Monday, July 7, 2014
Reeling Backward: "Advise & Consent" (1962)
"Advise and Consent" is a film of firsts and lasts.
It was the final film for the great Charles Laughton, already declining from cancer. Wrapped in a colorless, shapeless suit like a shroud, his once-expansive frame had shriveled down to merely bulky. He plays Seabright "Seab" Cooley, a wily old curmudgeon representing South Carolina in the U.S. Senate, who positions himself as the chief antagonist to Robert A. Leffingwell, the president's nominee for Secretary of State.
Laughton cackles and minces, cajoles and bullies, as the situation warrants. His voice had lost some of its power, and you can hear at a couple of points that his lines have been dubbed over. Contrastingly, it was the first film role for Betty White, playing a young female senator who gets accused of using "her sex" to her advantage.
It was one of the earliest mainstream movies to tackle McCarthyism head-on, or at least just off to the side. During the confirmation process, Leffingwell is discovered to have participated in some Communist meetings back when he was at university, though he never joined the party.
Still, the trial-like subcommittee hearings have all the fire and brimstone of the real anti-Communist witch hunts. Merely the accusation of Communist affiliations is enough to scuttle one's political career, and even eliminate the possibility of a job in academia.
It was also one of the first movies to tackle homosexuality head-on, with an upright young senator (Don Murray) from Utah -- named Brigham, too, in case the suggestion that he's a Mormon wasn't already underlined enough -- being blackmailed for a romance with another soldier during the Korean War.
That was a bold topic for director Otto Preminger to take on in 1962, though the portrayal of gay men isn't exactly progressive. The senator's trip to New York to find his old lover turns into a descent into Dante's inferno, with a parade of effeminate man-boys and a nightclub full of tilted wrists and gay Lotharios. (One of the oldest cruelties inflicted against homosexual men is the mythology that they're attracted to essentially every straight guy they meet.)
Still, the film is clear in pointing out that it's not the senator's affair that constitutes a great sin, but the way it's used against him by a political rival to torture his wife and family life, eventually spurring him to take his own life in his senate office.
"Advise & Consent," written by Wendell Mayes based on the novel by Allen Drury, was not considered a particularly successful film at the time. It got middling reviews, so-so box office, and failed to receive any Academy Award nominations -- though Laughton got a BAFTA nomination and Burgess Meredith won the award for supporting actor from the National Board of review for his portrayal of a dim, easily-manipulated former associate of Leffingwell.
It's too bad, because I thought it a terrific political thriller chocked full of top-notch performances. In writing the Reeling Backward column for almost five years now (!), I've often encountered supposedly great movies that I found to be undeserving of their reputations -- and enjoyed taking them down a peg or five. Even more rewarding, however, is discovering an amazing picture that has, for one reason or another, largely been forgotten.
Leffingwell is played by Henry Fonda in typical upright straight-man mode, who lies about his leftist associations during the confirmation hearings, and then immediately confesses to the president (Franchot Tone) and requests that his name be withdrawn. But the POTUS is dying, and wants to make sure his foreign policy gains are cemented under Leffingwell's able hand, since he -- and most everybody -- has a low opinion of his amiable vice president and successor, "Happy" Harley Hudson (Lew Ayres).
Ayres is wonderful in his small but pivotal role, giving Hudson a kind of self-effacing nobility. Being the vice president, he says only half-jokingly, "is a sort of disgrace, like living in a mansion with no furniture."
Ostensibly the star of the picture, Fonda is actually pretty peripheral to the story, other than the extended sequence where he testifies before the subcommittee, and later interrogates and discredits the Meredith character. He's less a fully fleshed character than an ideal, a New Age man who believes in laying aside the "outworn" policies of treating the Soviets as implacable enemies to be destroyed.
This positions him in opposition to the prideful Cooley, in addition to a vague dust-up between the two years earlier. Seab is a master manipulator, offended that Leffingwell's nomination is poised to upset the genteel comity of the Senate, turning it into "a cockpit of angry emotion" -- nevermind that he's the one who will be doing most of the antagonizing. Even the way Seab pronounces the name seems distasteful to him, as if he's being mocked -- "laughing well."
Even if he's a self-aggrandizing egomaniac, Seab is at least demonstrated to have some redeeming qualities in the end. That can't be said for Fred Van Ackerman, a junior senator who charges himself with being Leffingwell's main defender. Played by George Grizzard, Van Ackerman is a small, effeminate man/boy who always keeps a cadre of silent gray-suited men around him, dubbing them his "brain trust."
They also carry out his dirty work, like threatening the Mormon senator, Brigham Anderson, charged with shuttling Leffingwell's nomination through the process. When Anderson learns of Leffingwell's perjury, he refuses to pass him through. He ends up trapped between his conscious and the threats to his family, and he wilts under the pressure. This is actually the weakest part of the film, as it's given too much screen time and sucks much of the momentum out of the political intrigue, which is where the real juice is.
I also enjoyed Walter Pidgeon as Bob Munson, the patrician Senate Majority Leader, who tries to be accomodating as possible to the various whims and outsized personalities of his coalition. Gene Tierney has a small role as his political patron and secret girlfriend, and Peter Lawford turns up as a womanizing senator with a trick or two up his sleeve.
All of these figures are the same political party as the president, though which is never explicitly stated. The film came out in 1962 but seems very much a product of 1950s mentality. It's interesting, though, that this is the rare political film where the opposition party never really comes into play. Most such films make the primary villain a member of the opposite party, such as the similarly themed "The Contender" from 2000.
The film is also notable for portraying the White House Correspondents Dinner, quite possibly the first mainstream movie to do so. Then as is now, it's depicted as a chummy affair where politicians and press agree to treat everything off-the-record, yet somehow a lot of news always ends up getting made. The president uses the occasion to castigate his foes and affirm his support for Leffingwell.
The final sequence, building up to and featuring the roll call vote for Leffingwell's nomination, is a master class in cinematic tension. The prospects for Leffingwell rise and recede, even as the names are called one after another. Munson would seem to have marshaled his forces and have it in the bag, but then some last-minute events throw everything into doubt.
I'm not quite sure why "Advise & Consent" was not greeted more enthusiastically at the time. To me it's a first-rate political drama with a bunch of terrific actors letting it fly. It wasn't the first or last of its kind, but it is one of the best I've seen.