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The passage of time turns every film into two films. Apart from what its narrative may yield, it becomes an inadvertent documentary as well. So it is, in spades, in Advise & Consent (1962), Otto Preminger's Kennedy-era look at the post-McCarthy Senate. As rejiggered in Alan Drury's best-selling 1959 novel about political wheeling and dealing, the film takes on new life by preserving the details and minutiae, as if in amber, of D.C. life in the '50s. While not the only fascination in this lumpy but rich pudding of a film, it's a pungent ingredient.
As much as we're caught up in the machinations of the high-rolling Senate wheelers and dealers, we're charmed by the simplicity and Harry Truman-like plainness of the lifestyles of those same makers and shakers. Perhaps intentionally, the only senator seen with an entourage is George Grizzard's Joseph McCarthy-like heavy, who needs henchmen because he spends so much time doing bad deeds in the name of good - digging up dirt to strong-arm a Senate committee chairman (Don Murray) into confirming Henry Fonda's statesmanlike, global-thinking, Adlai Stevensonesque appointee, Robert Leffingwell, as secretary of state.
But the other senators in Advise & Consent's plummy gallery of character actors take what today seems an amazingly direct do-it-yourself approach. Paul Ford, as the Senate whip, stuffs a newspaper into his pocket, walks to a curb, and hails his own taxi. When Charles Laughton's foxy Dixiecrat, who steals the film, decides to do a little detective work, he plunks his wide-brimmed hat on his head and determinedly plods to the office that has the info he's looking for. When Murray's senator flies the shuttle from NYC to DC, his seatmate is Lew Ayres' vice president. Each is traveling not only alone, but anonymously.
The titillating promise of insider hardball in the corridors of power, dished up to a public not yet inured to hearing negative things about government, made the novel a hit. The drama is heightened by steering the confirmation process from a sub-committee to an open hearing, where the opposing sides can grandstand, and do, with many a flourish. With a Congress that's anything but a rubber stamp for the executive branch, the nomination seems shaky because Leffingwell's internationalism and belief in building consensus with allies is assailed as softness on communism. One of the witnesses against him, distortedly testifying to and exaggerating Leffingwell's youthfully idealistic flirtation with communism, is Burgess Meredith, delivering a masterly turn as a Whitaker Chambers-like echo of the House Committee on un-American Activities' pursuit of Alger Hiss.
Although there was no doubt about the liberal tilt of Preminger's politics (he and various company members, including Gene Tierney, who had known JFK in his pre-Jackie days, lunched with JFK on the presidential yacht), Advise & Consent is an equal-opportunity piece of cynicism, augmented by bits of visual authenticity - the Senate canteen, the trolley that brings the senators through underground passages. The closest it comes to dignifying the Senate is in the grace, patience and stature of Walter Pidgeon as the Senate Majority Leader. Franchot Tone's president is a dying man. But he still seems paler, dramatically, than he ought to be. Although perhaps superficially modeled on FDR, he lacks size and presence. Surprisingly, the usually quietly powerful Fonda also comes up short on presence, too, as the nominee. He seems wooden, a bit recessive, embalmed by what we're told is the man's stature, but is never communicated to us as felt knowledge.
The film belongs to Laughton, on whom the role of the flamboyant Dixiecrat is not wasted. With his pale moon face rising mischievously over the proceedings, he shrewdly exercises power from behind a lava flow of flowery cornpone locutions that he compels us to relish as much as he does. Like most of the leads, Laughton was a practiced stage actor, with a respect for craft that exceeded the Hollywood norm. To prepare, he went to an unimpeachable source - John Stennis (D-Mississippi), who succeeded Senator Theodore Bilbo in 1947, never lost an election in 60 years, and retired from the Senate in 1989, bedecked with honors. No great friend of civil rights, although he softened in his later years, he was less racist than his Senate colleague, James Eastland, and was the first Democrat to publicly criticize Joseph McCarthy, denouncing him on the Senate floor for pouring "slush and slime" on it. Although Laughton provides most of the entertainment value, public interest was heightened by speculation about which actual senators the characters were modeled on. JFK was widely viewed as the model for the film's senator from Rhode Island, played by his real-life brother-in-law, Peter Lawford.
Preminger was a practiced provocateur, expert at tweaking taboos and guardians of public morality. In The Moon Is Blue (1953), it was sex. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), it was drugs. In Anatomy of a Murder (1959), it was rape. Not only sensing that under changing times and public pressure Hollywood's dreaded Production Code was relaxing, but believing himself to have played a part in its weakening, he flaunts here a hitherto forbidden depiction of homosexuality. In the film, a homosexual affair in Hawaii with a wartime service buddy makes the committee chairman vulnerable to blackmail. In a desperate lunge at damage control, he flies to New York, where he's steered by a flouncingly fey pimp to a sewer of a gay club. There he finds his former lover among the cruising clientele, has an unsatisfactory non-meeting of minds, and leaves angrily, emblematically shoving the old acquaintance into a wet gutter, face down. Conventionally married and embedded in the straight world, the Mormon senator from Utah would rather cut his own throat than live with the consequences of his gay affair.
There's a great irony in the film's lurid homophobia. Now that portraying homosexuality was once more permitted, it resulted not so much in sympathetic views of gay life and issues, but in rampant displays of (mostly) figurative gay-bashing. One of the things that makes Laughton's portrayal compelling is that his dramatic sense correctly told him not to let his characterization stop at mostly roguish rascality, but to push it the extra distance into allowing flashes of ugly power-tripping to emerge from behind the faade. Preminger seems not to have been aware that the stereotyped caricaturing of the gay element in Advise & Consent embodied the very kind of witch-hunting hysteria he thought he was decrying. This tarnishes the film just as the film thought it was exposing a tarnished government. In the end, it doesn't keep the promise of its poster depicting the lid being lifted off the Capitol dome, as if exposing a can of worms. Advise & Consent doesn't really question the system, readily accepting it with platitudes about the republic somehow muddling through despite the mediocrity of some of its elected officials. Shortcomings in the governmental process are ascribed not to flaws in the institution, but to personality and character shortfall - the bad-apple theory. Preminger's muckraking agenda is more zealously pursued in the depiction of gays. In the end, his views of the Senate and the gay underworld have in common the image of the proverbial sausage -- tasty so long as you don't look too closely at what goes into it. Letting the Senate and the political process off easy, its real message seems to be Mr. Smith can be queer and still go to Washington, but is better off staying in the closet.
Producer: Otto Preminger
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Wendell Mayes, Allen Drury (novel)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Film Editing: Louis R. Loeffler
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler
Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Henry Fonda (Robert A. Leffingwell), Charles Laughton (Senator Seabright Cooley), Don Murray (Senator Brigham Anderson), Walter Pidgeon (Senate Majority Leader), Peter Lawford (Senator Lafe Smith), Gene Tierney (Dolly Harrison).
by Jay Carr
American Film Institute catalogue
Otto Preminger: An Autobiography
John Springer: The Fondas: The Films and Careers, of Henry, Jane and Peter Fonda
Burgess Meredith: So Far, So Good: A Memoir
Richard Barrios: Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall
The New York Times, November 13, 1954
Variety, January 1, 1962