Monday, October 19, 2020

Henry Fonda: ‘The Best Man’ & ‘Advise and Consent’

 

Henry Fonda played more U.S. Presidents on film than any other actor.

 

I re-watched 1962’s Advise and Consent and ‘64’s The Best Man for two reasons. One was to compare these ‘modern’ political dramas with our current day politics. The films focus on topics that are still timely: Advise and Consent details a contentious confirmation hearing and The Best Man covers two competing presidential candidates whose pasts come back to haunt them.

The other was to untangle the two movies in my mind. Both starred Henry Fonda as a politician whose integrity is the focus. In Advise and Consent, Fonda’s Robert Leffingwell seeks confirmation as Secretary of State. In The Best Man, Fonda’s William Russell already holds that title, and is running for President. (A book could be written on how many times Fonda played the President of United States, or other noble politicians and military men.) The two films feature all-star casts, scathing looks at political wheeling and dealing, and surprisingly for the era, both have a gay blackmail subplot.

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‘The Best Man’ is…

In both Advise and Consent and The Best Man, Henry Fonda’s politicians have flaws, but are essentially decent men. In Advise, he lies about his early dabbling in Communism, only to spare an equally guilty political friend. In The Best Man, Henry’s character has a history of adultery, which he doesn’t deny. Fonda has a more substantial role as Russell in The Best Man, and is a supporting character as Leffingwell in Advise and Consent. While he’s good in both, Fonda has more to work in The Best Man. In the latter, Henry looks like quite the lean machine as he takes his bath. At almost 60, Fonda was one of the better preserved leading men of his generation, fit and distinguished, with those piercing blue eyes.

'Advise and Consent' has a huge cast. Though Henry Fonda gets top billing,
his role is really a supporting one, unlike 'The Best Man.'

In Advise and Consent, Fonda’s adversary is Brigham Anderson, played by Don Murray. “Brig” wants to get to the bottom of Fonda’s liberal politician past. Henry’s opponent in The Best Man is Cliff Robertson, as Joe Cantwell. An eagle to Fonda’s dove, Cliff’s Cantwell’s really a vulture. He’ll stop at nothing to win, including revealing that Fonda’s character once suffered a nervous breakdown.

This question seems quaint by today's standards!

Author! Author!

Advise and Consent was based on Allen Drury’s Pulitizer Prize winne/ best seller. The Best Man was adapted from Gore Vidal’s 1960 Broadway play, which was nominated for six Tony Awards, with over 500 performances given in its original run. Both writers’ work often covered the political scene, and these works are two of their best.

Director Otto Preminger with star Gene Tierney. They made four films together.

Diverse directors

Otto Preminger was a controversial director by his own design, but I liked his dramas that were based on strong stories and characters like Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent. They still feel adult, realistic, and unsentimental. Preminger loved location shooting and you get to see a lot Washington, D.C. in Advise. Otto also liked to cast real people of the milieu, which again, added to the authenticity. While a bit long, I found Advise most engrossing and stylish. As for Franklin J. Schaffner, he was an intelligent director who came up through live TV, won a slew of Emmy Awards, capped by directing the famed TV tour that Jackie Kennedy gave of the White House. His film of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man is also adult and concisely told. And yet another twist that makes these two movies a mind meld: Prior, Schaffner directed a Broadway version of Advise and Consent. While it wasn’t the smash of The Best Man, it was a modest success.

Dying Presidents, Soon Deceased Actors

In 'Advise and Consent,' the President (Franchot Tone) receives bad news.
At 57, Tone looks like bad news!

Another reason for my brain blur with these films is that both have presidents who are gravely ill as pivotal characters. In Advise and Consent, at 57, Franchot Tone was the same age as Henry Fonda, but is a ghost of his former self. The fine-featured actor with a twinkle in his eye was a heavy drinker and smoker, which took its toll. Note that Tone has a cigarette going in nearly every scene.  In The Best Man, Lee Tracy is wonderfully irascible as an old-school Truman type, former President Art Hockstader. Tracy, who got the film’s sole Oscar nod, was a mere seven years older than Fonda. He’s quite believable as someone at death's door, since Tracy had a drinking problem, which had hurt his screen career. Ironically, the actors died exactly a month apart, in the fall of '68. Speaking of badly aging actors, Charles Laughton died at age 63, shortly after Advise and Consent completed filming.

