordinary mise-en-scene and possibly the best use of the widescreen for dramatic effect in any American movie. By keeping some characters on the periphery of the screen while the main characters in the scene interact in the foreground Preminger creates tensions and psychological relationships between them that cutting would only dissipate.
The plot centres on a dying President's controversial nomination of a left-wing Secretary of State. On the one hand, there are consequential melodramas inherent in pushing the plot forward, (the President's nomination is opposed; the politicians play dirty), while on the other is the almost documentary-like approach Preminger applies to the political machinations that take place on the floor of the senate and in the offices, houses and hotel-rooms where the characters live and work.
It is also the most entertaining of all political movies. (filmed luminously in black-and-white by Sam Leavitt it feels like a cracking film noir). The cast are matchless and many of them did their finest work here. This is particularly true of Walter Pigeon as the Majority Leader, (he's as decent and as noble as Ghandi), Franchot Tone as the President, Don Murray as the senator who is being blackmailed, (he was never to get a better part), Lew Ayres as the invisible Vice-President and Burgess Meredith as the mentally unstable witness, (it's a great cameo). Charles Laughton, too, gave a career-defining performance as the wily old senator whose opposition is the source of everyone's troubles, (it was his last film).
George Grizzard's character and performance is a mistake. He's the villain of the piece and he's demonic; he goes around spitting fire but he's a necessary evil. And the ending doesn't ring true; it's too convenient, a cop-out even if we are on the edge of our seat. But these are minor quibbles when everything else is so extraordinarily good. The script, by Wendell Mayes, is one of the great adaptations of a book, (even if it does reduce the roles of some characters and leaves out the back-fill). Amazingly, this great film wasn't nominated for a single Oscar. It rose above the brouhaha of the Academy.
An ill President wants his nominee for Secretary of State confirmed in
"Advise and Consent," a 1962 film based on the Pulitzer Prize winning
novel by Alan Drury and directed by Otto Preminger. It was the first
film in seven years for Gene Tierney and the last for Charles Laughton.
Tierney couldn't have chosen a better comeback and Laughton a more
It's up to the majority leader, Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon) to get the President's (Franchot Tone) nominee for Secretary of State (Henry Fonda) confirmed, but it's not going to be easy. Senator Cooley from South Carolina (Laughton) believes that Robert Leffingwell once had Communist ties and doesn't want him confirmed, even if it means digging up marginal people (Burgess Meredith) who claim to have known Comrade Leffingwell. An ambitious, aggressive young senator (George Grizzard) loudly wants Leffingwell approved, and he will do anything to make it happen - even if it means blackmailing the chairman of the hearing, Brig Anderson (Don Murray). There is pressure on the President to withdraw Leffingwell, and he refuses; the President puts pressure on Anderson to get him confirmed, and, sticking to his own principles, Brig, despite a tremendous threat to his home and political position, refuses to reconvene the hearing. Meanwhile, if Leffingwell stays in and there's a tie, it will be up to the Vice President (Lew Ayres) as the President of the Senate, to break it.
This is a brilliantly done film that has you glued from the first moment to the last. It not only gives a vivid portrait of politics and how the Senate works but keeps the viewer in suspense for the entire movie. The acting is magnificent. Franchot Tone gives a sturdy performance as a President running out of time; Lew Ayres underplays and makes sympathetic the role of the compromise Vice President; Walter Pidgeon is elegant and authoritative as the majority leader; Henry Fonda gives a straightforward, honest portrayal of a man who wants to serve his country but has to go against some of his own beliefs in order to do it. There isn't a wrong note throughout, even down to a very young and pretty Betty White who has a tiny role as a Senator and Peter Lawford as a Jack Kennedy type. Inga Swenson is the insecure Mrs. Anderson and gives a heartbreaking performance as a loving wife who feels she has failed her husband in some fundamental way. Laughton is great, but he is given some very florid dialogue, and he rises to the occasion by hamming it up. It was an appropriate choice given the script. Gene Tierney, as a wealthy widow/hostess who sees Pidgeon on the side, looks beautiful and gives a charming performance.
