The truest movie yet made about the insidious nature of American politics remains Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent (1962); based on Allen Drury’s intriguing best seller, first published in 1959. The book would remain on the New York Times best seller list for a whopping 102 weeks and, despite a minor brouhaha, won the Pultizer Prize for fiction. The title derives from the U.S. Constitution Article II, Sec. 2, cl. 2, in essence affording the President the ability to nominate high ranking officers with the ‘advice and consent’ of the U.S. Senate. Upon publication, the novel was sincerely praised, Saturday Review admitting “It may be a long time before a better one comes along.” What Drury had done was to create a wholly new subgenre in popular fiction; the political drama that neither relied on the time-honored clichés of international mystery or espionage nor a subplot involving a political assassination. Despite its occasional ‘out of print’ status, Advise & Consent has remained popular with readers throughout the years, its politicized and sexual revelations contributing to a vivid and truthful arc, setting the template, and making it one of the most gripping page turners of its ilk.
Like most of Preminger’s later movie projects, Advise & Consent pushed more than a few ‘hot’ buttons in Hollywood, not the least for the caustic director’s decision to hire blacklisted actors, Will Greer and Burgess Meredith; also, discarded former star (and Preminger favorite) Gene Tierney (once a reigning glamor girl, but then suffering from a debilitating bipolar condition) in one of her final roles, as Dolly Harrison, a sort of Perle Mesta ‘hostess with the mostess’ knockoff; unceremoniously discounted by Dolly’s own assessment as “any bitch with a big house, money and a good caterer can be the social darling of Washington!” Of more immediate concern to filmdom’s self-governing production code was the character of Brigham Anderson, the young idealist whose senatorial carrier is threatened when, in an attempt to unearth some dirt about the President’s potential nominee, Robert Leffingwell, leaders of the opposition to this appointment also discover the married senator with a young family was involved in a homosexual tryst while serving in the military in Hawaii.
To be gay in 1950’s America was decidedly tantamount to being a communist or communist sympathizer, the stigma analogous to political suicide and, both in Drury’s novel and the movie, ‘actual suicide’, in order to save face and escape the inevitably crippling public scrutiny. Yet Drury, who was both staunchly anti-Communist and a conservative besides, approaches Brigham Anderson (played by Don Murray), not as the villain of his piece, but with an uncharacteristic empathy, decidedly railing against the muckraking sensationalism that could cause a basically good man to sacrifice even his life because of a private matter that, in essence, had harmed no one, not even his own wife (not yet met or married at the time of his gay involvement in Hawaii). In translating the delicacies of Brigham’s predicament to the screen, Preminger was neither weary nor timid about remaining faithful to Drury’s point of view. Indeed, by now Preminger was used to Hollywood’s highly sanitized, ‘holier than thou’ approach to popular entertainment, had readily despised both its arrogance and hypocrisy, and, had steadily challenged its boundaries, forging a new permissiveness on the screen with or without the code’s seal of approval.
In retrospect, Advise & Consent is one of Preminger’s most brilliant movies, sadly underexposed to the general public and commonly maligned by the critics; mis-perceiving Wendell Mayes’ screenplay as intermittently ‘wordy’, without even ‘trying to be accurate or fair about the existence of a reasonable balance of good men and rogues holding political office.’ In fairness to the critics, Advise & Consent must have seemed like Preminger’s deliberate slap at the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Preminger had even hired Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Peter Lawford to play the womanizing Lafe Smith, (ruthlessly modeled on Kennedy himself) and further, had drawn parallels between the two men by having Smith a representative from Kennedy’s former constituency of Rhode Island whereas, in Drury’s novel, Smith is actually from Iowa. Noted critic, Bosley Crowther also took umbrage to the homosexual affair, referring to it as the movie’s ‘latter complication’ exposing the drama as ‘deliberately scandalous, sensational and caustic; unrealistic, except as a splashy high point.’
Before it was a movie, Advise & Consent had debuted as a play on Broadway, adapted for the stage by Loring Mandel and directed by Franklin Schaffner. Starring Farley Granger, the stage version ran for a little over a year, but was only a nominal success. Like the play, Preminger’s movie would be largely overlooked in its own country, despite the fact he was nominated for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Burgess Meredith, cast as a mentally unstable former card-carrying member of the Communist Party, Herbert Gelman, would go on to win the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor. In Britain, Charles Laughton was also nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Actor for his portrait of Seabright ‘Seab’ Cooley; a corrupt and enterprising senator from South Carolina whose devious admonishment of Leffingwell, as Senator Smith points out “denotes a closed mind and an ancient crust of prejudice.” Laughton’s brilliant performance would be his last, dying within mere months of the movie’s premiere from renal cell carcinoma.
