“Does The Best Man Always Get To The White House?” asks the poster for the 1964 film, The Best Man.
Of course, nowadays, that question seems incredibly naive. Of course the best man doesn’t always get to the White House! Some of my friends are Republicans and some of my friends are Democrats and a lot of my friends are Libertarians but they all have one thing in common: the belief that at least half of the past 4 elections were won by the wrong man.
But, as anyone who has done their research can tell you, 1964 was a far different time from 2015. In general, people had greater faith in both government and their elected leaders. Ineffective leaders and corrupt authority figures were viewed as being the exception as opposed to the rule. We’re a lot more cynical now and, when we see political movies from the early 60s, all of that optimism and idealism often make them feel very dated.
Another big difference between the middle of the 20th Century and today is that, when it came to presidential nominating conventions, there was actually the potential for some suspense regarding who would win the nomination. Occasionally, it took more than one ballot for a candidate to be nominated. Last minute deals often had to be made and convention delegates were actually selecting an ideology along with a candidate. Political conventions were contests and not coronations.
Again, it’s obvious that times have changed and, as a result, a film like The Best Man, which may have seemed very provocative and shocking in 1964, feels a bit like an antique today. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad film. In fact, The Best Man is an interesting time capsule of the way things used to be.
The Best Man takes place at a presidential nominating convention. The party is not specified but it feels like a Democratic convention. There are several candidates competing for the nomination but the two front-runners are former Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson).
Much like the character that Fonda played in Advise & Consent, Russell is an intellectual, a calm and rational liberal. Much like Spencer Tracy in State of the Union, Russell is separated from his wife (Margaret Leighton) but the two of them are pretending to be a happy couple for the sake of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Joe Cantwell is a paranoid and ruthless opportunist, a former war hero who will do anything to win. The only person more ruthless than Joe Cantwell is his brother and campaign manager, Don (Gene Raymond).
(For those who enjoy history, it’s interesting to note that John F. Kennedy was a war hero-turned-senator who had a ruthless brother who doubled as his campaign manager.)
Both Cantwell and Russell come to the convention hoping to get the endorsement of former President Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy). While the pragmatic Hockstader cannot stand Cantwell personally, he also views Russell as being weak and indecisive.
However, both Russell and Cantwell have secrets of their own. When Cantwell discovers Russell’s secret and threatens to leak it, Russell has to decide whether or not to reveal Cantwell’s secret.
The Best Man was based on a stage play by Gore Vidal and the actual film never quite escapes its theatrical origins. And, in many ways, it feels undeniably dated. But it’s still a well-acted film, one that will probably be best enjoyed by political junkies and students of history. Before watching the movie, be sure to read up on the 1960 presidential election and then see if you can guess who everyone is supposed to be.