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10/11/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mad About the '60s: A Hart-Like Henry Fonda in Gore Vidal's The Best Man

"You know, those rumors about you and lady friends ... they won't do you a bit of harm."

Former President Art Hockstader to presidential candidate William Russell in The Best Man.

Note: This is one in a series of occasional pieces in the run-up to the series finale of Mad Men with cultural relevance to the period of the show and today.

This year is the 50th anniversary of a fascinating and quite entertaining political movie called The Best Man. It's a film more than a little redolent of of a much more contemporary figure, former Senator Gary Hart, whose front-running presidential candidacy was consumed in 1987 by a media firestorm revisited in a new book that's getting a lot of attention.

Adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal from his hit 1960 Broadway play, The Best Man is the tale of a desperate fight for the Democratic presidential nomination at a national convention in Los Angeles. Former Secretary of State William Russell, a brilliant liberal intellectual played by Henry Fonda, comes into the convention with a good lead in a multi-candidate field, but he hasn't been able to put the contest away and is closely harried by tough guy hawk Senator Joe Cantwell, played by Cliff Robertson. Former President Art Hockstader, "last of the great hicks," with an Oscar -nominated Lee Tracy in the role, may hold the king-making balance of power.

After overseeing a "gratifying" floor demonstration, presidential candidate William Russell (Henry Fonda) confers with his somewhat estranged wife Alice (Margaret Leighton) in The Best Man.

Cantwell thinks he has an expose which will sink Russell, whose campaign manager (portrayed by the able Kevin McCarthy, best known for the iconic Invasion of the Body Snatchers) comes up with something which can devastate Cantwell.

At the time, Vidal said that Russell was based on Adlai Stevenson, Cantwell on Richard Nixon, and Hocktstader on Harry Truman. Which doesn't seem to make much sense from today's perspective. What's a Nixon character doing in a Democratic convention? But as Mad Men viewers know, the early and mid-'60s were a time in which there were real liberal Republicans and real conservative Democrats.

However, Vidal, with whom I became acquainted, said a lot of his things. And his Russell also has a large helping of Jack Kennedy, while Joe Cantwell plays like a nightmare of combo of Bobby Kennedy and Joe McCarthy, for whom a very young and conservative RFK worked in the early '50s.

Melvyn Douglas, who would prove so memorable in 1972's The Candidate as the former California governor father of Robert Redford's rather Jerry Brown-like Bill McKay, played William Russell on Broadway. The husband of former Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, victim of Nixon's Red Scare campaign against her in the 1950 California Senate race, was an effective Stevenson-like figure. But in the hands of Henry Fonda, the character acquired an extra dimension and a sort of perpetually contemporary quality.

Though it was Humphrey Bogart who pioneered the anti-hero type so influential today, it may be Henry Fonda who is the most contemporary of the old-time movie stars. Not so much for what he represents -- Fonda was too serious for that -- as for his manner. He's crisp, quick and adroit with language, always thinking, with an air of faint amusement and suggestion of hidden reserves.

Today he is best known as the deathless Tom Joad in the The Grapes of Wrath, regarded in more socially committed times as the greatest film ever before being somewhat mysteriously supplanted by Citizen Kane. And of course he's known as the father of great actress/controversial activist Jane Fonda and Easy Rider rebel Peter Fonda.

But before his children's notoriety overtook his own, Henry Fonda -- also adept at comedy and rather dark drama -- was best known as the cinematic archetype of liberal integrity. Young Mr. Lincoln, Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, the titular humanitarian naval officer of Mister Roberts, the resistant juror in 12 Angry Men, the president confronted with accidental nuclear war in Fail-Safe, in addition to his indelible Tom Joad.

To this archetypal template, Fonda adds layers of characterological nuance in The Best Man. He's witty, in an ironic sort of way. Much of what he says goes over the heads of reporters. Always observing and measuring, himself as much as anything else. And not always liking his assessments.

His William Russell is a cut above, a higher caliber than is common in politics, as the admiring but unconvinced ex-president tells him. Tales of his womanizing, the Truman-like President Hockstader tells Russell, "won't hurt you a bit. As long as you didn't write any letters." (This was 23 years before the media firestorm around Hart.)


Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) takes a hardline approach in The Best Man.

No, the problem is with his mind. Russell has such a fine mind that he may use it too much, failing to get where a hack politician would go more quickly. Is Russell decisive enough, is he ruthless enough to do what must be done? It's a scenario that will soon assert itself, as Russell contemplates a devastating counter-attack against ruthless and recklessly irresponsible Cantwell.

Of course, since Fonda's character want the ex-president's backing, he's not so direct in defending his more intellectual approach. Decisive hack decision-making can create as many problems as it solves, especially in complex situations. (Memo to Hillary Clinton.)

Cantwell, who represents a huge backlash constituency against intellectualism, sexual freedom, and civil rights, deeply resents Russell both for his sexual fun and for his intelligence and knowledge. But unlike Hart, Russell is not attacked for his perceived private life. In fact, the ex-president dismissively waves off the devoutly monogamous Cantwell on that score. So, without giving away the plot, Cantwell tries to assassinate Russell's character by attacking a public strength.

This is a film worth seeking out, especially since it's not as well known as some other Fonda classics. I learned of it from Fonda himself, with whom I was fortunate enough to talk when I was working with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda's old Campaign for Economic Democracy. Rather than the obvious Tom Joad, I told Fonda that I especially liked him as Admiral Nimitz in the underrated In Harm's Way and the somewhat disappointing Midway.

Fonda was a proud Navy intelligence officer working on air and anti-submarine operations in Pacific combat zones during World War II and shared some great sea stories. Not the least of which was his introducing the Brentwood school version of Anchors Aweigh proudly sung by little Jane back in LA to wardrooms across the Pacific. From Pearl Harbor to Tinian, where the atom bomb mission launched from.


Henry Fonda's Navy Lieutenant Doug Roberts receives the Order of the Palm Tree in the classic Mister Roberts.

In addition to presenting something of a Gary Hart doppelgänger a few decades earlier -- he's not exactly like Hart, but close enough -- The Best Man is redolent of the early '60s New Frontier. Fonda himself was chairman of the Hollywood committee for his friend JFK, and Cliff Robertson had just played the young JFK in PT 109. And the action, not incidentally, is set at the LA Sports Arena, where JFK won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, and the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was assassinated in 1968. (The real JFK headquarters hotel in '60 was the Biltmore, but the Ambassador, now torn down, captures more of the LA flavor.)

It's quite a time capsule of the Mad Men era.

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