In 'The Best Man,' Lee Tracy also looks worse for wear as an ailing President.

Political Hotshots with a Homo Past

Another reason I can’t keep these films straight (pun intended) is because I always get genial Don Murray and Cliff Robertson mixed up. Here, they are both self-righteous young politicians whose pasts hide a wartime romance with fellow soldiers. Both get phone calls threatening to reveal their past. Murray’s senator in Advise and Consent commits suicide; in The Best Man, Robertson is unnerved but goes on the offensive. Preminger, who loved to push the prurient envelope, presents Murray's secret more explicitly, but sympathetically. In Advise and Consent, Robertson’s Cantwell browbeats ninny Shelley Berman into the ground.

'A&C' plays up the gay blackmail plot more than 'The Best Man,' in the trailer & print ads. 

Hostess with the Mostest?

In Advise and Consent, Gene Tierney plays a classy Washington hostess who knows her stuff. This was Tierney’s fourth film with Otto Preminger. In The Best Man, Ann Sothern plays a political gadfly like a Washington D.C. version of Virginia Graham. Totally apples and oranges, Gene and Ann are both fun to watch.

Political Plots and Puns

The Best Man has Gore Vidal's acidic wit, with many lines that are still painfully apt. The Best Man is also a half hour shorter than Preminger's more leisurely Advise and Consent. But both are great fun if you like political intrigue and good dialogue.

'A&C' senator Don Murray gets an unwelcome call about his gay past!

So does Cliff Robertson's politician in 'The Best Man.'
Glad to know that voters aren't the only one who get unwanted solicitation calls!

Hollywood Heavyweights as Washington Movers and Shakers

The stars of 'The Best Man,' with real life politician Mike Mansfield, center.

Both films boast an all-star cast of mostly veteran actors. Advise and Consent has the bigger cast, perhaps because it’s 2 hours and 18 minute running time allows for more characters. While Margaret Leighton’s performance is good in The Best Man, I found it odd that they didn’t cast an American star opposite Fonda. Either Lauren Bacall or Maureen O’ Hara would have made a great brittle, estranged political wife, or Dorothy McGuire, for her class and intelligence. In Advise, Charles Laughton gets to run the gamut without running amok as wily, but ultimately fair ‘Seab’ Cooley. Walter Pigeon, so often cast as noble, gets to show a more sophisticated side as Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson from Michigan. Burgess Meredith and Shelley Burman get to be annoying as the quirky squealers in Advise and The Best Man, respectively. The acting in both films is top notch.

Surprising Cast Members

Betty White as a senator Bessie Adams. I'd vote for this "Golden Girl" in 2020!

In Advise and Consent, Betty White is a brunette and a senator! In The Best Man, Mahalia Jackson appears as herself, singing gospel at a political dinner. If this seems incongruous, remember this is the same film that gives “the voice of Frank Sinatra” a cast credit!

Sinatra got a credit for his record playing on the jukebox in the gay bar scene!

Opening titles

While The Best Man opens with a series of classic presidential photographs, Preminger calls upon his favorite titles artist, Saul Bass, to create another eye catching opening titles sequence.

I could look at the art titles of Saul Bass all day.

The bottom line: The Best Man has a zingier script and a shorter running time, but Advise and Consent has the bigger story and cast. Both get my vote!

'The Best Man' candidate Henry Fonda tries to keep his reputation clean!

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Saturday, October 17, 2020

Monty Still Has ‘A Place in the Sun’ 1951

Elizabeth Taylor & Montgomery Clift, romantic dream team of 'A Place in the Sun.'

Montgomery Clift, who had co-starred in several hit films with veteran stars, but 1951’s A Place in the Sun was the classic that Monty carried and cemented his stardom.