The end of this movie is incredibly powerful, and the scene with the President, Vice President and Senate Majority leader Munson is one of my favorites for a special reason. In the book, the Vice President, who is terribly worried about the President's health, has an encounter with the President and then goes back to his office and expresses some emotion about the meeting. Though the scene isn't in the film, Lew Ayres obviously read the book and has the same emotional reaction, but unspoken, on the Destroyer. Unless you've read the book, you won't pick it up, but it's an even greater scene if you have.
IMDb members have posted that nothing has changed today. In politics, I'm sure that is true. In films, unfortunately, things have changed. A character-driven film rich in dialogue like "Advise and Consent" is hard to come by. See it and revel in the film-making past and shake your head at the timeliness of the story.
With the election of John F. Kennedy, in 1960, Hollywood took a
heightened interest in politics, and the behind-the-scenes drama of
lawmaking. Allen Drury's massive novel of wheeling and dealing, "Advise
and Consent", was a natural choice for the big screen, and under the
sure direction of legendary Otto Preminger, a classic 'political
thriller' was born.
The premise, the nomination of a controversial new Secretary of State, and the actions of the President and Congress to help or hinder his approval, is still a remarkably timely issue, over forty years later, and it is surprising how little things have actually changed. With Henry Fonda as the nominee, you'd expect that he'd be the 'good guy' of the tale, but when he lies under oath (even for the best of reasons), Preminger makes it clear that in politics, as in life, there is little that can easily be divided into 'black' and 'white'.
Certainly, there are recognizable historic figures in the cast, under different names. The most obvious is skirt-chasing Sen. Lafe Smith, a thinly-disguised JFK, himself, who cut quite a social path prior to marrying Jackie (and afterward, too, as the years have revealed). That his real-life brother-in-law, Peter Lawford, plays the role, is a grand piece of 'tongue-in-cheek' casting (as is Gene Tierney, one of Kennedy's early 'conquests', as a Washington social maven). One character has become even more fascinating, since the film's release; wily South Carolina Sen. Seabright Cooley (a brilliant Charles Laughton, in his final role), was said to have been based on Illinois' legendary Everett Dirksen, but in a real-life parallel, South Carolina produced a 'real' Sea Cooley, in the amazing Strom Thurmond! The 'Who-Is-Who?' aspect aside, the film is populated with many fascinating characters, from wise and sympathetic Senate Majority Leader Robert Munson (Walter Pigeon, in one of his finest later roles), and his 'right-hand man', Senate Majority Whip Stanley Danta (Paul Ford, also wonderful), to the Minority opposition, headed by the perfectly-cast Will Geer. Women, who were finally achieving greater political status, aren't as well-conceived in the film, but are present, with Betty White(!) in a small but visible role.
The key 'players' of the drama, however, are the wily, dying President (screen veteran Franchot Tone, in a terrific 'comeback' role), the enigmatic Vice President (Lew Ayres, another screen legend making a 'comeback'), young, idealistic Sen. Brigham Anderson (Don Murray, who nearly steals the film in his tragic portrayal), and opportunistic Sen. Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard, as easily the film's most hiss-able villain!) As with all Preminger films, there is an element of controversy in the story, with homosexuality as the issue addressed. While later film historians have complained that the director fell back into an almost caricatured approach to the gay lifestyle, considering the era the film was produced, and the censorship restrictions of the time, to even mention it was a courageous move, and that Preminger kept this key plot element in the story should be applauded.
"Advise and Consent" may not be the kind of film that will appeal to everyone, but each time I hear Jerry Fielding's stirring opening theme, I find myself drawn back into this ever-fascinating world of Politics and Power, and I think, if you give it a chance, you'll be hooked by it, too! This one is a keeper!
