Friday, February 7, 2020

Otto Preminger | Advise & Consent

by Douglas Messerli

Wendell Mayes (screenplay, based on the novel by Allen Drury), Otto Preminger (director) Advise & Consent / 1962

I can’t recall when I first saw the Otto Preminger-directed political drama Advise & Consent, but it must have been after I had come out as a gay man because I remember being shocked by its depiction of the character Brig Anderson (a handsome Don Murray), a young senator from Utah who is asked to chair the committee for the support of Robert A. Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) whom the President (Franchot Tone) has nominated for the position of Secretary of State.

    In fact, I believe I was shocked for a second time, the first time being when, having been accused of being a member of a Communist cell in his youth, Leffingwell denies it, perjuring himself. When Fonda lies on screen, to who else can you turn to believe? True to form, the Fonda character admits to the President that he has lied and asks him to withdraw his nomination. But knowing an honest and capable man when he sees him, the dying President refuses to do so, creating the rather flimsy device of this movie’s plot.
      Anderson, we are shown, is a good family man, happily married, so it appears, to Ellen (Inga Swenson) and so honest that when he gets wind of Leffingwell’s perjury, he demands that the President pick another candidate.
      Behind the scenes of this political melodrama are two men of power, the affable Senate Majority Leader Robert Munson of Michigan (Walter Pidgeon)—who, with his deep baritone voice has played so very many reassuring and stalwart survivors on screen—and the sly, somewhat comical villain of the piece, Senator Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton), who opposes Leffingwell’s nomination and will do anything he can to prevent it.

     Seeing this played out again, as I did the other day, I couldn’t but be reminded of the partisan politics of today’s Senatorial body. But, at least, the five decades earlier fictional event suggested that most Senators (the cast also includes Will Greer, Paul Ford, Peter Lawford, George Grizzard, and Betty White) were men and women of good-will, while even the villains back in those days had more fun. In fact, if anything, Preminger’s vision of US politics takes itself a bit too seriously, as did the original Allen Drury, published in 1959. My high school friend, David Ray, however, tells me he was very moved by the original book when he read it that year.
      Yet, for me, both times I saw the film version, my stomach turned when Anderson and his wife began getting threatening phone calls that hinted at “Brig’s” behavior as a young military man when he was stationed in Hawaii.
       Instead of sitting down with his loving wife to discuss what that behavior might have entailed—a homosexual affair, as a lonely young soldier, with a man named Ray Shaff (John Granger)—macho-like argues to himself and his wife that he can handle this matter, rushing off to a gay bar (strange that he still knows which one and where) to encounter Ray, who admits he has sold the information about their relationship to Cooley and others.
       Growing up in the 1950s, one could not help but know how McCarthy and “the Red Scare” destroyed the lives of so many who had even flirted with the tenants of American Communism. I knew what even having read Marx might destroy men and women’s careers. I hated that always, terrified that political figures might be able to control what you read and believed.
       I also knew being publicly outed as a gay man would, in 1962, might destroy a man’s career. My father, after my asking a rather question about gay behavior described in Life magazine that very same year—"why wouldn’t men or women who liked one another want to kiss?”—roared back at me with a hatred I’d never before believed him capable of.
       But when the handsome hero, perfect husband and father, visits that gay bar (Frank Sinatra singing over the sound system)—surely one of the very first times a gay bar was ever shown in an US movie—and then returns to Washington, D.C. to kill himself in his Senate office, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was horrified. I was scared and confused. For I suddenly realized that both the original author and Preminger were not really interested in the gay character they had represented except to show a kind of example of what happens to those of us who are interested in relationships with their own sex.
      I have always suspected, with absolutely no evidence, that my young handsome Air force-flying father might have been approached by another man when stationed in Naples during World War II; or perhaps he just observed others on his team having homosexual relationships, that might explain his suddenly irrational response. And now, in this film, it all came home to me. Those who might have explored different political views and notions of sexuality, were expendable, not even redeemable.
      Even if Drury’s and Preminger’s hearts were in the right place, wanting to show us the evils of such narrow views as Cooley’s (Laughton, a man who it is rumored was a pedophile of boys was suffering from cancer at the time he made this film, and died soon after), I couldn’t get over the fact that the loving, caring Utah Mormon was being punished, after all these years, for his love and new-found faith in a traditional family. Perhaps I was just a little angry also of his having so completely abandoned his early sexuality.
     I have also to admit, I’ve never quite liked Preminger’s films, most filled with big liberal ideas—racial, sexual, political (most of whose values I share). Yet, he generally botches them, sentimentalizes them, and gets lost in his subplots, even in Laura’s murder.
     In Advise & Consent three good men—Leffingwell, Anderson, and the President—go down in sacrifice to the society in which they live. Maybe that’s reality; perhaps that’s what happens every day in the real world. But I don’t want that world; I want an alternative fiction.

Los Angeles, February 7, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

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