For the pivotal roles of Leffingwell and Senate Majority Leader, Robert ‘Bob’ Munson of Michigan, Preminger turned to two of the most distinguished actors from their time; Henry Fonda and Walter Pigeon respectively; packing his A-list cast with such noteworthy talents as Franchot Tone (The President), Lew Ayres (Vice President Harley Hudson, the former governor of Delaware), George Grizzard (embittered rabble-rouser, Senator Fred Van Ackerman of Wyoming), Paul Ford (Senate Majority Whip, Stanley Danta of Connecticut) and Inga Swenson (as Brig’s long-suffering, though ever-devoted wife, Ellen). In her movie debut, future TV alumni of both Mary Tyler-Moore and The Golden Girls, Betty White, was afforded a plum cameo as Senator Bessie Adams of Kansas, who joyously challenges Washington’s ‘ole boys’ club’ with a decidedly offbeat feminist critique of their tactics on the Senate floor.
After another superbly conceived main title sequence from former Madison Ave. ad man, Saul Bass, the remnants of only the stripes of the American flag endlessly overlapping against one another, Advise & Consent opens with the arrival of Stanley Danta on the steps of the Capital Building. He buys a paper from a newsboy, reads its headline about the President’s nomination of Leffingwell for Secretary of State, and promptly hails a taxi to the Sheridan Park Hotel to confront Bob Munson. Alas, Munson is as much in the dark about the President’s decision; the pair quickly hurrying over to Senator Smith’s suite for damage control; also, to begin their more thorough investigation of Leffingwell’s chances for succession. Leffingwell is, by all accounts, a confirmed ‘egghead’, generally frowned upon, not only by members of the opposing party, but also from within the President’s entourage, as too daring and progressive. There might be something to their animosity: for Leffingwell, unbeknownst to anyone, once attended clandestine meetings in a chapter of the Communist League of America. Evidently, a youthful folly with no basis in fact as to whether Leffingwell is ‘actually’ a communist, or even a communist sympathizer, the stain created by Seab’s exposure of Leffingwell’s past creates a minor stalemate during the committee’s deliberations on his potential candidacy.
Preminger was granted unprecedented access to various locations in Washington, shooting inside the state capital during the Senate’s summer shut down, adding yet another layer of verisimilitude to the story. Presumably, to break up the intensity of all these startling politicized revelations, Preminger briefly moves us to the stately manor of widow, Dolly Harrison; her vast salons dotted with the crème de la crème of Washington society. Bitterly disappointed at having been overlooked to partake in Leffingwell’s due process as the committee’s chair, Senator Ackerman nevertheless vows to remove every obstacle standing in Leffingwell’s way. Dolly breaks up his passionate confrontation with Senator Orrin Knox of Illinois (Edward Knox), decidedly not a Leffingwell supporter. Leffingwell, however, has chosen to remain fairly autonomous in Washington. He doesn’t hobnob or even pretend to play ball under their established guidelines, and this – at least partly – has unsettled the status quo. These initial sequences in the movie remain faithful to Drury’s novel, but they also reveal Preminger’s overall contempt for political machinations and politicians in general. None is operating with the purest of intentions; not even Munson, who has chosen to keep a tight rein on Leffingwell’s past, even after learning the truth, serving the President faithfully, though perhaps at the expense of almost placing an unworthy atop this democracy with the potential to topple, or at the very least, undo its time-honored precepts.
Some hours later, the party at an end, Senator Munson returns to Dolly’s house where it is revealed the two are lovers and have been for quite some time. He would prefer to marry her. But Dolly enjoys her independence and politely refuses to entertain his proposal. Meanwhile, the second term President has reason enough – both personal and political – to hurry along Leffingwell’s nomination. Along with just about everyone else in Washington, the President marginalizes his V.P. Harley Hudson. In fact, the President only picked Hudson as his running mate out of political necessity. He does not believe he would be good for the administration's current foreign policy. Munson, who is about the closest thing to a friend Hudson has in Washington, confides in him that last year’s operation on the commander-in-chief was not a success. The President is gravely ill and failing.