A Place in the Sun is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 tome, An American Tragedy, which was loosely taken from a real life drowning death earlier that century. Some have criticized Sun for being too lightweight in comparison to the novel. True, but Paramount failed once before, filming a gloomy ’31 version of this doomed romantic triangle of the ambitious young man romancing a poor girl, and a socialite. Director George Stevens wanted to make serious points about our society’s values. Yet, he was realistic enough to know that a young love triangle would draw audiences and make the drama as a whole more palatable. This was especially so, after he started working with stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, and saw the sparks fly.

Montgomery Clift, the ambitious young man torn between Elizabeth Taylor & Shelley Winters.

Despite the romantic triangle vying for screen time with the damning message on wealth and social status, Sun is still a rather dark romantic picture. Clift as the conflicted protagonist spends most of his screen time leading a double life, covering up, and is at least partially responsible for the death of the young factory girl he has impregnated.

Montgomery Clift at age 29, during filming of 'A Place in the Sun.'

Clift is incredibly intense and vulnerable in this film. With each major scene as George Eastman, he becomes so stricken with tension and guilt, sweaty and hunched over, that he looks like he's in physical pain. At his best, Montgomery Clift is the greatest of "the big three" method acting gods, IMO. Imagine instead James Dean or Marlon Brando as George Eastman. Both could have been quite interesting, but Monty's far less mannered than James Dean, and far more open in his emotional torment than Brando. Marlon often backed his rawness with brute masculinity. Not that there's anything wrong with that! But it was almost a buffer for audiences, where Clift let his vulnerability show freely, with no apologies.

Monty as George Eastman, attempting to articulate his motives.

Did you know that Elizabeth Taylor was the only actress to appear as leading lady to all three of the '50's "method actor" greats—Clift, Dean, and Brando?

Monty wasn’t keen on Hollywood, but he still seemed drawn to movies, and only occasionally went back to the theater. Whatever his mindset, Monty’s situation mirrors his character’s, in that Clift desired, but was uncomfortable in a wealthy world that Elizabeth Taylor inhabited with ease.

Elizabeth Taylor as a wealthy girl who embodies poor, lonely boy Clift's dreams.

A Place in the Sun was actually filmed in the fall of '49 and wrapped up in early 1950. Several reasons have been given as to why the film wasn't released until nearly two years later, in the fall of '51. One factor for sure was George Stevens, always a methodical director, became even more so in his post-war work.

Montgomery Clift, at the peak of his powers and youth in 'A Place in the Sun.'

Montgomery Clift wasn’t the only person who influenced Elizabeth on the Sun set. George Stevens was another important person in Taylor’s life with his direction of her at the beginning and ending of her adult box office stardom.  A Place in the Sun was her first serious drama in ‘51. Giant turned Taylor into a super star in ‘56. And 1970's The Only Game in Town was Steven's final film and the last time Elizabeth Taylor received her million dollar salary.

Clift as George, the first time he lays eyes on Elizabeth Taylor, as Angela Vickers.

Someone astutely said that Elizabeth Taylor's look in A Place in the Sun set the standard for brunette beauty for a generation. Taylor also met another pro on this film who would become a lifetime associate and friend: Edith Head. Edie's violet-sprigged dress became THE prom gown for at least one movie season.

Sexy and seventeen! Elizabeth Taylor in her first iconic film look.

Elizabeth Taylor was just 17 when she filmed A Place in the Sun. Her co-stars, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters, were both a dozen years older than her. In the scene where Winters’ character, Alice Tripp, hems and haws for an abortion from a doctor, and he asks the pregnant girl her age. Tripp replies 22, while Winters was 29 in '49. The difference was Monty had significant stage experience and Shelley had come up the show biz ladder the hard way. Both had significantly more life experience than Elizabeth. Taylor started in movies at age 10 and was a star in National Velvet by 12. Extremely protected by both her parents and MGM, Elizabeth once aptly said that she "was a virgin both physically and mentally." Yet none of that shows on film, which is a testament to Taylor's innate screen ability.

