Friday, 23 October 2009

Advise and Consent (1963)

Possibly Otto Preminger’s last great film (although Bunny Lake is Missing has admirers), and the final screen work of Charles Laughton, in fine hammy form as a bullying Southern warhorse, Advise and Consent suffers from lumbering expository dialogue and some over-neat dramatic coincidences, but it maintains pace and verve in handling hefty and adult material, all the more so for its time: it’s like The West Wing with the gilt of nobility scraped off. More importantly, although some of the buzzwords here are old-hat, the film reveals how consistent American politics have been for the past fifty years: scenes in the film instantly evoke Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, the intra-party intransigence of the Democrats lately, and recent, infamous gay sex scandals. It could nearly have been made yesterday.

When the President (Franchot Tone), mortally ill, and saddled with a lightweight Vice President (Lew Ayres), decides to appoint as Secretary of State a controversial liberal, Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), he hopes this candidate will ascend neatly into the Presidency when the time comes. Immediately, cabals of interested parties in the Senate begin working to both secure and deny the nomination, with Walter Pidgeon’s majority leader aiding the former, represented by the irritating, faintly frantic peacenik Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), and the latter, prodded along by Laughton but led by the young, go-get-em senator from Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray). When Laughton almost blows the lid on Fonda’s long-ago flirtation with Communism, Leffingwell asks the President to withdraw his nomination, but the President stands by him, trying to pressure Anderson into giving an immediate vote. But Anderson, righteous and ambitious, holds firm, prompting someone to begin blackmailing him with evidence of a gay war-time relationship.

The plot twists and turns like a rogue anaconda, and Preminger, at home in the meaty power-plays and moral ambiguities, prods his cast into delivering possibly the later Preminger oeuvre’s most thoroughly well-acted film: even Peter Lawford holds up his end. Gene Tierney, still ravishing, plays a minor role as Pidgeon’s mistress, and future Golden Girl Betty White makes an appearance as what seems to be the only female Senator. A keynote of Preminger’s best films is mounting hysteria, and the central act, as Murray turns increasingly frazzled in his attempts to get in contact with his former lover and finds himself (gasp!) in a gay bar, staring into the face of his own total public and private annihilation, is vintage. Another of Preminger’s best traits is to conceive and brilliantly expostulate a narrative that sees a dig for truth only reveal expanding complexities, and that’s very true here. Initially caricatured figures, like Laughton’s and Ayres’, reveal many more shades to themselves, at the same time that the core ideological and moral schisms begin polarised in tidy terms but begin to lose certain shape until, fittingly, Pidgeon unfetters his party faithful for a conscience vote, a literalisation of Preminger’s tactics. It’s in this way that Preminger belongs more in the company of the great ironists of ‘50s Hollywood cinema, Sirk, Hitchock, and Ray, than with the very tired stringency of Elia Kazan and Stanley Kramer.

It’s interesting to note its similar sensibilities to two other mid-‘60s films about high political chicanery, Franklin Schaffner’s The Best Man and John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May. Like The Best Man, it quotes tellingly from the supplanting of conscientious bore Adlai Stevenson by young sharks Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and, again like The Best Man, characterises the Kennedy figure as a closet homosexual. What rumours were getting around then, one wonders?


Gloria said...

Advise and Consent is still a pretty valid movie today: backstage politics have gone even more twisted than they were back when the film was done. And it's got a terrific cast, Laughton towering above all (hum, yes, I'm biased towards Laughton ;D)

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Gloria;

Yeah, I always found Laughton a sublimely entertaining actor, although some of the grotesques he was most famous for playing, eg Bligh and Henry VIII, were fairly facile, showy characterisations. His really best performances were subtler, in roles that required careful modulation and let him cut loose with his gift for humour - eg in Spartacus and Witness for the Prosecution, or playing men of intelligence and pathos, eg Jamaica Inn and The Paradine Case.