The Best Man is a 1964 political drama film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with a screenplay by Gore Vidal based on his play of the same title. Starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, and Lee Tracy, the film details the seamy political maneuverings behind the nomination of a presidential candidate. The supporting cast features Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Ann Sothern, Shelley Berman, Gene Raymond, and Kevin McCarthy.
Lee Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this, his final film.
In May 1964, former Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) are the two leading candidates for the presidential nomination of an unspecified political party. Both have potentially fatal vulnerabilities. Russell is a principled intellectual (said by Vidal to be based on Adlai Stevenson). A sexual indiscretion has alienated his wife Alice (Margaret Leighton). In addition, he has a past nervous breakdown to live down. Cantwell (whom Vidal wrote was based on Richard Nixon) portrays himself as a populist "man of the people," and patriotic anti-communist campaigning to end "the missile gap" (a Kennedy campaign catch-phrase). Cantwell is a ruthless opportunist, willing to go to any lengths to get the nomination.
Neither man can stand the other; neither believes his rival qualified to be President. They clash at the nominating convention in Los Angeles and lobby for the crucial support of dying former President Art Hockstader (Tracy). The pragmatic Hockstader (a character based on Harry S. Truman, particularly his comments on "striking a blow for liberty" whenever he drinks a bourbon) prefers Russell, but worries about his indecision and principles; he despises Cantwell but appreciates his toughness and willingness to do what it takes.
Hockstader decides to publicly support Cantwell but the candidate blunders badly. When the two speak privately, Cantwell attacks Russell with illegally obtained psychological reports (obtained by his brother and campaign manager, Don Cantwell, a character clearly based on Bobby Kennedy who was known as "Ruthless Robert" in political circles during the 1950s and early 1960s). Cantwell has mistakenly assumed that Hockstader was for the more liberal man. The former president tells Cantwell that he doesn't mind a "bastard" but objects to a stupid one. He publicly endorses neither man.
Cantwell's attractive, ambitious wife (Edie Adams) actively campaigns, while Russell's pretends for the time being that everything is fine with their marriage. The candidates go to the convention trying to outmaneuver the other, Russell appealing on principles and Cantwell using blackmail on undecided delegates. Russell finds out to his chagrin that Hockstader has offered the vice-presidential spot on the ticket to all three of the minor candidates, Sen. Oscar Anderson, Gov. John Merwin, and Gov. T. T. Claypool.
One of Russell's aides digs up Sheldon Bascomb (Shelley Berman), who served in the military with Cantwell and is willing to link him to homosexual activity while stationed in Alaska during World War II. Hockstader and Russell's closest advisors press Russell to grab the opportunity but he resists. In a memorable line, Hockstader says that he doesn't care if Cantwell "has had carnal knowledge with a McCormick reaper" but still thinks the dirt should be used against him.
After the first ballot, Russell arranges to meet Cantwell privately but when Bascomb is confronted face-to-face by Cantwell, he refutes his slander. Russell threatens to use the allegation anyway, but Cantwell knows Russell does not have the stomach for tactics that dirty. As the rounds of balloting continue, it becomes obvious neither man has enough votes. Cantwell offers Russell second spot on his ticket but Russell shocks him by throwing his support behind the low-profile Merwin. It puts an end to both their chances but unites the party around an electable candidate.Henry Fonda as William Russell, a former Secretary of State
Cliff Robertson as Joe Cantwell, a sitting U.S. Senator
Lee Tracy as Art Hockstader, the former President of the United States
Edie Adams as Mabel Cantwell
Margaret Leighton as Alice Russell
Ann Sothern as Sue Ellen Gamadge, the party's female Vice Chair
Shelley Berman as Sheldon Bascomb, a former Army comrade of Cantwell's
Gene Raymond as Don Cantwell, Joe's brother and campaign manager
Kevin McCarthy as Dick Jensen, Russell's campaign manager
John Henry Faulk as Governor T.T. Claypoole
Richard Arlen as Senator Oscar Anderson
Howard K. Smith as Himself
Gore Vidal made an uncredited cameo appearance as a senator convention delegate
Tracy repeated the role of Hockstader that he had originated on stage. Tracy was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award but lost to Peter Ustinov in Topkapi. Faulk was a Texas-based radio personality who was blacklisted during the 1950s and won a lawsuit that helped restore his reputation. Kevin McCarthy was a cousin of Eugene McCarthy, who became a presidential contender in 1968.
Bosley Crowther's review of the film in The New York Times cited William R. Ebersol in the role of Governor John Merwin as one of those who "stand out in a cast that is notable for its authenticity." It was Ebersol's only film and he does not speak.