Monday, October 19, 2020

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.

In 'The Best Man,' Fonda is a candidate with a conscience, but also a past.

‘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!

FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB  movie page. 

Check it out & join!


  1. Both have to get your vote. Both films are completely engrossing no matter how many times they are viewed. I know I have seen The Best Man more often because it seems to get aired more often, but I'll never turn away from Advise and Consent no matter the time of day it is presented.

    1. I've enjoyed them both. Think The Best Man has those zingy Gore Vidal one liners that still hold true. But Allen Drury's Advise and Consent story more in-depth and engrossing. Some very timely stuff in both!
      Cheers and thanks for reading!

  2. Great post. I have not seen Advise and Consent in many years but The Best Man is alwasys enticing to watch. Thanks for joining in.

    1. Funny, I had notes on both films, so when I saw the blogathon, it was perfect timing!
      BTW, there are great copies of both films on YouTube, and TCM is showing The Best Man on the 28th!

    2. Thanks for the heads on both and for participating.

  3. I haven't seen either and am now eager to see both. A very entertaining--and highly persuasive--post. Thank you. Seeing Senator Betty White alone....

    1. Thanks, it was a jolt to see Betty in Advise and Consent. Didn't recognize her so young and as a brunette... but the voice was instantly recognizable!
      There are good copies of both movies on YouTube. Plus, TCM is showing The Best Man on the 28th of this month. Cheers, Rick

  4. Fantastic post! Henry Fonda sure does fit the part of the typical American politician. The Best Man really gets my vote here, but Fonda's presence elevates just about anything.

    1. Exactly, FlickChick!
      The Best Man will be on TCM on the 28th, btw.
      And both films are on YouTube, good copies of both!
      Cheers, Rick

  5. A great article and one which beautifully conveys the sensibility of Fonda as a seasoned and sensitive actor. Advise And Consent still holds an incredible power to it and Fonda is outstanding in his performance.

    1. Hey there,
      Fonda was practically the definition of decency and integrity in film, wasn't he? That's why he was cast as so many Presidents and military heroes. Also his acting was so natural that it's still very modern, compared to past stars.
      Cheers and thanks for writing, Rick

  6. I really enjoyed how you contrasted these two films - neither which I have seen (I know, right!?) but they sound well worth their time. I'm particularly interested in seeing Lee Tracy's performance, as I have fond memories of him in the 1930s films he did.

    1. Hi Jocelyn,
      There are good copies of both films to watch on YouTube. And TCM is showing The Best Man on Oct. 28. Tracy is a blast in The Best Man, btw...
      Cheers, Rick

  7. Gotta vote for both. I haven't seen either for quite a while but have always been a fan of the political films of the early - mid-'60s and these are two of the best. I enjoyed your comparisons of the two, having never thought to compare them, side by side, myself. By the way, it's no wonder Advise and Consent was so long, the book was nearly the size of the Oxford English Dictionary. Great post!

  8. Dear Rick,

    This is a great article! I really enjoyed reading it. Your description of these two films is really interesting. As you described it, the parallel is very clear. What an apropos article for this theme! I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I nominated you for a Sunshine Blogger Award: In this post, I also invited my nominees to join two upcoming blogathons I'm hosting, The Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon in November ( and The 2nd Happy Holidays Blogathon
    (, plus our guest series, What the Code Means to Me: If you could join one or more of these events, that would be wonderful. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    1. Hi Tiffany, although I had to really concentrate keeping the two movies and photos I used straight, it was great fun comparing these two political dramas!
      Could you do me a favor and send me the rest of your message in an email? The formatting is pretty messed up above. My email:
      Cheers and thanks, Rick