Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Super Delegates: William Russell and Joe Cantwell in "The Best Man" (1964)

Scene from The Best Man
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

The Best Man
Release Date: April 5, 1964
Directed By: Franklin J. Schaffner
Written By: Gore Vidal
Starring: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy
Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Supporting Actor (Lee Tracy)
Delegates in Question:
-William Russell
-Joe Cantwell
-President Art Hockstader

For centuries now, the way that a president has been picked is through a process of elimination. This starts with the candidates joining the race. They're slowly weeded out through primary elections, and finally the presidential conventions - most specifically for the two major parties: Democrat and Republican. What makes director Franklin J. Schaffner's film special is that it may be one of the only times that a political satire has taken place at that crucial turning point. The film cleverly avoids giving party affiliation to the two candidates in question: William Russell and Joe Cantwell. Instead, the film serves as a behind the scenes journey of the two candidates who desperately seek the approval of former President Art Hockstader, as well as the delegates from all 50 states. While there's very little in the way of speeches, what is seen is plenty of showboating that captures the competition between the two relatively popular candidates, of whom come into the convention tied in votes, and look to be the most promising leads for the nomination. As Cantwell says "May the best man win."

They may be theoretically fighting for the same party, but their identities read like polar opposites. Russell is the first introduced, and comes off levelheaded at first, even refusing to mention God in his speeches. He is definitely the candidate who prefers to be seen as an intellectual with the rhyming slogan "Hustle with Russell." He even is met by a woman poolside who says "I'd vote for you if I were old enough." He has the illusion of being for the people before we meet Cantwell. Even with potential scares involving smear campaigns. When faced with the chance to smear Cantwell's Average Joe campaign with the news that he might be a homosexual, Russell initially refuses before learning the harsh truths of his opponent, who has become jaded to the landscape of politics and has his ducks all in a row, ready to knock down. Where they seemed chummy at the start, things turn bitter when Hockstader gravitates towards Russell for being less corrupt.

Despite being an Average Joe, Cantwell is the conservative to Russell's liberal stance. For starters, he has a better back story.  He worked up from nothing to be president. He served in the military, and even took down the mafia by believing that they were in cahoots with the Communists. He even has his grandmother give interviews hyping his integrity. Considering that this film was released in 1964, many of the issues felt prescient to the era. Protesters for Civil Rights causes are seen picketing out front. The conversation of immigration and race relations are often discussed, but never used as a running point. In fact, conversation about the recent Cuban Missile Crisis comes up with more urgency. Still, Cantwell plays the field by believing that Russell is weak for not playing the blame game and doesn't "understand politics." Cantwell may be the man selling himself as "Our Golden Boy" and using participant rhetoric, but his seediness begins to take over backstage.

As much as this is about two sides butting heads, the ambiguity to party helps it to seem more universal. Writer Gore Vidal adapted the screenplay from his successful stage show. Also, by casting Henry Fonda as Russell, the film helped to capture an every man quality that could be seen throughout the actor's career - specifically in 12 Angry Men from a few years prior. He was the voice of justice, and this form of type casting adds weight to the weight that is on Russell's shoulders. Does he become corrupt, or does he stay true to a platform while being smeared by inconsequential details? In the end, he does what the film accepts as "the right thing." Even if he has the president's approval, he chooses to do what's best for the part and does an unthinkable task: he retires while shifting his votes to the less seen Governor John Merwin, who overwhelmingly shifts the vote, keeping Cantwell from any chance of winning.

While the film has faded somewhat into obscurity, it packs a punch that goes beyond whose beliefs you go with. Schaffner may better be known for Planet of the Apes and Patton, but this film took American politics and argued about it morally. With an opening credits sequence that features every president between George Washington and Lyndon B. Johnson, the film immediately places it into the annuls of history. Whoever wins this convention will have their face attached. A long line of history has come down to this moment, and the rallying cries to see who wins is something that's exciting. As much as the film begins by stripping off the "smile for the camera" nature of these two candidates, it builds to the moral dilemma that causes Russell to quit. There have been hundreds of films about why politics are corrupt. While it may seem a bit of a cheat, the reason that the film inevitably works is because it has something that America has always tried to be and runs rampant in Frank Capra movies. America is a country that believes in the better man (in terms of integrity) bringing the country to prosperity. It may be a formula that Fonda has done better in The Ox Bow Incident or 12 Angry Men, but the ending rarely has come as profoundly surprising yet satisfying.

Despite being about an unspecified presidential convention, it does sometimes read like a conservative Republican going up against a liberal Democrat. Those are the monikers that the two parties would develop in the 50 years since the film was released. While it is impossible to see Fonda as Hillary Clinton or Robertson as Trump, there's a certain competitive nastiness that resonates with the 2016 election. Both sides, more from Trump, do their best to point out how the other side is corrupt. Trump calls her "Crooked Hillary" while Clinton replies on Twitter with "Delete your account." It's a petty rivalry, and one that feels more prescient to the film than the actual Republican National Convention, which has pretty much narrowed down their selection before Day 1 got too old. There was a demand for contesting a new candidate due to Trump's vulgar condescension towards every non-white rich male imaginable. It was shot down, instead featuring speeches from a variety of speakers, including Trump's wife Melania. The reason? To add a sense of connection between rich male Trump and the working class. While not nearly as oblivious and racist, this does sound like a narrative that Cantwell had formed to make voters like him. In some sense, it's Russell who is secretly racist by being too nervous to have minorities on his staff.

There's not a lot of the actual convention shown in The Best Man. However, there is plenty of imagery from it where every state is casting their vote. Speaking as this column is going up midway through Day 2 of the Republican National Convention, they haven't gotten to the voting yet. Still, it is a game of strategy to make each other look bad while giving themselves an edge. Theoretically, the Russell of this convention likely bowed out months ago due to Trump's accusatory stature and Clinton's overly defensive nature. While it is likely that the Democratic Convention may skew closer to The Best Man with the potential for Bernie Sanders to contest, there's plenty within the film that feels relevant to either side. The basic tragedy is that the good of the future is often overlooked in favor of ego and picking sides. It is accepted that Cantwell isn't exactly for the people, but it makes for a better story than whatever Russell's honesty is spinning. 

It may not be as flagrant an endorsement of American idealism as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but The Best Man has a certain optimism underneath its "corrupt politician" shtick. Beyond brilliantly casting Fonda, it is a film whose victory is not in either protagonist winning, but more in giving the opportunity to a candidate who actually deserves his say. We don't know much about Merwin other than that he's a "nobody" candidate by the beginning of the film's third act. Yet he becomes praised, likely because the party realizes the issues set with giving everything to Cantwell. The best that can be said is that the 2016 election is so far set in stone, with both Republican and Democrats pretty much having their chosen parties. Any contest to change the Republican side has been struck down. The only question now is if there will be any surprises to the narrative for either party going forward.

Again, The Best Man isn't necessarily an attack on one specific party. However, it does feel relevant to the moment, especially with two conventions going on this month. While it may seem more opportune to compare it to the Democratic National Convention, it feels more right to explore the film in relation to one of the more controversial and somewhat maligned conventions of recent years. Many have called Day 1's reception to be full of hate mongering, speech plagiarizing, and even using Queen's "We Are the Champions" despite being blatant homophobes. It's a tough year, but The Best Man is a nicely charged film that suggests that things can be done better if politicians put aside their egos, though how willing will they actually be? One can only hope there's a surprise in store on par with Merwin's candidacy.

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