May 18, 2014
The Best Man (1964)
Grade: 58/100

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Stars: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Edie Adams

What it's about. A fictional U.S. political drama, set during the nominating convention of a major (presumably Democratic) party. Due to the weakness of the opposing party, it appears very likely that the nominee will become the next President.

The contenders are Russell (Henry Fonda), an intellectual and moderate handicapped by high ethical standards and a diffident personality, and Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), a ruthlessly ambitious and dangerous man willing to slander, threaten, blackmail, and bribe his way to the top.

We know at once that Cantwell will never attain the party's nomination. Such an outcome was unthinkable in 1964. But there is a plot twist along the way.

The remaining cast consists of past President and kingmaker Hockstader (Lee Tracy), who despises Cantwell's ambition but regards Russell as ineffectual; Russell's jaded wife Margaret Leighton, who might divorce him if he can't secure the Lincoln Bedroom for her; Cantwell's pretty but insipid wife Edie Adams; Russell's right hand man Kevin McCarthy; Shelley Berman as a snivelling man capable of branding Cantwell as a homosexual; and obnoxious socialite Ann Sothern.

For good measure, gospel singer Mahalia Johnson and television commentator Howard K. Smith have cameos.

The film is based on a successful Broadway play by celebrated author Gore Vidal. Vidal also wrote the screenplay.

How others will see it. Political historians can play the game of "which character resembles what politician." Russell is universally identified as Adlai Stevenson, twice offered as the Democratic sacrificial lamb against the unbeatable Eisenhower. The hissable Cantwell has been compared with Joe McCarthy and "Tricky Dick" Nixon. Hockstader is seen as a Harry Truman type. And so on.

Those who couldn't care less about such comparisons will instead enjoy watching Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, each of whom later won Best Actor Oscars in the course of their long careers.

The Best Man was hardly a box office smash, and it garnered only a single Oscar nomination, for Lee Tracy as Best Supporting Actor. Ann Sothern somehow received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress, even though she has only a couple of scenes.

Today at, the film has a fairly low 2K user votes but the user ratings are undeniably high at 7.8. Demographic differences are minimal.

How I felt about it. Fifty years have passed, and today, candidates win nominations based on their success in state primaries. It is inconceivable that party bosses would pick the winner over the course of multiple ballots, as was the case during the 19th century. Television has changed that. A third ballot pick always appears weak.

But in 1964, the film was only 12 years removed from 1952, when Stevenson won on the third ballot. We can't criticize this aspect of the film any more than it is fair to laugh at Cantwell's ginormous walkie-talkie ("You gonna call E.T. home with that?")

It is fair, though, to wonder why Hockstader is so disappointed with Russell's "indecisiveness" when Hockstader himself cannot publicly commit to one of the candidates. We also wonder why he didn't realize that Cantwell was unfit to be President before the convention.

Russell as the moralist unwilling to the "wrong" thing is clearly a fictional character, although less so in 1964 than in 2014, when the primary winner is usually the side best at character assassination.

Cantwell is equally exaggerated, in the opposite direction to increase the contrast between the "good" Russell and the "evil" Cantwell. No doubt many candidates would say or do anything to get elected. But would they be so blatant about it? One hopes not.

In terms of cinematic predecessors, The Best Man reminds me of The Last Hurrah (1958) and Advise & Consent (1962), especially the latter. The subject appears better served as a black comedy, i.e. The Manchurian Candidate (1962).