The last time I watched The Best Man (1964) was…well, it’s been a long while: I caught it on WTGS-TV in Savannah years back…and of course, it was edited beyond all comprehension. So it was nice to be able to take a second look at it this past Friday night; based on the 1961 play by Gore Vidal (who also wrote the screenplay), it’s a really underrated film about a pair of Presidential candidates (Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson) pitted against one another as they seek to become their party’s presumptive nominee. Vidal loosely based the proceedings on the famous 1960 rumble between Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy; Fonda plays Stevensonish egghead William Hughes (he pretty much recycles his Robert A. Leffingwell character from Advise and Consent) who agonizes as to whether he should use a juicy bit of dirt against his opponent, the Kennedyesque Joseph Cantwell (Robertson—who played JFK the year before in P.T. 109) a virulent anti-Communist who’s certainly not going to bat an eyelash about using what he’s got on Hughes.
Although nowadays political parties show up for their conventions with all the wrinkles ironed out, Man is still compelling viewing as it takes a fairly realistic look at the “smoke-filled room” politics of yesteryear. What I liked best about the picture was its offbeat casting: Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Shelley Berman, Ann Sothern, Kevin McCarthy, John Henry Faulk, Mahalia Jackson and Howard K. Smith—in fact, I believe at one time there was Congressional legislation stating that you couldn’t make any kind of political film without him. (Then again, I could be wrong.) The standout performer here in this film is actor Lee Tracy, who capped off his lengthy movie career with a peerless performance as a wily ex-President who enters the fray. Tracy came over into the film from the original stage production (where he was nominated for a Tony), and garnered an Oscar nom for his splendid work. If you were unfortunate to catch this really first-rate drama, TCM has an encore performance scheduled for June 28 at 6pm EDT.