Elizabeth's maternal quality was a Taylor character film constant, whether the recipient was a horse, dog, or leading man.

A trait that George Stevens focused on in Taylor was her maternal quality. Notice how many times Taylor cradles Clift in A Place in the Sun, as if she's mothering him. That she pulled this off and the "Tell Mama all" scene as a teen is most remarkable. A few have written that Stevens wisely avoided the movie clichés of great romance. In Sun, Angela's always on the periphery, and the first time George sees her, she doesn't even notice him. 

Shelley Winters is Alice Tripp, a factory girl who falls for Clift's restless George.

For Shelley Winters, who was playing sexy tarts with hearts, Sun was her big break as a serious actress. Like Cher later in Silkwood, a strong director required Winters to leave her glamour and ego at the door. Shelley wore little makeup, stopped bleaching her hair, and bought clothes off the rack, some even borrowed from her sister. While she knew the role was a winner, Winters’ ego as a woman was rightfully hurt, as Shelley was held up unflatteringly as a comparison to a gorgeous teenage Taylor. A wag once said, "George Stevens brought out something in Elizabeth Taylor that would make men kill for her, and something in Shelley Winters that made men want to kill HER."

Shelley Winters about to go into full whine mode in the row boat!

Director Stevens implies to great effect. How did that first night with George and factory girl Alice get by the censors?! Or when Alice goes to the doctor after she becomes pregnant? Even implied candor got censored back then. And yes, this was the first of many movies where water was not Shelley Winters' friend!

If looks could kill. George listens to Alice's oblivious plans for their married life.

It's been said that the wonderful Anne Revere, who plays Clift's pious parent (and also played Taylor's mother in National Velvet) was greatly edited out of her place in the sun because she was blacklisted. I question that, because I'm not sure how much more she would have fit in the over two hour film. You see her when George calls her after he’s connected with wealthy relatives and again when he's in trouble for murder. Since she lives afar, where else would she have fit in a scene? 

Anne Revere plays Clift's religious mother, who visits him on death row.
By the time 'A Place in the Sun' was released, Revere was blacklisted.

The only performance I found less than stellar was Raymond Burr as the district attorney. Glowering menacingly, he becomes more threatening to the point of his histrionic breaking of the oar in the boating accident reconstruction scene. Also, having watched a lot of Perry Mason in the last year, I was surprised how much heavier Burr was in his early years as the heavy.

Elizabeth Taylor & Montgomery Clift became best friends on this film.

Clift and Taylor became fast and famous friends, and often looked for vehicles to perform in. They reunited in the ill-fated 1957 epic Raintree County, where Monty endured his near-fatal car accident. They appeared two years later in Suddenly, Last Summer. This film was a triumph for Elizabeth and Katharine Hepburn, with Monty on the sidelines, who was hard to cast at this point.

Clift's George Eastman, whose dreams have ended on death row.

Taylor and Clift were to reunite for 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. The role of the closeted army major seemed ideal for Clift, with Taylor reprising her bitchy southern belle persona. Clift was considered uninsurable at this point, and Taylor shut up the studio suits by offering her million dollar salary as insurance for Monty. Everyone was amazed, including Monty. Sadly, Clift died at 45, before filming started. Monty was replaced by Marlon Brando. And Taylor was obligated to make a movie that she had agreed to do, for Monty's sake. How fitting it was that Clift and Taylor first met at the beginning of his stardom, and that Elizabeth was one of the few who stood by him to the end. Monty only made a handful of films, with a few that are bonafide classics. For that, Montgomery Clift will always have his cinematic place in the sun.

Life and art often blurred for Elizabeth Taylor, but who was always there for her dear friend Montgomery Clift.

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Friday, October 2, 2020

‘All That Heaven Allows’ 1955

 

Romance alternates between dreamy & nightmarish for Rock Hudson & Jane Wyman.

Magnificent Obsession made Rock Hudson a star in 1954; Giant then turned Hudson into a superstar in ‘56. All That Heaven Allows came in between, and shows Rock at his most natural. He's warm, straightforward, and his speaking voice—on which he worked hard—is soft, yet masculine, and deeply soothing.