Allen Drury's sprawling novel of Washington intrigue gets a bit over-condensed in Wendell Mayes' screenplay--the exposition comes fast and furious and unconvincing, and some important subplots in the book, such as the space race, are altogether missing. But what's left is pretty juicy and compelling, as Secretary of State nominee Henry Fonda (top-billed, but with surprisingly little screen time) sets off a destructive round of politicking that ends in death, destruction, and satisfying upholding of the Constitution. Preminger handles the gay subplot with as little subtlety as you'd expect, and while he was clearly trying to show some sympathy to an oppressed minority, he comes off as a square homophobe. Don Murray is oversold as an Ideal Husband and Father to artificially ratchet up the poignancy, and as his wife, Inga Swenson just cries and cries, and seems a shrew and a scold. But the dialog is sharp, even with all the overexposition, and the cast is wonderful: Peter Lawford as a Kennedy-esquire Rhode Island senator, Burgess Meredith as a weak witness, George Grizzard as a Roy Cohn-like meddler, Gene Tierney as Pamela Harriman more or less, Charles Laughton as a tasty-ham Southern senator, Lew Ayres as a Vice President with hidden strength, Franchot Tone as the horse-trading President, and Walter Pidgeon as the sort of Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid should aspire to be. Even such solid character actors as Paul Ford, Russ Brown, and Betty White turn up in tiny parts. The cinematography's clean and uncluttered, and while this congressional bunch is far more articulate and epigrammatic than our own, the theme of backstage double-dealing feels more relevant than ever. Very fast-moving, and dated as it is, it still packs a wallop.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Allen Drury is recalled for one single novel he wrote in the 1950s that
became a bestseller and Pulitzer Prize Winner. It is ADVISE AND
CONSENT. There had been many political novels before Drury. Ignatius
Donelly's populist novel, CAESAR'S COLUMN was a best seller in the
1890s, and Jack London would write the first American anti-Utopian
novel THE IRON HEEL in the early 20th Century. In the 1930s Sinclair
Lewis would satirize Huey Long with with IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE (about a
Fascist America). Long cast a long shadow (his career influenced two
novels turned films: A LION IS IN THE STREETS and Robert Penn Warren's
ALL THE KING'S MEN). But Drury's novel picked up on a single procedure
of government: the way the appointments of the U.S. President are
reviewed by the Senate through subcommittees who decide whether or not
to support the choice. Taking a seemingly dull process, Drury showed
the machinations and maneuvers of the President, the Senate Majority
Leader and Majority Whip, the Subcommittee chairman, and the candidate
himself to demonstrate it was really great drama here.
As was pointed out in another review here, the characters are based on real parties in the Washington of the late 1940s and 1950s. The President, who enjoys cruises on the Presidential yacht and is a chain smoker, is based on F.D.R. The Vice President (frist name Harley) is Harry Truman - kept out of the loop by the President who isn't interested in preparing him for office. THe Majority Leader is based on Vice President Alben Berkeley, a wise politico type. Seabright Cooley is a combination of South Carolina's Senator Strom Thurmond and Mississippi's Senator Eastman. The Washington Hostess who has a side affair with the Majority Leader is a combination of Pearl Mesta and Alica Roosevelt (who had an affair with William Borah, Senator of Idaho in the 1920s and 1930s). Leffingwell's confirmation as Secretary of State is based on many hearings up to 1962 where there were serious questions, here tied to Communist leanings due to the date of the story (post-McCarthy, but the effect of the Wisconsin Senator was still there). The fate of one of the Senators is based on the tragedy of Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt.
