Senate investigation into the President's newly nominated Secretary of State, gives light to a secret from the past, which may not only ruin the candidate, but the President's character as well.
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Allen Drury had been a journalist covering the United States Senate for United Press for sixteen years when he wrote a novel based on his experiences called Advise and Consent. With its potent cocktail of political intrigue, Washington gossip, and social consciousness, Advise and Consent would become both a critical and a commercial success, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1960 and being a major bestseller. No wonder then that Hollywood came calling to capitalize with a film version of the novel that provided ordinary Americans with a glimpse into the corridors of power.
Directed by Otto Premminger, the film version of Advise and Consent mirrors the novel’s plot. The President (Franchot Tone) nominates Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to be Secretary of State without consulting Senate leadership. The nomination is opposed by Southern Senator Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton), and the confirmation battle becomes more intense as damaging information about Leffingwell’s past is revealed, pushing the chairman of the committee investigating Leffingwell, Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) to the breaking point.
Being a Cold War film, the “skeleton in the closet” for Leffingwell is an association with an alleged left-wing cell as a professor. Drury certainly based this account on the investigations of Alger Hiss and David Lillenthal. He even has closely modeled Leffingwell’s accuser, Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith) on Hiss’s accuser, Whittaker Chambers. The film does depart from the novel by being more ambiguous regarding the nature of Leffingwell’s associations, possibly because audiences would not want to see as beloved an actor as Fonda playing a Communist sympathizer. Also, Hollywood had been so recently traumatized by McCarthyism that Premminger may have felt obligated to depict a person whose career is ruined for youthful left-wing associations sympathetically.
Leffingwell, however, is not the only player in this high stakes game hiding a secret. When Senator Anderson plans to force the President to withdraw the nomination in light of Leffingwell’s previous associations, a left-wing version of Joe McCarthy, Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard) blackmails Anderson with evidence of a homosexual affair in his past which would certainly end his political career in Utah (or anywhere else in 1959). This incident is almost certainly based upon Drury’s knowledge of Senator Styles Bridges threatening to expose a homosexual scandal in Senator Lester Hunt's family, causing Hunt to commit suicide. (This issue may have been particularly sensitive to Drury who was a lifelong bachelor.) The film includes a sequence of Senator Anderson going to New York City to confront his former lover. It provides an interesting perspective on contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality.
The film’s greatest strengths are not its plot (which somehow manages to be both too bogged down in procedural dialogue and too lurid) but its cast of actors delivering distinctive performances. Although the leads of Fonda and Murray are perfectly capable, the supporting roles are the most memorable.
Laughton is perfect as the old Dixiecrat war horse whose rumpled Southern manner belies a cunning political instinct. He makes the role colorful without falling into caricature. Lew Ayers also brings out the humanity of a man trapped in an utterly superfluous job, Vice President of the United States. And Burgess Meredith is strong as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who nevertheless has the essential truth on his side. Even Peter Lawford (an in-law of the Kennedys) is convincing as a womanizing but ultimately principled Senator. Television fans should watch for Betty White’s small role as a female Senator.
If the movie is not as ultimately successful as the novel, that may be because soap opera elements in the plot can be hidden in the richness of the written word but have nowhere to hide on the big screen. Also, the decision to make Leffingwell more sympathetic weakens the morality that provides gravitas to the melodramatic elements. (After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Venona Transcripts provided significant evidence of Hiss’s guilt, vindicating Drury’s instincts in the real-life version.) By trying to provide “balance” between Senator Anderson’s commitment to the truth and the President’s realpolitik, the novel’s message regarding the corrosive effects of power becomes muddled. In any case, the movie provides a perfect example of Washington then -- which isn’t all that different from Washington now.
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