Rock Hudson's memorable first close-up as Ron Kirby.

Ron Kirby is one of the most interesting characters that Rock Hudson ever played. His gardener turned tree farmer marches to his own drummer and doesn’t care what others think. These characteristics are not heavy-handed, just who Ron is. What a shame life couldn’t have imitated art for Rock Hudson, who was stifled by the Hollywood closet.

Rock's landscaper Ron dreams of living off the grid as a tree farmer.

With a career goal of more than the local gardener, Rock's Ron dreams of agricultural college and nurturing a tree farm. One of his last landscaping customers is Cary Scott, played by Jane Wyman. She's a well-to-do widow and pillar of the picturesque community. She’s older than Ron, as well as above his socio-economic station in life. (Wyman was actually just eight years older than Hudson.) The news of the characters’ ensuing romance runs rampant among Cary’s circle, fanned by so-called friend Mona, the malicious gossip of the group.

Jane Wyman is touching, yet restrained as Cary, a lonely widow who finds love.

I always liked Jane Wyman as an actress. Her kewpie doll looks (the snub nose, apple cheeks, and Bambi eyes) were always an intriguing contradiction to her direct acting style. I thought Jane was a bit undervalued as an actress because she didn't overact. In that respect, she reminded me a bit of Barbara Stanwyck, who was also no-nonsense in the dramatic department. But with Jane's cherub face, she usually played the wide-eyed heroine, not the gun toting villains that flinty-faced Stanwyck so often played.

Wyman's conventional matron reads up on what is essentially Ron's life philosophy.

In Heaven especially, Jane wore simple makeup, coloring within the lines, unlike other divas. Her clothes, by Bill Thomas, were chic and fit Cary’s character. Wyman never went caricature, perhaps that's why she's not as well-remembered as some of the legends. Nearly 40, Jane cuts a fine figure in a cocktail dress, still possesses an expressive, pretty face, all without bothering to try to convince audiences or herself that she's still 25.

Ron & Cary run into one another at Christmas time, after calling off their marriage. 

Wyman and Hudson have a warm, subtle rapport and both play well to the soft-spoken, gentle side of their personas. Though Magnificent Obsession is an awesome wallow, there's far more genuine romantic and social angst here in All That Heaven Allows. 

The cast is tops. Agnes Moorehead gets to play a sympathetic role as Cary’s best friend, Sara. While she’s strong-minded, Moorehead isn’t waspish, as she often was cast in later years. And Agnes, who could have easily have played vicious Mona, gets to play Cary’s one true blue friend Cary, and comes across as a complex and real. 

Agnes Moorehead is spot on as Sara, Cary's best friend who senses something's up.

William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott are perfectly obnoxious as Cary’s self-centered children. Hayden Rorke sports old-age makeup once again as the plain-spoken family doctor who tells the widow that her headaches are caused by what other people think! Virginia Grey, a favorite of Heaven producer Ross Hunter, is most appealing as Alida, from Ron’s cadre of free-spirited friends. And a special shout out to Jacqueline de Wit as Mona, the town troublemaker. She is so good, you just want to give her a swift kick in the ass!

Malicious Mona, played by Jacqueline deWit, is right in the middle of starting trouble!

Then-small studio Universal was great at creating lush production values on a modest budget. Russell Metty’s cinematography is superb, especially with the lighting. The big emotional scenes are so suffused with light that they look like dream sequences. The mix of sets, the studio back lot, and miniatures, all expertly suggest a cozy small town where life is seemingly carefree. Frank Skinner’s sound track, with inspiration from from Franz Liszt, is lovely and complements the visuals perfectly. 

Wyman's serene small town matron feels like something's missing from her life.
Hint: The Chinese Elm clippings were cut by the dreamy gardener!

Douglas Sirk’s modus operandi in a nutshell: smooth surface soap opera with an underlying subversive point of view. There were very few mainstream films questioning the post-war America way of life. Beneath this ‘50s version of a country club Lady Chatterley and her gardener with a Woody, is a woman who attempts to step out of her role in society, and a man who marches to his own beat, and the wrath they incur when they attempt to bypass convention. All this in a mid-century soap opera!