Preminger reduced the plot line of the novel, making Senator Orrin Knox (Edward Andrews) a minor figure. That can't be done if there was a remake today - I'll get back to that. He concentrates on how Robert Leffingwell's confirmation is a political football because Leffingwell may be too soft on the Communists. Since Preminger casts Henry Fonda as Leffingwell, the audience tends to support him. But during the confirmation hearings Leffingwell is confronted by a former acquaintance played by Burgess Meredith who claims Leffingwell was a communist. Meredith is based, of course, on Whittaker Chambers, confronting Alger Hiss. But here he is briefly discredited by Leffingwell. Then it comes out that Leffingwell covered up the truth and lied to the subcommittee. Cooley (who hates Leffingwell) finds out, and decides to bring this to the attention of Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) who wants Leffingwell to withdraw his candidacy.
The tragedy of the story is the pressures brought on Anderson by the President (Franchot Tone) and by the party leaders led by the Majority leader (Walter Pidgeon). Then he and his wife (Inger Swenson) get mysterious and threatening phone calls that Anderson understands the import of. They deal with a sexual incident that Anderson hoped would never be revealed, and he tries to find the person who is the key to destroying him. He fails to do so in time. He kills himself as a result. But his death leads to complications too. It ends with the disgrace of a fellow senator, and the last minute change of mind of a young New England Senator (based on John Kennedy and played by Peter Lawford) changing his vote. It all hinges on the Vice President at the end.
The novel shows how the Senate protects it's dignity by an inner circle that (at least until the 1980s) was inclusive of the leaders of both parties. It also shows how it treats obnoxious outsiders (George Grizzard as Senator Van Ackerman). But it gives a good look at the process - a process that we are more aware of now after the Bork, Thomas, and Sotomayer Supreme Court appointment hearings.
In the original novel Senator Knox was to have been more important. Today that would have to be shown in a remake. And that is the odd sequel to this fine movie. Drury continued a whole series of novels about his Washington scene, in which he gradually showed his super-conservatism (Knox eventually becomes a President in several of the novels). But Drury really could not see how our country would get out of the polarizing mess in Congress: the Liberals were too willing to give into the enemies and the Conservatives too reactionary. Ironically in later novels like COME NINEVEH, COME TYRE he concluded that the Communsts were doomed too - because he foresaw China and Russian going to war over Asia. The later books were not as well received as the first one. But the film version of ADVISE AND CONSENT does show Drury at his best, when he told a story well and to an understandable conclusion.
The complex story, numerous characters, and sensitive themes would seem
to make Allen Drury's "Advise & Consent" a challenging story to film.
This is a good adaptation that succeeds in most respects, and it gets
about as much out of the material as you could hope for in a couple of
hours or so worth of screen time. Otto Preminger seems to have had a
good appreciation for the dramatic possibilities, and the fine cast
brings the main characters to life believably.
The movie version (more so than the novel) is as much or more about the practicalities of politics than it is about ideology. Some of the political issues themselves were hotly debated topics in the movie's own era, and a couple of them are still topical now, but even they are often secondary to the harsh and often unseemly realities of political power. All of the major characters have their flaws and make mistakes, yet all but a couple of them have some worthwhile characteristics. On its best level, the story is not about winning and losing so much as it is about the ways that political battles affect individual lives and personal character.
There are numerous good performances and some fine casting. Charles Laughton personifies the old-time Senator Cooley, Walter Pigeon (the spell-checker refuses to accept it spelled properly) could not have been better chosen as the Majority Leader, and Henry Fonda is perfect in a challenging role that calls for him to maintain a difficult balance. Even most of the supporting roles are filled well by fine actors like Lew Ayres, Franchot Tone, and Burgess Meredith (who uses his brief screen time very effectively, in a role that must have been quite ironic for him personally).
Naturally, some of the characters and events from the novel had to be omitted or streamlined, but there is still plenty of meat left, even once you discount the Cold War era ideological issues. The personal lives and personal agendas of the characters, the tension between their lives as individuals and their responsibilities as public servants, and the contrast between what they do and what the public sees, all give the movie some extra depth that makes it worthwhile and that gives it meaning that goes well beyond the political issues on the surface.
