Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Senior Senator From South Carolina

I found an interesting page called "The Fictional Senate of Allen Drury's Advise and Consent", by David Bratman. It goes through the novel Advise and Consent and sets out the names of all the Senators in the novel, their state and party affiliations; it then explains some of the real-life sources for the novel, and summarizes Drury's increasingly unfortunate sequels.

I was thinking about Advise and Consent because the movie came out on DVD this week, and like the book, it's one of those things that is far more engrossing than it has any right to be. I sat down expecting to notice its flaws, and I did notice its flaws, all the way through -- but I couldn't stop watching until the credits rolled. With Otto Preminger's canny pacing and his astoundingly good use of the Panavision frame, the great cast (except for Don Murray, out of his depth), and the basic strength of Drury's dishy/affectionate portrait of the Senate, it goes by very quickly for a very long, talky movie with a dated central plot twist.

One of the fascinations of the movie is that it is an adaptation of a politically conservative book by a politically liberal director. Signs of this can be seen in the downplaying of Orrin Knox, who is downgraded from a hero to a very minor, slightly toadyish character, the more sympathetic portrayal of the President, and the choice of heroic Henry Fonda to play Robert Leffingwell. And yet Preminger hasn't completely thrown out the book's viewpoint, which produces an ambiguity that actually serves the film very well. With Fonda as Leffingwell and Charles Laughton as Seab Cooley, you expect Fonda to be the good guy and you root for him to win -- except that, as the film goes on, Leffingwell not only seems like kind of a self-righteous jerk, convinced that his moral superiority makes lying okay, but he turns out to be a rather minor character who disappears from the film altogether just as the plot starts to heat up. Whereas Cooley is finally allowed to be a good guy, and a more interesting character, in the end, than Leffingwell. So what starts out looking like a Stanley Krameresque message picture winds up with a much more humble message: beware of people who, like Leffingwell, Fred Van Ackerman, or the President, are too certain they're right about everything. The hero of the movie, if there is one, turns out to be the good-natured, humble Vice President played by Lew Ayres, who is sort of a symbol for the Kennedy era's can't-we-all-just-get-along culture.

An interesting question is whether you could remake it today. I think you could; if Brig Anderson were re-imagined as a very conservative Republican, elected on a "values" platform, you could even carry over his "secret" almost unchanged (or at least it would explain why he wouldn't want it to be known). I'm not sure how you would re-imagine Van Ackerman, though, given that he is already a rather convoluted creation: Joe McCarthy re-imagined as a fanatical peacenik? That really shouldn't work as well as it does. But the problem is that in today's political culture, a Robert Leffingwell would be unlikely to be nominated for anything (even by a Democratic president), so a Fred Van Ackerman of today would probably have to be supporting a more conservative nominee and a more conservative cause. Yet that would lose the fun of the character and the whole concept of reverse McCarthyism. So I'm a bit stumped on that one.

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