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The Best Man

The Best Man(1964)

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teaser The Best Man (1964)

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 Man mirrored 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.

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Producer: Stuart Millar, Lawrence Turman
Screenplay: Gore Vidal (based on his play of the same name)
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Editing: Robert Swink
Music: Mort Lindsey
Cast: Henry Fonda (William Russell), Cliff Robertson (Joe Cantwell), Lee Tracy (Art Hockstader), Margaret Leighton (Alice Russell), Edie Adams (Mabel Cantwell), Kevin McCarthy (Dick Jensen), Shelley Berman (Sheldon Bascomb), Ann Sothern (Mrs. Gamadge), Gene Raymond (Dan Cantwell).
BW-103m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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