"The Best Man": Does the Convention Always Nominate Him?Culture Watch
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
The Best Man
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
236 W. 45th Street
New York, N.Y.
I happened to see the old 1964 movie The Best Man on TV last fall and, I have to admit, I was really disappointed. The film is a solid drama, but it was hopelessly out of date. I walked into the Schoenfeld Theater in New York last week very apprehensive to see Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, the revival of the 1960 play on which the film was based. I needn't have been worried.
The entire theater was set up like a convention hall. A huge American flag covered the entire stage, buntings smothered the balconies, large state delegation signs hung on the walls and posters for candidates William Russell, John Merwyn and Joe Cantwell were everywhere. Rousing patriotic songs played in the background and tapes carried the faint chatter of convention speakers.
The play was even better than the set. The Best Man is the best play ever about political conventions and despite being fifty years old holds up remarkably well. Its mudslinging and scandals still work. It's a soaring drama about politics, campaigns, character and the American dream.
The play focuses on the eternal question of American politics: what kind of man becomes the president?
Is it William Russell, played magnificently by John Larroquette? He's a liberal former secretary of state, a man with a troubled marriage but a very moral person. He's probably the dream candidate of millions of Americans, but he's not a man of action and has a dark secret that might ruin him.
His opponent for the nomination is Joe Cantwell, a young Southern charmer with a sexy and brainless wife. Cantwell’s photo should go next to the word "sleaze" in the dictionary -- he's positively dripping in it. Cantwell, played so beautifully by Eric McCormack that he could have a second career in politics, is a down-to-earth conservative who will do and say anything to be president. He, too, has a secret that could blow up into a huge sex scandal.
As the two men battle back and forth for votes, former President Arthur Hockstader (based on Harry Truman, right down to his fondness for bourbon) arrives. He's a feisty, beloved two-termer who really wants to support Russell, but doesn't think he's tough enough. Veteran actor James Earl Jones steals the show as the battle-hardened ex-president.
What makes the play so delicious is that a brokered convention, unknown for nearly half a century, may play out at the Republican convention in Tampa. Frontrunner Mitt Romney may not get the magic number of delegates to decisively wrap up the nomination before the start of the convention, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, conservative opponents to Romney’s moderate (oops, I forgot that this week Romney is conservative) have, so far, refused to drop out of the race. Ron Paul won’t quit, either. They all feel, like the men in Vidal’s play, that at a convention anything can happen. (Can you hear the "Sarah! Sarah! chants roaring down from the balconies yet?)
The play, under the delicate direction of director Michael Wilson, is marvelous drama that reminds us that politics is a dynamic theater. Ask Augustus Caeser, whose final words were "Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit!"
I do wish that the play would've been updated from its 1960 script. Early on, Larroquette tells report that if neither of the two top candidates wins the convention will turn to Jack Paar. Paar was a famous television talk show host in 1960, but today most Americans might think he plays forward for the Knicks. There are a half dozen other references to the 1960s world that don't work too well, either. They might also have slid in a few lines to discuss the sizzling history of some important conventions in history, going back to the middle of the nineteenth century.
That aside, the play is a superb historical winner, and it serves as an important reminder that there is nothing new under the sun. The Best Man features a political campaign with a brewing sex scandal, charges that one candidate is trying to buy the election and the other is a philanderer. This season's Republican primary has seen Herman Cain's sex scandals; Mitt Romney, a multi-millionaire candidate whose opponents charge is buying his way to victory; Newt Gingrich's marital woes and preening ego; and Rick Santorum's colorful attitudes and turns of phrase. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.
Director Wilson gets sterling performances from Jones, Larroquette and McCormack, but he also gets stellar work from Angela Lansbury (who had a rather unsuccessful convention in the 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate) as the leader of a women’s group, Candice Bergen as Russell’s wife, Kerry Butler as Cantwell’s wife and Michael McKean and Corey Brill as the campaign managers.
The play is a reminder that, up until quite recently, party bosses picked the presidential candidates at raucous conventions. In 1960, when the play was written, John F. Kennedy was nominated by the Democrats in a heated Los Angeles convention. The 1920 conventions in Chicago and San Francisco produced an uproar until they finally nominated two dark horses, Warren Harding and James Cox (after forty-four ballots). The Republicans ignored Theodore Roosevelt, the public favorite, when he tried to come back to the White House in 1912. Of course, the Republicans in Chicago in 1860 had no intention of nominating Abraham Lincoln but he squeaked through to victory on the fourth ballot. Conventions also benefited the parties because the news media gave them extensive coverage. Television gave the nominee the chance to speak to an audience of millions in his victory speech. Conventions remained important in selecting the nominee through 1980, when Ted Kennedy unsuccessfully challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter. Since then, political conventions have been more media spectacle than smoke-filled room.
This year, though, the tattered and battered Republicans might limp into the convention hall in Tampa and turn to the boys in the backroom, just as the fictional party in the play. They might ignore Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul and turn to a fifth candidate to carry their banner against President Barack Obama.
Could it happen? Ask Joe Cantwell and William Russell.
PRODUCTION: Producers – Jeff Richards, Jerry Frankel, INFINITY Stages, others. Sets: Derek McLane, Costumes: Ann Roth, Lighting: Kenneth Posner. The play is directed by Michael Wilson.
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