Best Man, The (1964) - full review!
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, and written by Gore Vidal, this excellent political campaign drama stars Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as the two frontrunner candidates hoping to be selected as the Presidential nominee at their party's convention. Lee Tracy (giving his final feature film performance), who received his only Academy recognition with an Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role, plays the "hick" President of the United States, who's secretly dying from cancer but still wields a lot of power in the process. Surprisingly still relevant for today, the film delivers an insightful, biting look at the behind the scenes wrangling, wheeling and dealing, that must go on at a wide open political convention where no clear candidate is the right choice, or has sewn up the position in advance: dirty politics, questions of character, decisions as to whether to use damning evidence against one's opponent which may jeopardize the party's chances of winning the overall election, etc..
Fonda plays Secretary of State William ‘Bill’ Russell, whose marriage to his British wife Alice (Margaret Leighton) has been over for a long time due to his multiple affairs over the years. However, on the eve of the convention and for the purposes of his Presidential (and her First Lady) aspirations, the two agree to a "treaty" - to pretend to be as one so that he might win the nomination and (almost by default) then the presidency. She must then deal with Sue Ellen Gamadge (Ann Sothern), a powerful lobbyist who represents women's issues for the party. Russell is thought to be an intellectual who thinks about every issue (perhaps too) thoroughly, which causes some like President Art Hockstader (Tracy) to question his decisiveness. Kevin McCarthy plays Russell's campaign manager Dick Jensen.
Robertson plays working man hero and Senator Joe Cantwell, who'd made a name for himself linking the Mafia with communism and writing a book titled the "Enemy Around Us"; Edie Adams plays his loving wife Mabel, the mother of their three children. Gene Raymond plays Joe's brother Don, (a former Senator?) who'd lost to Hockstader in a Presidential campaign of his own years earlier and now acts as Joe's campaign manager. Shelley Berman plays Sheldon Bascomb, a man who surfaces out of Joe's military past with a secret that might destroy his chances of earning his party's nomination - especially since Joe is supported by the conservative wing of the party. Cantwell has a bombshell of his own to drop, a psychiatric evaluation of Russell that calls into question the Secretary of State's mental health, labeling him a manic depressive that might crack under stress. Though Cantwell thinks of bringing this information to the light of day as a public service, his telling this to Hockstader so enrages the President that he withdraws his planned endorsement of ruthless Joe, calling him stupid for using a "cannon to crush a bug". Hockstader then works behind the scenes for Russell, though later lectures him about his indecisiveness to use Bascomb’s dirt about Cantwell.
Mahalia Jackson appears as herself, singing at the pre-convention banquet; Howard K. Smith also appears as himself, the news anchor correspondent during the convention. John Henry Faulk plays a southern state "Sons of the Confederacy" Governor T.T. Claypoole, who Hockstader kids is a progressive liberal; T.T. is instead a candidate who's not shy about voicing his racial prejudices and is slippery with his loyalties to either of the frontrunners, holding out for whomever will promise him a spot on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate. William Ebersol plays a relatively unknown candidate, western state Governor John Merwin, and Richard Arlen plays the other candidate, the former Attorney General now Senator Oscar Anderson. George Furth plays the President's secretary, aide.