Today’s viewing assignment, to mark the passing of actor Cliff Robertson, is to watch The Best Man, the best and least known movie about American politics. The film, drawn from Gore Vidal’s 1960 stage play, harkens back to the days before national political conventions turned into media kabuki, with everything choreographed and the party nominee already lined up. Cliff Robertson makes good use of his trademark laser-beam glare as Joe Cantwell, a shiv-wielding demagogue who comes across as a venomous blend of Estes Kefauver and Richard Nixon. I think it’s Robertson’s single best screen performance, with plenty of unexpected nuances beneath the menacing exterior.
His opponent, Bill Russell, is played by Henry Fonda as a troubled intellectual in the Adlai Stevenson mode, who may not have the carnivorous instincts needed to break the deadlock with Cantwell. There is juicy supporting work from Kevin McCarthy as Russell’s campaign manager, Broadway veteran Lee Tracy as the outgoing president (a canny cornball in the Eisenhower mold), and blacklist survivor John Henry Faulk as a rival candidate. There’s also a great cameo by comedian Shelley Berman as a potential source of dirt against Cantwell, documentary-style cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and canny direction from Franklin Schaffner that gives even the most intimate moments the feel of something taking place in the eye of a political hurricane.