Henry Fonda has a way of playing the kind of man I would vote for. In
12 Angry Men, he's the only one of a dozen who's willing to consider
every uncertain facet of circumstance, and succeeds in persuading the
other eleven to do so. In Fail-Safe, he's an American president so
painstakingly objective and diplomatic that he simply cannot escape the
cataclysmically horrific facts of his situation. I'm unsure of whether
or not it's just coincidence that Sidney Lumet's two masterpieces and
Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent are all three phenomenal marvels of
American cinema, but a pattern is clearly developed. What makes Advise
& Consent intriguing, however, is that Fonda's on screen for less than
half of the film. What Fonda says to defend his position as a nominee
for Secretary of State is of astonishing insignificance compared to
what's done behind his back, and what he does behind other backs, to
approve or deny his appointment as head of foreign affairs.
Another parallel more pertinent to Preminger's film as a whole is Network. Decades after its release, no matter how iconic or influential it's become in American culture, not only has its unsettling, paradigm-shifting conveyance been completely overlooked, but the very reverse it warns against has happened. In Advise & Consent's case, we continually take for granted that the President is responsible for every single bill, law, regulation, deregulation that's put into practice, as if he waves a wand or pushes a button, rather than if we were to just watch this story. Watch, realize in its mesmerizing realism a chronicle of just how little power a president has. The president has the last word, says whether he likes something or not, but he's nothing more than a glorified bureaucrat. He has his vision, views, ideas, but what of the hundreds upon hundreds of officials he must answer to, wait for, consider the visions and views of, before something's actually done? Otto Preminger, one of the edgiest, darkest filmmakers of the studio era, gives us a political chronicle wherein the President is known simply as the President. We never catch his name. Even in 1962, Preminger, original novelist Allen Drury and screenwriter Wendell Mayes, could see clearly that after all those yard signs, banners, campaign ads, the lionized images of men who seemingly lead us in all our decisions, acts and deeds as a people mean very little. What does mean something? Our own acts and deeds. Our own standards. What are we willing to accept? How much of us are willing to accept it while the rest of us stay behind wallowing in tradition and fear? Those more vulnerable than those like Charles Laughton's Seabright Cooley, who's so eloquent and confident in his robust figure and white suit that we're hardly aware or even expectant to see Franchot Tone's President.
The film seems to culminate into a focus on rookie Senator Brigham Anderson, played by Don Murray, who has a past, or an identity, that a Barney Frank or Gerry Studds couldn't have been so open about in 1962. Again, Preminger was an extraordinary filmmaker not simply because of his capacity for deliberately, subtly, beautifully constructed compositions and the architecture of tension that could de-vein a shrimp---all penetratingly evident here---but his penchant for bringing things to the screen that would deliver a well-deserved kick in Hays' balls. Things that opened doors and minds for the generations beholding it in theaters at the time, whether they were prepared or not. What should he have done? Waited till they were prepared to see heroin addiction, grisly consequences of rape, the repression of homosexuality? HAHAHAHAHA! When would that have been? Now?! Phffft! Good ole Rose Nylund has a bit part as a female Senator, for instance. In the close confines of the Senate floor, it's accepted. There's the abstract feeling that the masses outside of it would've been more surprised at her sex. But don't get me wrong. Advise & Consent is not just a masterpiece in my eyes purely because it's some sort of liberal parable. It isn't. Indeed, Wyoming Senator Fred Van Ackerman, played with unabashed unscrupulousness by George Grizzard, is apparently a liberal, which is educational for me, a young 2010 man who has never seen liberalism as oppressive, much less the sort who would want Fonda's nomination withdrawn, to the extent that blackmail of a closet homosexual would seem justified. Advise & Consent is not a politically radical chestnut but a docudrama of what happens behind the voters' backs. What Liberal and Conservative mean now bear little direct context with what they meant in 1962.
