Monday 5 October 2009

Advise & Consent (1962)

Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Don Murray, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, Burgess Meredith, Eddie Hodges, Paul Ford, George Grizzard and Inga Swenson
The title of this film is a legal term. It's a concept whereby a head of state has the power and responsibility to make a legal decision but not alone, relying instead on those nominally lesser powers to make or approve the decision. In the UK, the Queen makes her decisions on 'advise and consent' from the Houses of Parliament. In the US, the President makes some decisions, like appointing his cabinet, on 'advise and consent' from the Senate. Anyone with half a brain can see the potential for clashes and that's what this film is based around.

In this film, the President announces a new Secretary of State, Robert A Leffingwell by name, without getting the approval of the Senate first. He sees him as being able to provide some creative statesmanship and he may well be right, but even his own supporters aren't sure they can swing the vote for him. Chief among these is Senator Bob Munson, who is the majority leader of the Senate; while he supports Leffingwell as an appointment himself, he doesn't even believe he can swing everyone in his own party, let alone the opposition. Everyone's afraid of Seab Cooley, who they fear will 'light up the sky', and they're right.

Senator Seabright Cooley, the highly experienced senior senator for South Carolina, is played by no less a major name than Charles Laughton, appearing for the very last time on screen. He died of cancer six months after the film's release, this becoming a worthy screen epitaph for him. He dominates his scenes here, even given the quality of the actors surrounding him, though he is cleverly delineated from them not just by accent but by suit colour or seat location.

Otto Preminger, who produced and directed, found a truly powerful cast, reaching backwards as well as forwards to find them. The President and Vice President of the United States are Franchot Tone and Lew Ayres respectively, both far older than any of us are used to seeing them but retaining their power as actors. The US Senate is made up of people like Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford and Don Murray, even Betty White from The Golden Girls and Paul Ford, the Colonel from The Phil Silvers Show. The man everyone is all in a fuss about, the nominee for Secretary of State, is played by Henry Fonda, one of the biggest stars in the business at the time.

Fonda is the only one here who really seems able to compete with Laughton, Leffingwell retains his calm composure even in the face of the most serious accusations he could face in 1962: in a Senate subcommittee hearing, he's charged with having been a communist. Seab Cooley even hauls in a witness to testify to that charge, a man called Herbert Gelman who swears that he had been invited to join a Communist cell in Chicago back when Leffingwell was a university professor in that city. Leffingwell mounts an able defense and utterly discredits Gelman but the key to it all is that he lies, under oath.

And here's what much of this appears to really be about: fear. The House Un-American Activities Committee was a hugely powerful body, especially on the motion picture industry. It had the power to force the industry to blacklist film professionals and eventually over 300 of them ended up on that list, most of whose careers were destroyed. By the end of the fifties, its power had diminished, though the fear of Communism had not. By the time the source novel was adapted for the screen, the Cold War was at its hottest, the Cuban Missile Crisis coming only four months after this film version was released.

Advise & Consent is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Allen Drury, published in 1959, and while fictional, was based considerably on his work as the Senate correspondent for United Press at a time he described as 'the days of the War Senate on its way to becoming the Peace Senate.' That's a critical part of this story, Leffingwell being the epitome of the changing attitudes that such a switch must have been born out of. Even after the end of the Cold War, Communism is still often viewed in America as a disease rather than a political belief, so times haven't changed as much as you might expect over the last half century.

There are other fears here beyond Communism, though that's the most obvious one. As the political manoeuverings and shenanigans escalate in an effort to find a solution, one key player is blackmailed. Leffingwell can't admit he once flirted with Communism, even when he was a younger man looking for a cause and not finding it there, because even that much would mean not just the end of his nomination for Secretary of State but the end of his entire political career. Similarly this other character can't admit that he once had a homosexual experience, even though he's now married with a child and the incident was an aberration in a time of crisis, because it would similarly end his career.
This is a tense film, tightly plotted and superbly acted. I don't think I've ever seen a better ride through the machinations of American politics, one that takes us places we don't expect it to go, not all of which are extreme or sensational. There are shocks and surprises but none are beyond the realms of belief. What stuns us most at the conclusion is that almost the entire story is a MacGuffin. While all these attentions to fear, the charges of Communism, the blackmailing, the gay past, highlight what makes our characters tick and raise major concerns in clever ways to the viewing audience, none of it matters. In the end it's all about the process of government, and that regardless what the cause, whoever the proponents and detractors, whatever lengths people are willing to go to get their way, it's the process of government that matters most.

