The Best Man (1964) ****

Current openness towards mental health issues has bestowed a contemporary vibe on this lively political drama. The other topic raised here has long ceased to be controversial. Not that far removed from Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1961) in terms of dirty dealing and horse trading, flaw is the weapon used to cut opponents down to size.

The two principal candidates seeking their (un-named) party’s Presidential nomination could not be further apart, William Russell (Henry Fonda) a rich intellectual, Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) a self-styled man of the people. Cantwell chases the populist vote with a  campaign built on fulminating against immigration and Communism, driving down taxes and spending more on the military. Russell seems unsuited for the cut-and-thrust of politics, too idealistic, too indecisive.

But he is a good judge of character whereas Cantwell most decidedly is not and in misreading the intentions of President Hockstader (Lee Tracy) shoots himself in the foot and leaves the nomination wide open, triggering his use of the dark arts, planning to circulate a file on his opponent’s problems with mental illness. Existing on a much higher plane, Russell refuses to fight back, although he has access to a witness claiming Cantwell was gay.

Apart from discussing these taboo issues – this was the first time the word “homosexual” was uttered in a movie – what’s interesting is that Russell’s philandering is not deemed damaging as long as his wife Alice (Margaret Leighton) is seen to publicly stand by him. Despite the fact that Cantwell is as clean as a whistle – doesn’t drink or smoke or have a lover – affairs are seen as such a fact of life of politics that Cantwell’s wife Mabel (Edie Adams) assumes he will have one. Cantwell, very much one to go for the jugular, clearly believes the public takes the same non-judgemental view otherwise he would easily skewer Russell on his marital discord.

In some respects, Cantwell is by far the better candidate if you were to judge him on personal behaviour, but he lacks the necessary savvy, “ a tragedy in a man and a disaster in a president.

As you might expect from a script written by novelist Gore Vidal, sometime political heavyweight, there are plenty zingers: “expect 22 minutes of spontaneity”; “I don’t object to you being a bastard, I object you being a stupid bastard;” and “I won’t throw my mud if you won’t throw your mud.”

It may be artistic irony that determined director Franklin J. Schaffner to film in black-and-white since politics is nothing but various shades of grey, but there was probably a more practical reason, to incorporate footage from conventions.

Somewhat surprisingly, both men are honest with their wives, Russell making a pact to divorce Alice if not elected, their marriage long ago defunct, while Cantwell’s wife is fully aware of the slur on her husband’s name. The women here are well-drawn, not quite the submissive types you might expect, certainly not Alice who has every right, given his infidelities, to act the shrew, instead of which she plays the shrewd card. Mabel proves a loving wife but a little indulged to the extent her teetotal husband has no idea how much alcohol she can shift and she reserves her right to keep him waiting. Alice, it might be noticed, is more vicious than her husband should it come to the down-and-dirty.

And there’s a stack of wannabe power-makers from pushy busybody Mrs Gamidge (Ann Sothern) – so full of her own importance that she fails to see the slight in being told that “talking to you is like talking to the average American housewife” – to walking timebomb Sheldon Bascomb (Shelley Berman).

Not so full of arcane American politics as Advise and Consent, and with a more straightforward narrative, it digs the dirt in compulsive fashion on the dirt-diggers. In questioning whether someone with mental health issues could be a worthy national leader, the movie naturally ignores the narcissism and megalomania that seemed essential criteria for any person achieving high office or excessive business success. It’s probably a subject that remains unresolved, although a good many personalities have admitted to such problems.

Cliff Robertson (The Honey Pot, 1967) takes the acting honours if only because we have seen a version of the Henry Fonda (Battle of the Bulge, 1965) political idealist before in Advise and Consent. Robertson essays a character of Donald Trump dimensions and Fonda is clearly modelled on Kennedy, but Robertson comes across stronger and even Fonda may have been getting fed up with being such a straight-shooter as seen by his later villainous choices. Edie Adams has a more complex part here than in The Honey Pot and Margaret Leighton (The Fighting Pimpernel, 1949) can play ramrod-stiff women till the cows come home.

Hollywood veteran Ann Sothern of Maisie fame is terrific as the interfering Mrs Gamidge and Shelley Berman (Divorce American-Style, 1967), making his movie debut, is one of the most irritating characters you will ever see. Kevin McCarthy (Mirage, 1965) plays Russell’s whip-smart aide with Lee Tracy (Dinner at Eight, 1933) in his first movie in nearly two  decades as the wily President. 

Audiences were denied the first glimpse of Penny Singleton (the Blondie series) in fourteen years when her part was excised. To make up for that, we get to see Mahalia Jackson sing.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner (The Double Man, 1967) keeps characters to the fore rather than relying on the many twists, and does a decent job, complete with aerial helicopter shots, of opening up Gore Vidal’s stage play. Vidal (Ben-Hur, 1959) had stood unsuccessfully for Congress so had an insider’s viewpoint.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

2 thoughts on “The Best Man (1964) ****”

    1. No reason to shoot it in colour if there was no place to show it. So yes, shot for telly and re-used. Had to wait till The Candidate to see what a convention really looked like. It always seemed incredible short-sighted to do this – what you save in the budget puts off a lot of the audience.


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