“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
It’s the summer of 2016, which means it’s Convention season in the good ol’ US of A. From Cleveland, OH to Philadelphia, PA, Americans are… looking online the day afterwards to see what happened at last night’s convention. Seriously, who does these things on weeknights? No one’s got time for that. Well, here at the Ten Percent, we thought we’d get into the swing of things by talking about an incredible, thoughtful, and still relevant film called The Best Man (1964). Starring Henry Fonda as Adlai Stevenson-esque William Russell and Cliff Robertson as late-fifties/early-sixties Richard Nixon-wannabe Joe Cantwell, The Best Man takes place during the convention for a thinly disguised Democratic Party.
The film is an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Tony Award-nominated play of the same name, with Vidal himself writing the screenplay and Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes) directing. Vidal took in American national politics with his mother’s milk, and was a longtime friend of the Kennedy family. As a matter of fact, the release of The Best Man apparently caused the relationships between Vidal and Jack, Jackie, and Bobby Kennedy to become considerably cooler. The film doesn’t try to hide the analogies with real politicians and parties it draws, and Vidal’s often acerbic political cynicism is on full display.
One thing to remember when watching the film is that in the early and mid-1960s, presidential primaries were usually not binding for either party, and so the conventions were where the nominees were actually chosen, rather than just crowned as is the norm today. Historically this process often involved the famous “smoke filled back rooms,” and lots of wheeling and dealing between the candidate’s campaigns, convention delegates, and the other candidates themselves. In most cases, the party bosses kept things under control and were generally able to influence things to go in the directions they wanted them to, but the process could also go spectacularly wrong. At the Democratic National Convention of 1968 in Chicago, the bosses’ pick wasn’t that of the primary voters, and in fact, had not stood in any primaries whatsoever, causing a massive internal division in the party, exacerbated by violent clashes between Chicago police and demonstrators outside the convention. After 1968, the Democratic National Committee began working with state committees to create the binding primary process we know today, with the Republicans following suit in the 1970s.
The Best Man, however, takes place before these reforms, and Vidal gives the viewer a disturbing look at what goes on behind all of the stages and cameras and microphones, where American “democracy” really gets down to business. William Russell (Fonda) is an intellectual, a pro-civil rights liberal, and a thoughtful and careful man who has served as a successful Secretary of State in the previous administration. His main rival is Joe Cantwell (Robertson), a commie-baiting, pro-segregation, power-hungry up-and-comer who is willing to do whatever it takes to secure the party’s nomination. The biggest piece of mud he has to sling is information about Russell’s nervous breakdown several years previously. Unfortunately for Cantwell, Russells’ campaign manager (Kevin McCarthy) has dug up something on him in turn, something even worse, politically speaking, than having undergone psychiatric treatment. The problem is that Russell is an honest and decent man who balks at using what his team has discovered.
Both Fonda and Robertson give incredible performances in the film, helped by Vidal’s complex and very human characters. Both of whom have some real flaws and true merits. Ultimately, however, the viewer is expected to side with Russell, and is thus put in the morally ambiguous position of hoping that he will use the devastating information he has against Cantwell and win the contest. Russell’s ultimate solution is completely unexpected, and in a way as pretty a piece of Frank Capra-style political hopefulness as has ever been filmed, right in the middle of Vidal’s expose of the whole real mess of it all.
The Best Man also features a great final film appearance by Lee Tracy in the role of President Art Hockstader, a blend of both Truman and Eisenhower, and the biggest power player at the convention. Kevin McCarthy is outstanding as well, and I was delighted to see a brief appearance by gospel music legend Mahalia Jackson as herself, her voice and presence completely overwhelming whatever else was going on in the scene in the most delightful way.
Also look out for John Henry Faulk as Governor T.T. Claypoole. Faulk was a popular radio personality who was blacklisted as a communist in 1957. Faulk brought a libel suit against his accusers and eventually (after facing off with former Joe McCarthy HUAC counsel Roy Cohn) Falk was awarded $3.5 million in 1962, the largest libel judgement in history to that date. Faulk is credited to bringing an end to the blacklist in television and radio, and along the way friends in Hollywood would cast him in films to help him work during the blacklist.
There’s a lot of history both behind and on the screen in The Best Man, and best of all it’s also a great story that manages to hold up brilliantly even in the very different political world of 2016. It reminds viewers that American politics has always been a rather dirty business, and that some of our most successful pols have always been untrustworthy bastards. It also offers a bit of hope with its cynical realism, which may well be what keeps this film fresh, relevant, and part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.