The Best Man (1964)

With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility

The Best Man can be boiled down to one simple reality; politics is a phoney sham in which image matters over actual policy – I mean who knew right? The Best Man is a look at what goes on behind closed doors away from the pomp and flair of the convention arena. This stands in ironic comparison to the dignified slideshow of all then 36 US presidents over the opening credits.

The Best Man is a film which doesn’t hold much appeal beyond the politics geeks like myself, although does offer a lot of insight to sink your political teeth into. Writer Gore Vidal clearly knew his political insight and this really comes through in the writing. Every other line of dialogue brings up thought-provoking talking points of political insight (“No girls in the white house” – did Vidal know something about JFK?) as two presidential candidates fight for the endorsement of a former president (Lee Tracy) in this dirty game of chess.

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No party is mentioned in the film although it is more than likely the party featured are the Democrats due Vidal’s ties to the party and with the play in which the film was based on being widely recognised as a parallel to the 1960 Democratic convention. Another hint this is the Democratic Party is the southern influence present at the convention (Democrats still dominated the south in the 1960s) from the brief shot of a woman in the convention waving a confederate flag to the former President positively referencing the confederacy.

Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) is a more conservative democrat running on an anti-communist platform from the days when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans existed. The man wants to lower taxes, increase military spending and is for state’s rights. Reportedly the ethically dubious and ruthless character was based on Richard Nixon – he even goes as far blackmailing the former president for the endorsement.

The liberal counterpoint to the conservative and strong-minded Cantwell is the liberal William Russell (Henry Fonda); a candidate tainted by extramarital affairs, a nervous breakdown and a demonstrated inability to take decisive action. It is even hinted that Russell may be an atheist based upon his comment regarding human’s animal descent only for one of his advisors to state, “No mention of Darwin, before The Garden of Eden was the world”. The Best Man does offer some comic relief however in the form of Ann Southern as Mrs Gamage, a loud-mouthed, feminist type, pestering Russell that he doesn’t appeal to the female vote.

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“Russell’s Got Muscle”

Eventually, Russell, against his will blackmails Cantwell with info outing him as a homosexual. The word homosexual is not used as first but it’s more than apparent that’s the accusation levelled against Cantwell (“What we called when I was a boy, a degenerate”). The film does, however, drop the word homosexual later on, surely one of the earliest films to do so. The Best Man was itself released on an election year and one of several political movies to be essential viewing for anyone running who is for office.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Ah, the 1930’s. No decade in cinema has since captured such an aurora of class and sophistication from the clothes worn to the way people talk; a world so removed from our own. It feels like there is no other time period in which it was as easy to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. There are few better representations of this than Dinner at Eight. With the heavenly, dream-like music from the film’s opening titles; the viewer is transported to a world long, long gone. All of the stories in Dinner at Eight have tragic, to say the least, but Billie Burke as the socialite holding the impending dinner helps bring comic relief to the proceedings with her histrionics as well simply the sound of her voice. Aside from the largely carefree Burke, the rest of the characters don’t have much to look forward to with their impending affairs, bankruptcy, failing careers and illnesses.

John Barrymore’s story is my favourite; the quietly tragic demise of washed-up film star Larry Renault. His tender love scenes with Madge Evans are largely the opposite of the grandiose interaction with Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel; this is far more down to Earth. It’s not apparent when Renault first appears just what a bad state his career is in. As his segment progresses he becomes more and more pathetic as he becomes increasingly drunk and we learn more about his current state that he is only being offered a bit part in a play, he only has seven cents on him and the ultimate blow when his manager tells him he’s been a joke for years and never taken seriously as an actor; he had his good looks but he doesn’t even have that anymore. The subplot is prophetic of Barrymore’s own future as he spent his last few years as a washed-up actor and succumb to alcohol. There are hints in his performance to the egomaniac he would play the following year in Twentieth Century with his hotel room being littered with photographs of his own profile. With its haunting cinematography, Renault’s final outcome had me holding my breath with part of me wishing this could be its own film; a sort of predecessor to the story of Norman Maine in A Star Is Born.

The other storyline which particularly strikes me is Edmund Lowe’s. Once his wife confronts him about his ongoing affair with Jean Harlow, the two have a long serious chat in which she is completely understanding and forgives him. A stark contrast to any modern romantic comedy in which two characters would break up after a lengthy argument of one has betrayed the other, then get back together 20 minutes later. Are modern romantic comedies just so contrived and unreflective of real life, was adultery less frowned on back then or is it just a pre-code thing?

The early 30’s seems to be the one brief period in cinema history in which there was a number of older aged movie stars who box office draws; Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore. There has never been another decade like it.