Director Douglas Sirk with the stars of "All That Heaven Allows."

The first time I watched All That Heaven Allows, I was knocked out that a mainstream '50s movie would criticize the era's bland conformity. The town gossips and selfish children are written and played as total caricatures, and Sirk enjoys skewering them. Cary’s two self-centered children, both young adults, make you wish Joan Crawford was playing Cary, so that she could give them each her trademark slap in the face. Even television takes its lumps, as Cary’s family and friends are all pestering her to buy one for companionship. She resists, but when she and Ron break up, her meddling kids console her with a TV for Christmas, with the screen reflecting Carrie's inconsolable face.

Cary's selfish brats give her a TV set as a Christmas consolation prize for breaking up her and Ron. The first time I saw this stunning scene, I wanted to throw something at MY television!

Some Douglas Sirk detractors say that he was merely a more stylish technician of cinema soaps than other studio directors. NOT true! And they totally miss what Sirk creates in his '50s films. The stylized soap is merely the surface and highly entertaining in its own right. However, nothing Douglas Sirk does is by chance or by rote. The questioning glances, such as when Agnes Moorehead's Sara takes note of Rock's Ron Kirby working in her best friend's yard. Or the scene where Cary's son Ned angrily argues with his his mother in front of a screen, that makes them look like they’re at confession. Most crucial of all, Cary's uncertainty as a woman in love again gets many subtle setups: her troubled reflection in mirrors or most touchingly, the screen of a TV set that's a sorry substitute for Ron.

One of the many strikingly lit scenes of "All That Heaven Allows."

If you don't believe me, consider the films that Ross Hunter did without Douglas Sirk: Backstreet, Portrait in Black, and especially, Madame X. They are all great fun, but with little depth or subtext. With Hunter, it’s all just suffering glamour stars. Todd Haynes tried to emulate Douglas Sirk’s stylized melodrama with subliminal social content in Far From Heaven, upping the ante by giving the unhappy heroine a BLACK gardener lover and a GAY husband! Still, this Heaven felt like an exercise in style, with little of the heartfelt style Sirk gives his lead characters in All That Heaven Allows.

Wait for my ungrateful children to call or for my outdoorsy young husband Ron to come indoors and rock my world? Tough call, Cary!

Even today, some critics and movie fans still dismiss All That Heaven Allows as a stylish but dated soap. I couldn't disagree more. This film may be my favorite of Sirk's '50s films. The message woven throughout the film is to not give in—whether to social convention, materialism, ageism, or sexism—and to thine own self be true. Heaven reminds me of Now, Voyager in its genuine uplift.

Love this movie poster for "Heaven" that looks like a juicy paperback novel cover!

All That Heaven Allows is proof that Rock Hudson could be more than a mere Hollywood heart throb. Rock was often cited as an example of the handsome hunk that was a hack. His performance in this film alone defies that stereotype. I can think of many stars, male and female, that got the big build up, and who were just glamorous mannequins. Universal's Tippi Hedren and John Gavin quickly come to mind. 

Rock & Jane flourish in Sirk's genuine romanticism of "All That Heaven Allows."

Rock was no Marlon or Monty, of course. Hudson was still more than just a pretty boy and the man had his moments during his 15 years as a top leading man. Yet, sometimes it is the stars' smaller movies, where fans can see them at their most genuine, and remind us what made them special. For me, that’s Rock Hudson as Ron Kirby in All That Heaven Allows. Rock is at his most relaxed, confident screen self, the ideal of the man Hudson might have wished to be off-screen.

Rock Hudson never forgot Jane Wyman's kindness & encouragement when he was a nervous newcomer in "Magnificent Obsession,"their first film. Thanking her, Jane told him to pass it on. Decades later, Sharon Stone landed one of her first major roles in a Hudson TV movie,
and Stone lauded his helpfulness toward her.

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