PRESIDENCY ON SCREEN: Henry Fonda vs Cliff Robertson in "The Best Man" (1964)


PRESIDENCY ON SCREEN: Henry Fonda vs Cliff Robertson in "The Best Man" (1964)
by Darius Kadivar

Henry Fonda and CliffRobertson square off as political adversaries during a presidential primary inthis sardonic, insightful drama that brings out the best, and worst, inAmerican politics. Based on a play and Screenplay by Gore Vidal and Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner Starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson.


Opening Scene:



Gore Vidal Vs William Buckley on ABC Prime (1968):

This is the well know incident between William Buckley ( American conservative author and commentator) and Gore Vidal (author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and political activist.) that occurred during ABC's coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.







William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) are the two leading candidates for the presidential nomination of an unspecified political party. Both have potentially fatal vulnerabilities. Russell is a principled intellectual (believed by many critics and fans to be based on Adlai Stevenson). A sexual indiscretion has alienated his wife Alice (Margaret Leighton). In addition, he has a past nervous breakdown to live down. Cantwell (believed to be based upon John F. Kennedy with some Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy mixed in) portrays himself as a populist "man of the people", and patriotic anti-communist campaigning to end "the missile gap" (a Kennedy campaign catch-phrase), but is a ruthless opportunist, willing to go to any lengths to get the nomination. Neither man can stand the other; neither believes his rival qualified to be President.

They clash at the nominating convention and lobby for the crucial support of dying former President Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy). The pragmatic Hockstader (a character based on Harry Truman, particularly his comments on "striking a blow for liberty" whenever he drinks a bourbon) prefers Russell, but worries about his indecisiveness and overdedication to principle; he despises Cantwell, but appreciates his toughness and willingness to do what it takes. In fact, Hockstader had intended to publicly support Cantwell, but the candidate blunders badly. When the two speak privately, Cantwell attacks Russell with illegally-obtained psychological reports (obtained by his brother and campaign manager, Don Cantwell, based onRobert F. Kennedy[citation needed]) mistakenly assuming that Hockstader was for the more liberal man. The former president tells Cantwell that he doesn't mind a "bastard", but objects to a stupid one, and switches to Russell. However, in his opening-night speech, he endorses neither.

Cantwell's wife actively campaigns, while Russell's pretends for the time being that everything is fine with their marriage. The candidates go to the convention trying to outmaneuver the other, Russell finding out to his chagrin that Hockstader has offered the vice-presidential spot on the ticket to all three of the other candidates, Oscar Anderson, T.T. Claypoole and John Merwin.

One of Russell's aides digs up Sheldon Bascomb (Shelley Berman). He served in the military with Cantwell, and is willing to link him to homosexual activity while stationed in Alaska during World War II. Hockstader and Russell's closest advisors press Russell to grab the opportunity, but he resists. As the first round of voting begins, he arranges to meet Cantwell privately, to let his rival know what he can do. However, Cantwell confronts Bascomb and refutes his slander. Russell threatens to use the allegation anyway, but though Cantwell does not understand what makes his opponent tick, he knows this much - Russell does not have the stomach for tactics that dirty. In the end, Russell shocks him by throwing his support behind a third candidate, Governor John Merwin, ending both their chances.



More about the Film

Released during the Presidential campaign of 1964, The Best Man was a caustic political drama which kept a lot of critics and filmgoers guessing which real-life politicians inspired the lead characters. In one corner, you have William Russell (Henry Fonda), the older, more idealistic candidate whose 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 if necessary. In the middle is the former President (Lee Tracy) who still hasn't decided which candidate to endorse.

It's easy to see William Russell as the Adelai Stevenson stand-in, Joe Cantwell as a combination of Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy, and the ex-President as a kindred spirit of Harry Truman. What no one could have foreseen, however, is how some of the melodramatic situations in The Best Manmirrored real-life incidents in later years, particularly the sequence where William Russell's past emotional problems are revealed in a dossier. In the 1972 Presidential campaign, senator Tom Eagleton, George McGovern's choice for Vice-President, redrew from the race after revealing he had suffered a mental breakdown earlier in his career. 

Before The Best Man was actually slated as a project for director Franklin J. Schaffner, Frank Capra was seriously considered as a director by United Artists, the company that owned the property. It had been three years since Capra's last film, A Pocketful of Miracles, and the famous director had some unique ideas for this production which did not sit well with Gore Vidal, author of the original play. For one thing Capra wanted to add a climatic scene where Henry Fonda's character, who is losing the vote at the Democratic convention, makes an appearance on the delegate floor dressed as Abraham Lincoln and makes an inspiring speech. Gore tried hard to mask his horror at this suggestion but in his autobiography, Palimpsest(Random House), he wrote, "The Capra-Connolly script for The Best Man invents a new protagonist: the hero is no longer the man who refuses to blackmail his opponent because "one by one, these compromises, these small corruptions destroy "character" but the dark horse of the title, who receives the nomination when the two leading candidates cancel each other out -The Best Man, in their grotesquely sentimentalized version, is the guileless young mixed race governor of Hawaii, their muddled notion of a John Doe for the 1960s." 

Luckily, United Artists found the Frank Capra-Walter Connolly version of The Best Man unacceptable and decided to let Gore Vidal dictate the director and write the screenplay. Capra would never make another film.

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