At the Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee hearings, presided over by Senator Brigham Anderson, Seab Cooley entertains the notion Leffingwell is a communist. A general cry of outrage ensues, the press clamoring for evidence to support this claim. To illustrate his point for the committee, Seab brings forth a surprise witness; Herbert Gelman, a minor Treasury clerk who professes to being one of Leffingwell’s former students from the University of Chicago, and who also claims he and Leffingwell were part of a Communist cell, along with two other men, in their youth. Asked by Brig’ to qualify these allegations, Leffingwell requests a recess to reformulate his thoughts. Instead, he takes a taxi to the home of Hardiman Fletcher (Paul McGrath); the mysterious ‘other man’ who once partook in the communist activities as suggested by Gelman. Fletcher pleads with Leffingwell to keep his former activities a secret from the committee. Instead, Leffingwell manages to dig up some dirt on Gelman; exposing his mental instability to the committee and suggesting his hypotheses are mere figments of an ongoing delusion.
This counterattack is effective at quelling the committee’s suspicions. But it also severely humiliates Seab, now more determined than ever to learn the identity and whereabouts of this ‘other man’ who attended the communist meetings. In the meantime, Leffingwell attends the President in the Oval Office and confesses the truth: Gelman’s credibility, although brought into question, was nevertheless sound and essentially correct. Leffingwell has committed perjury to save face and spare the President embarrassment. He now pleads to withdraw his nomination. But the President, buoyed by Leffingwell’s honesty, is as resolved as ever to stand behind him. In the meantime, Seab identifies Hardiman as the ‘other man’ and forces him to reveal it to Brig’ who, in turn, confides this discovery to Munson. Despite personal lobbying by the President, Munson now insists on Leffingwell’s withdrawal. Gridlocked in his appointment, the President is begrudgingly forced to admit the White House will soon have to nominate another candidate. Brig’ agrees to delay his findings in the committee's report, giving the President enough time to quietly exile Fletcher; thus, anteing up this game of political hardball.
Not long afterward, Brig’s wife, Ellen begins to receive anonymous threatening phone calls from Van Ackerman’s men, forewarning that unless the subcommittee proceeds favorably on Leffingwell’s behalf, certain information will come to light about a cryptic incident involving her husband and another veteran, Ray Shaff (John Granger). Outwardly, Brig’ assures Ellen there is no need for concern. The threats are hollow and can in no way impact either their marriage or his political future. Ellen, however, begins to suspect Brig’ is lying about his past. While attending Munson in the commissary, Brig’ receives a phone call from one of Van Ackerman’s cronies; another thinly veiled threat, it sends Brig’ into a tizzy and straight to the airport for the first available flight to New York.
Arriving at a nondescript social club, Brig’ quickly realizes it is patronized by gay men, among them, his former lover, Ray who attempts to explain how he was being blackmailed for some quick cash. In the meantime, Ellen receives a parcel on her doorstep; an envelope with an affectionate letter written in Brig’s hand to Ray about their love affair; also, several photographs attesting to the intimacy in their ‘friendship’. Ellen is, understandably heartbroken. But she remains devoted to Brig’, attempting to reach him by telephone at his office. Alas, she is too late to save Brig’ from himself. He commits suicide in the bathroom with a straight razor; news of his death reaching Munson and Smith during a friendly card game at Dolly Harrison’s home.
The President denies all knowledge of blackmail to Munson and Hudson, ordering Munson to push through Leffingwell’s nomination. Time is running out. Munson turns on Seab for using cheap tactics to oppose Leffingwell, all but blaming the southern polecat for Brig’s suicide by creating an impossible situation from which no other means of saving face was possible. Brig’s death has had unexpected fallout; allowing the subcommittee to proceed with the nomination. To salvage his own reputation, Seab apologizes in the assembly for his ‘vindictiveness’ and suggests while he will stand firmly opposed to Leffingwell’s nomination, he will also not encourage any of his fellow senators to follow his lead, merely their own conscience in casting their votes. Listening in on the radio from the Oval Office, the President suffers a heart attack and dies. Word reaches the Senate chambers and Harley is sworn in as the new President, quietly informing Munson he intends to put forth his own candidate for Secretary of State; thus, ending whatever hope Leffingwell may have had of assuming the post.
Advise & Consent is unapologetically harsh about the business of politics, its’ real purpose (to do the people’s bidding and work as a cohesive element for the good of the nation) blunted by turmoil stirring from without and within. Stop me if this sounds vaguely familiar and relevant to the frequent stalemates occurring in D.C. these days! Ironically, the overall purpose in making this movie – to expose political corruption – may have been dulled if Preminger had had his way. Originally, the director wanted to offer prominent cameos to both, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then Former Vice President, Richard Nixon. Only King took Preminger seriously for a brief moment or two, eventually deciding his appearance in any movie might sincerely hamper his own legitimacy in the civil rights movement. Nixon, on the other hand, was quick to point out what he classified as ‘glaring and obvious’ errors in the screenplay. Given Nixon’s own future ambitions for the White House, he might also have taken umbrage, as well as a chapter or two from Drury’s playbook, thereby seeking to distance himself from parallels in what would ultimately shape the political backbone of his own presidency.