But what they meant then is certainly frightening: Preminger's not only extremely clever in his casting, but publicly vindictive in it. Burgess Meredith, who was blacklisted in the 1950s, here plays a witness who testifies that Fonda has a Communist past. Perhaps now in a less fascist time in our country it's clearer that whether or not Fonda does is beside the point. Walter Pidgeon's perfect for the strongest ally of the President. He's perfect for the strongest ally of anybody! Look at the unaffectedness of this man. No matter what role, what film, he's as natural as dust in the wind. And he befits the age and weather-beaten disposition of his character, named Bob Munson: There couldn't be a more perfect name for this character. And Preminger actually casts Gene Tierney as a person this time. As a student filmmaker with attractive female friends, I know how he feels, frankly. You try to cast them according to their talent but it's difficult to see past astonishing curves. Nevertheless, we get from her one of the most relatable scenes I've ever seen, prudish affluent American women, grown, socially active, trying to get straight what the functions of Congress actually are.
Advise and Consent (1962)
A moving look at a fictional moment in American politics. We see the dirty deals behind the scenes, but also that dignity and wisdom is preserved by some of the men (and one woman, shown). And we see the power of the system, the value of begrudging respect for those with opposite views, and plain old simplicity of being on the Senate floor and making points, orally, in front of a bunch of others, some of them actually listening.
Reminds me of my classrooms, and that brings government down to a level of believability. That's the secret to the movie, overall, it's ability to make the people real, including a host of really great actors like Charles Laughton and Walter Pidgeon, and of course Henry Fonda, who has a smaller role. Franchot Tone makes a believable ailing president, and it's great to see Gene Tierney in 1962, perfectly cast as a cool, smiley Senator's wife.
Otto Preminger is one of those revered directors who was always tweaking the moral edges of Hollywood, and therefore of America, and the spectacular thread that rises as the movie goes along, of a homosexual subculture existing at all in 1962, and arising from the activity of soldiers, and penetrating the Senate directly, was weirdly controversial stuff. Of course, it's almost ridiculous now, but it wasn't then, and to hear the central senator refer to another senator's gay military experience as a "tired old sin" is hard stuff for those of use who have grown up thinking "each to their own," or even "don't ask don't tell."
Preminger also irked a few anti-Communists by using a couple of left-wing actors, including Burgess Meredith, who has a small but memorable role. And the whole notion of a potential Secretary of State once having been superficially involved in a "Communist cell block" is interesting here partly because it shows how silly accusations can be, attacking things you do when you're twenty and have fully rejected or outgrown. Fonda is that figure of utter respectability for the good reason that he represents utter morality and patriotism, without become a cardboard flag-waver.
Though released to a public well into the Kennedy era, it feels like an Eisenhower world, with a couple younger senators easily looking like the Kennedy type, but still not President. The belligerent Old South conservative is, tellingly, a Democrat, back in the days when the South was pretty much conservative democratic. There are no parties mentioned, actually, but the leading voices seem to be liberal in their foreign policy, more like the Kennedy tone (or from the 50s, the tone of Adlai Stevenson, who lost the nomination bid to Kennedy in 1960). The book that led to the movie, by Allen Drury, was finished in 1959, and Drury was a bit of a right-winger, critical of the media he was part of, and openly anti-Communist. The events in the story (book and movie both) take one notable liberty: the Senator with a "homosexual scandal" in his past was Lester Hunt of Wyoming, whose son was a homosexual. That was enough to make the father a blackmail target, leading to Hunt's suicide.
That none of this matters is tribute to the movie, which really captures 1950s style American politics in a bright, Hollywood way. I mean that positively. It's not a gritty documentary, and it doesn't make scandal out of everything. But the air is familiar, the tone, the looks, the clothes. And it is supremely well done, from the dignified camera-work (nothing film noir here) to the solid editing and storytelling, to of course the acting itself. Not exciting, but very involving and interesting.
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