Best Man, The (1964): Franklin Schaffner’s Oscar-Nominated Political Drama, Written by Gore Vidal, Starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Roberts, Margaret Leighton

Franklin J. Schaffner directed The Best Man, from a screenplay by Gore Vidal based on his play of the same title, starring Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, and Lee Tracy.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

The Best Man
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Theatrical poster

The film details the seamy political maneuverings behind the nomination of a presidential candidate.

The Best Man is considered to be the first American film to use explicitly the word homosexual.

The impressive supporting cast features Edie Adams, Margaret Leighton, Ann Sothern, Shelley Berman, Gene Raymond, and Kevin McCarthy.

In May 1964, former Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) are the two leading candidates for the presidential nomination of their respective parties.

Both have potentially damaging vulnerabilities. Russell is a principled intellectual but his sexual indiscretions and lack of attention to his wife Alice (Margaret Leighton) have alienated her. He has a past nervous breakdown to live down.

Cantwell is a populist “man of the people” and patriotic anti-communist campaigning to end “the missile gap.” A ruthless opportunist, he would go to any lengths to get the nomination.

Neither man can stand the other, and neither believes his rival to be qualified as president.

At the nominating convention in Los Angeles, they lobby for the crucial support of dying former President Art Hockstader (Tracy). The pragmatic Hockstader prefers Russell, but worries about his indecision; he despises Cantwell for his recklessness but appreciates his toughness.

Hockstader decides to support Cantwell until the candidate blunders badly. Cantwell attacks Russell using illegally obtained psychological reports obtained by Don Cantwell, his brother and campaign manager. Cantwell mistakenly assumed that Hockstader was going to endorse Russell.

The former President tells Cantwell that he does not mind a “bastard” but objects to a stupid one.

The candidates try to sway undecided delegates, Russell appealing to principles and Cantwell using blackmail. Russell finds out that Hockstader has offered the vice-presidential spot on his ticket to all three of the minor candidates, Senator Oscar Anderson (Richard Arlen), Governor John Merwin (William R. Ebersol) and Governor T.T. Claypoole (John Henry Faulk).

One of Russell’s aides finds Sheldon Bascomb (Shelley Berman), who served in the military with Cantwell and is willing to link him to homosexual activity while stationed in Alaska in World War II. Hockstader and Russell’s closest advisors press Russell to seize the opportunity but he refuses.

Russell threatens to use the allegation anyway. but Cantwell knows Russell does not have the stomach for such smear tactics. Neither man has enough votes to win, though Cantwell holds narrow lead. Cantwell offers Russell the second spot, but Russell releases his delegates in order to suppor Merwin, who secures the nomination.

Henry Fonda as William Russell, former secretary of state (based on Adlai Stevenson)
Cliff Robertson as Joe Cantwell, U.S. senator (based on Joe McCarthy)
Edie Adams as Mabel Cantwell
Margaret Leighton as Alice Russell
Shelley Berman as Sheldon Bascomb, former Army comrade of Cantwell
Lee Tracy as Art Hockstader, former US president, based on Harry Truman
Ann Sothern as Sue Ellen Gamadge, party’s vice chair
Gene Raymond as Don Cantwell, Joe’s brother and campaign manager
Kevin McCarthy as Dick Jensen, Russell’s campaign manager
Mahalia Jackson as Herself
Howard K. Smith as Himself
John Henry Faulk as Governor T.T. Claypoole, a candidate
Richard Arlen as Senator Oscar Anderson, a candidate
George Kirgo as Speechwriter
George Furth as Tom
Anne Newman as Janet
Mary Lawrence as Mrs. Merwin
H. E. West as Senator Lazarus
Michael MacDonald as Zealot
William R. Ebersol as Governor John Merwin, a candidate
Natalie Masters as Mrs. Anderson
Blossom Rock as Cleaning woman
Bill Stout as Himself
Tyler McVey as Chairman
Sherwood Keith as Doctor

Uncredited (in order of appearance)
Shep Houghton as Reporter
Fred Aldrich as Delegate
Gene Roth as Delegate from Pennsylvania
William Henry as Reporter
Rupert Crosse as Reporter
Byron Morrow as Banquet Master of Ceremonies
Colin Kenny as Man at pool
John Indrisano as Mobster
Billy Beck as Guest at party
Gore Vidal as Senator at convention


Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Gore Vidal
Produced by Stuart Millar and Lawrence Turman
Cinematography Haskell Wexler A.S.C.
Edited by Robert Swink
Music by Mort Lindsey
Distributed by United Artists

Release date: April 5, 1964 (US)

Running time: 102 minutes

Oscar Nominations: 1

Lee Tracy was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for what became his final film.

Oscar Awards: None 

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar was Peter Ustinov for the heist comedy Topkapi, in a race that included John Gielgud in “Becket,” Stanley Holloway in “My Fair Lady,” and Edmond O’Brien in “Seven Days in May.”