It has always been an irony of humanity in general, and the citizenry of the United States in particular, that the heart of its own democratic system of checks and balances – that is to say, the very essence of the machinery designed to make democracy a reality, capable of functioning outside its theoretical framework (and we can sincerely debate both the speed and accuracy with which it has either achieved or failed in these goals in more recent times; missing the mark when living up to the altruisms of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or even, F.D.R.); nevertheless, politics has remained one of the most shielded and misunderstood of all human endeavors, ironically and increasingly so in spite of our supposedly transparent era in modern mass media. As the novel before it, Preminger’s adaptation of Advise & Consent is thematically a film meant to shake American audiences from their complacency about the role government plays in all our lives; the enigma of Preminger’s ‘history lesson’ wrapped in a decidedly more appealing outer shell of ‘entertainment value’ for the popcorn crowds with celebrated stars at the helm.
The beauty of the exercise is it functions on both levels; as both an entertainment and as insight into how this imperfect system works in spite of itself and despite hidden forces who seek to keep the public naïve as to its inner truths and deceptions daily put into motion, either to move certain ambitions along with lightning speed or bring the entire enterprise to a grinding halt via competition, not always attained under the rubrics of honesty and fair play. Advise & Consent is therefore something of an eye-opener, just as Preminger had intended. Audiences of its day may not have necessarily grasped its overall importance, the concept of politics itself still very much a cherished and revered part of the American landscape. But with the assassination of J.F.K. one year later, and the perennially renewable rumored involvement of various factions of its own government complicit in the murder itself, America’s collective faith in government as an agency for ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ would be dealt a fatal blow. In more recent times, politics itself has taken on a highly inflammatory and more venal connotation. In retrospect, Preminger’s film was very much ahead of its time. Yet, from today’s vantage, it seems more readily and steadily to fuel and satisfy our collective cynicism about government itself and the conspiracies permissible under its easily misled guise dedicated to the democratic due process.
Exactly how Warner Home Video have become the custodians of Advise & Consent, I am not quite certain. Preminger made the movie for Columbia Pictures. Nevertheless, this DVD release is firmly a WB product. Overall, it’s adequate, though hardly great and this is indeed a shame. The B&W image generally suffers from contrast levels ever so slightly bumped, particularly sequences shot under natural lighting conditions outdoors. We lose the mid-register here, the image harshly contrasted. One can argue with indifference due the sun, but Advise & Consent was lensed in deep focus by the great Sam Leavitt, so this ought to have looked stunning. Mostly, it does; interiors revealing a good deal of fine detail in hair, clothing and backgrounds. Exteriors can, on occasion, appear bleached out and fuzzy around the edges; undue flairs caught off the gleam of a sparkling chrome fender looking strangely out of place.
The audio is mono, leaving Jerry Fielding’s majestic main title march a little on the flat side. Interestingly, Advise & Consent has no score to speak of, apart from this superb march. Overall, however, dialogue is well placed with little distortion. Extras are limited to a fairly informative commentary track from Dr. Drew Casper. It veers slightly on the side of Casper’s verve for self-pontification (do we really care or need to know the man holds the position of chair for the Alfred and Alma Hitchcock association? After all, he’s not critiquing a Hitchcock movie here.). Nor is he nearly as comfortable in his own ‘full flower’ of egg-headedness when covering Preminger’s career. His comments seem more apparently and heavily scripted than spontaneous with occasional long pauses as Casper waits for the screen’s visuals to catch up to a point of view he has already plotted ahead.
Again, it’s an okay commentary, though hardly a fascinating one. Herein, I’ll just put in a plug for Gregory Mank, whose commentaries are never anything less than spontaneous, informative and highly educated introspections, done with great passion and heart. But I digress. Advise & Consent belongs on everyone’s ‘must see’ list. It is a great film. One can argue Drury’s superb novel has given the movie its cache in drama, but Preminger’s unique vision and his own caustic skepticisms about the democratic due process gives the movie an air of impassioned cynicism all its own. This is powerful stuff. So buy today and cherish forever. And hey, you just might learn something about politics besides. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)