In this sense, it's really an indictment on the Communist witchhunts, which were as well meaning as they went beyond what any government had a right to do in the United States. It's not too surprising to find that the volatile senator Fred Van Ackerman was based on Joseph McCarthy. In fact almost everyone in the film is based on a real person, making this, along with Allen Drury's diary of a couple of Senate sessions, fascinating viewing for anyone with an interest in American politics. Key names are Franklin D Roosevelt, here translated into the President; John F Kennedy, who became Senator Lafe Smith; and Alger Hiss, who provided the basis for Leffingwell and the investigation into his nomination. Even the blackmail and the suicide have real life equivalents.

As with most films based on books, the story is the key, even more especially here, but this story is brought to life by a set of massively powerful actors. Laughton is amazing here, at a time in his life when he must have been hurting considerably. Fonda is excellent, though basically playing himself and not having much screen time to do much else. It's good to see Tone and Ayres on screen together, amazingly enough for the first and only time. Pidgeon is subtle as the majority leader of the house, playing Munson like a musical instrument, knowing that all these other instruments have parts to play but also knowing that he's the key to the performance. He fades into the background early on as others shout and cajole and manoeuvre, but remains solid throughout and ends up shining over most of them.

Burgess Meredith is also superb as Herbert Gelman, a role that must have meant a huge amount to him. He held very liberal political views and incurred the wrath of Joseph McCarthy, enough to be blacklisted from the industry. His prolific career up to 1950 came to an end and he made only two films between then and this film in 1962. Otto Preminger was instrumental in restoring him to the screen, in a role that must have felt eerily familiar. Deservedly his career went from strength to strength after this, including roles like the Penguin in Batman, Mickey in the Rocky films and Jack Lemmon's father in Grumpy Old Men and its sequel.

Similarly Will Geer, who plays the Senate's minority leader, was blacklisted by HUAC but was nonetheless given the job. Geer was far more extreme in his political views than most actors, even most actors who were blacklisted. He wasn't just a member of the Communist party, he was a self confessed agitator and radical who toured government work camps singing with Woody Guthrie, and the bisexual lover of Harry Hay, the Communist who founded America's first large scale gay activist group. It's hard to imagine an actor less daring to cast in a film like this, but it's a telling decision.

Preminger may have been daring to put Geer in this film, but he had an even more surprising intention: to cast Martin Luther King Jr as a southern Senator merely to prove that it could happen. King declined on the grounds that it could hurt the civil rights movement. Given the good possibility that Dennis Haysbert's role as the black president in 24 helped condition America to the idea that such a thing was acceptable and so helped lead to the election of Barack Obama, that could have been a massively powerful thing to do in 1962. He even cast a real senator as a senator in the film. He's Henry F Ashurst, a five term senator from Arizona, and he played Senator McCafferty, the one who has a tendency to spend most of his time in the Senate asleep. He died a month before the film was released.

Such a daring political film, especially one that sees no reason to name anyone as a member of a particular political party, is well worth whatever attention it gets. I don't know what the immediate response from critics was, though of course the material was automatically made more legitimate by the the source novel winning the Pulitzer prize. Without specifically pointing fingers, it's hard to criticise any inherent bias or political views on behalf of the filmmakers, but I can imagine all sorts of viewers getting caught up in being for this character or against that one, only to come to the same conclusion in the end, that the process is what matters, regardless of opinion. That's a solid morale to any story.

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