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.

Strange Interlude (1932)

The Original Peep Show

Strange Interlude is a movie for the patient viewer. I had difficulty getting through it on first viewing but due to my amour of Clark Gable and a soft spot for old mental illness melodramas with stories of bad blood and insanity passed through genes (scientific validity?) plus that creaky charm you get from pre-code films, on rewatching I did find new appreciation for Strange Interlude. The original 1928 play by Eugene O’Neil was a staggering 6 hours long; the film condenses that to below two hours whether for better or worse. – I struggle myself to imagine watching a 6-hour version of this story.

The plot of Strange Interlude requires a bit of setting up but after Nina (Norma Shearer) marries the naive Sam (Alexander Kirkland) then the ball gets rolling and the tension escalates when she is told by Sam’s mother (May Robson) that mental illness runs in her family and father’s a child with Dr. Ned Darrell (Clark Gable) without her husband’s knowledge. Also thrown into what makes a love square plot is the nihilistic, miserable excuse for a human being in the form of Charlie (Ralph Morgan). It’s some quality melodrama full of classic hallmarks including a house by the sea with crashing waves, a pleasing New England aesthetic and some fine fashions by Adrian. One area where the production does go wrong is with the overdone aging makeup on the four main cast members, turning them geriatric in 10 years – At least Gable’s drawn on mustache looks legit.

Granted I am a Gable die hard but I will passionately argue why the man is underrated as an actor. The role of Dr. Ned Darrell is one of his finest acting achievements; in particular when he interacts with his biological, spoiled brat of a child who doesn’t know he is his real father. Norma Shearer likewise shows shades of a Garbo-esque drama queen, verging on over the top without crossing into laughable territory.

The unique selling point of Strange Interlude is the voice-overs in which the viewer can hear the character’s thoughts in an attempt to replicate the original play’s use of soliloquy – a technique in which characters speak their inner thoughts to the audience. This experiment is clearly a product of filmmakers trying to adapt to the early days of sound and the opening title explains the technique to the audience and even the first line delivered in this manner alludes to it (“Queer things, thoughts, our true selves, spoken words are just a mask, to disguise them”). It is necessary, however? – I can’t say is. The body language of the actors and the cinematic form allow for this sort of information to be conveyed to the audience which Strange Interlude does anyway any many cases. None the less it doesn’t ruin the film by means and is at least a commendable experiment.

A Majority of One (1961)

Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages

Should an actors’ race limit the roles they can portray on the basis that they are not of that race? Isn’t this essentially a racist argument and an ethno-nationalist one at that? To state that a white actor playing a non-white character is offensive is then one is stating they are offended on the basis of race – this is racist. To state a white actor playing a non-white character is offensive to a culture is to say that culture is tied to race. – This is essentially the argument the alt-right makes. If culture is what matters and race is irrelevant then an actor playing a character of another race should also be irrelevant. There is also the double standard at play in which for a non-white actor to be cast in a role or as a character originally conceived as white it will be viewed as forward-thinking and progressive; for a white actor to be cast in a non-white role then it is considered racist? The only question that should matter is does an actor of one race convincingly play a character of another race? I could write a whole article on this but as I’ve addressed the crux of the matter, let’s talk about A Majority of One.

I’ve never seen another love story like A Majority of One. A story of two elderly individuals who are worlds apart having to overcome their prejudice, as well as being one of the few films in existence about love at old age. These imperfect and flawed characters feel so real and human and while two and a half hours may seem overlong, I believe this time is justified. – I wish more films could have the level of honest storytelling on display here.

Many reviewers can’t buy into Alec Guinness in the role of Japanese businessman Mr. Koichi Asano, but not this viewer – I thought Guinness was marvelous. His character is flawed, he’s not the stereotypical wise old Asian man who is full of otherworldly knowledge which he easily could have been; he makes mistakes and doesn’t have the answers to everything. Unlike many Asian characters in Hollywood films before, he doesn’t talk in broken English or exhibit any other commonly seen Asian stereotypes. Compared to Japanese stereotypes seen in World War II propaganda films 20 years earlier, A Majority of One was certainly a sign of progress.

Rosalind Russell plays a potentially unlikable bigoted character as Bertha Jacoby but she manages to make the role endearing with her lovable nature and witty comebacks. I didn’t see her character as an exaggerated stereotype. I’ve seen far more exaggerated representations of Jews in other films (do I even need to list examples?). Her character has led an ingrown life in Brooklyn, however, the movie shows the younger generation of her daughter and son in law holding more progressive views and are less conservative than their elders, and more argumentative at that. The film also has the greatness that is Eddie (Marc Marno). A whiny little brat but in a funny way who is comically Japanese but not in a disrespectful way, such as when he insists on watching sumo wrestling in the middle of a family crisis. – I love this guy.

A Majority of One highlights westernised trends in Japan such as Alec Guinness wearing a western flat cap to the popularity of American music and Hollywood movies (and Robert Taylor in particular) in Japan, while still acknowledging the anti American sentiment which exists in Japan (“Many people in my country hate the Americans unreasonably because of the war”). This scene in which Asano attempts to bond with Jacoby after their awkward first encounter shows the lack of logic in hating a country based on the actions of its government. Jacoby tells Asano that her son died in battle “All because you [Japan] and Mr. Hitler wanted to rule the world” and Asano responds “My wife and I did not so wish Mrs. Jacoby…what most of us wished for was a happy and peaceful existence”. – The government is not the people.