The Best Man (1964)
“One by one, these compromises, these small corruptions destroy character”
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton) and written by Gore Vidal this political campaign drama stars Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as the two frontrunner candidates hoping to be selected as the Presidential nominee at their party’s convention.
Released during the Presidential campaign of 1964, The Best Man is a caustic political drama that continues to keep many critics and audiences guessing as to which real-life politicians inspired the lead characters. In one corner, there’s William Russell (Henry Fonda), the older, ethical, more idealistic candidate whose British wife is on the verge of divorcing him. In the other corner, you have Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), the younger, more opportunistic candidate who doesn’t hesitate in using smear tactics as means to his ends. In the middle is the former President (Lee Tracy) who still hasn’t decided which candidate to endorse, and doesn’t really like either one.
Well-crafted and surprisingly relevant today, the film delivers a biting look at the behind the scenes bargaining, wheeling and dealing that goes on during an open political convention, where no clear candidate is the “right choice” or has the position sewn up in advance. Dirty politics, questions of ethics and character, decisions to use damning evidence against one’s opponent (which may jeopardize the party’s chances of winning the overall election) all portrayed in the film remain topical and pertinent in 2016.
It’s easy to see Fonda’s William Russell character as an Adelai Stevenson type, and Robertson’s aggressive Joe Cantwell character as a combination of Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy, with the ex-President as a kind of plain-spoken Harry Truman.
What few could have predicted is how some of the situations dramatized in The Best Man mirrored real-life incidents to come in later years. In particular, the sequence where Fonda’s character’s past emotional problems are revealed in a underhanded dossier, as in the 1972 Presidential campaign where senator Tom Eagleton (George McGovern’s choice for Vice-President) withdrew from the race after revealing he had suffered a mental breakdown earlier in his career.
Robertson plays Senator Joe Cantwell who’s made a name for himself by linking the Mafia with communism, and writing a book titled the “Enemy Around Us”. But his aggressive tactics to defeat his opponent are threatened when he’s brought face to face with an informer who accuses him of past “degeneracy” while in the military. The details of the charge are confused, and the informer (awkwardly played by stand-up comedian Shelley Berman) struggles to clearly detail what seems to have been a “sordid and unbearable act”.
Before The Best Man was confirmed as a project for director Franklin Schaffner, United Artists, the company that owned the film rights, seriously considered Frank Capra as director. It had been three years since Capra’s last film (A Pocketful of Miracles), and he had some unique ideas for this production that didn’t sit well with Gore Vidal, the author of the original play and screenplay. For one thing Capra wanted to add a climatic scene where Henry Fonda’s character, who’s losing the vote at the Democratic convention, makes an appearance on the delegate floor dressed as Abraham Lincoln, and makes an inspiring speech. Vidal tried hard to mask his horror at this suggestion, but called the the Capra-Connolly script a “grotesquely sentimentalized version.”
For Schaffner, who worked for many years in early television, The Best Man was only his second feature film, and with cinematographer Haskell Wexler he shot this political tale with a realistic black and white television documentary style, making the political intrigue even more sharp. Schaffner would later be known for Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillion. while Haskell Wexler (who died at 93 in December of 2015) was a cinematographic powerhouse. Wexler’s legendary lens brings the morality and ethics of these characters into sharp focus.
Haskell Wexler: Two years after The Best Man, Haskell won the Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He won the Oscar again in 1976 for Bound for Glory. He also shot the Oscar award-winning short documentary Interviews With My Lai Veterans, and wrote, directed and largely financed two feature films, the politically-charged Medium Cool in 1969 and Latino in 1985. In 2007, (in his 80s) he directed From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks, an adaptation of a play about labor leader Harry Bridges and unionization. Haskell made at least 28 documentary films (partnered with Saul Landau for 8 of those). His documentary work covered everything from the Vietnam War, interviews with Allende, nuclear energy, Nicaragua, Chiapas, Kurds, and The Rolling Stones.
Haskell photographed several of the most memorable films of any era, including In the Heat of the Night, The Conversation, American Graffiti, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (for which he was Oscar nominated), Coming Home (with Jane Fonda, after traveling with her in Vietnam and filming Intro to the Enemy), and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. He was also nominated for yet another cinematography Oscar for the John Sayles film Matewan in 1988.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cinematographer: Haskell Wexler
Editor: Robert Swink
Writer: Gore Vidal (based on his play of the same name)
Actors: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy
Music: Mort Lindsey
Producer: Stuart Millar, Lawrence Turman