The other party is in disarray. Five men vie for the party nomination for president. No one has a majority as the first ballot closes and the front-runners begin to decide how badly they want the job. Written by
John Vogel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Gore Vidal cheerfully admitted that he meant the character of William Russell to remind people of Adlai Stevenson and that Joe Cantwell was based on Richard Nixon. Stevenson and Nixon were, of course, in different parties. Similarly, the character of the former President played by Lee Tracy bore resemblances to both the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Democrat Harry Truman. See more »
Several times, stock footage of actual political rally doesn't match scenes shot especially for movie. In several shots, no one is sitting in upper seats of auditorium that are nonetheless packed in newsreel footage of same alleged event. See more »
The movie version of Gore Vidal's play The Best Man is an excellent time capsule of its period, the sixties, when political conventions still mattered, getting one's picture on the cover of Time magazine was the best thing that could happen to a national politician's career, and when hints of mental illness and sexual peccadilloes were still whispered about rather than discussed openly. Franklin Schaffner directs energetically, and the film has an air of urgency to it that make it seem like it's saying something of great importance. It does have something to say, and while I wouldn't call it trivial the movie and its writing is nowhere near as good as it's been cracked up to be. A good deal of one's appreciation of this film will depend on one's opinion of Gore Vidal's literary status. If one rates him as great, the movie a splendid interpretation of his work and his ideas. But if one doesn't, and I don't, then it's a different kettle of fish. First to the movie.
The story revolves around a power struggle that is going on behind the scenes at a national political party's convention (it isn't made clear what the party is, but one can safely assume it's the Democrats). Leading candidate for the presidential nomination William Russell is a former secretary of state, intellectual, writer of books, deep thinker, and liberal conscience. To anyone familiar with the period the character is obviously based on Adlai Stevenson. His chief opponent for the nomination, Joe Cantwell, is a somewhat younger man, a ruthless opportunistic conservative more or less in the Nixon mould. What Nixon or someone like Nixon is doing seeking the Democratic nomination is never made clear, but no matter. That bachelor Cantwell has a skeleton or two in his closet is indicated by rumors of his homosexuality. But Russell has his problems, too, womanizing, an apparent nervous breakdown, and worst of all for a politician, indecisiveness. Both men seek the support of ailing former President Art Hockstader, a pragmatic diamond in the rough politician of the old school, and clearly based on Harry Truman, who, though he leans toward and agrees with liberal Russell, has his doubts about him personally. He'd like to stop Cantwell from getting his party's nomination and isn't sure that Russell is the man to do it. A former officer in Cantwell's unit from the war is willing to squeal on him regarding the homosexual issue. Russell hears the man out, and takes an instant dislike to him. He wants to stop Cantwell, but not that badly. There is a confrontation between Russell and Cantwell. Russell equivocates. Ex-president Hockstader is disgusted with him for not using the "dirt" on Cantwell, and chaos ensues at the convention.
This is a perfectly respectable play and movie, and I have no problem with it except that its insight into people is skin-deep. The actors are not to be blamed. Henry Fonda is appropriately dignified as Russell, Lee Tracy, in his last screen role, is salty as Hockstader, and Cliff Robertson is correctly one-dimensional as the venal Cantwell. The outstanding supporting cast, which includes Ann Sothern, Kevin McCarthy and Gene Raymond, is flawless. What Vidal has to say, which is that politics is an often ugly business, has been said before. He has nothing new to add but the sexual angle, which is mildly interesting. There's little imagination in The Best Man. It's never inspired. The dialogue is adequate, yet never brilliant; and the characters credible without being dynamic. During the course of the film I felt like I was watching a reasonably well-thought out essay. It was never boring, and often skillfully done, and yet I was never drawn into it emotionally, or cared for the people it was about. There's something lacking in Vidal here and in all his work. Maybe it's a contempt for humanity, or maybe just a lack of caring. I find it hard to take anyone seriously who opines as often as Vidal does on a variety of issues, who cares so little for the people those issues ultimately concern.
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