Candidate, The (1972): Redford’s Poignant, Oscar-Winning Political Drama

Screenwriter Jeremy Larner won an Oscar for his chronicle of the new American political process in “The Candidate,” an intelligent film directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Robert Redford in one of his best dramatic roles.

Made in 1972, this cynical semi-documentary expose became prophetic. Propagating counter-cultural values, the film came out during Vietnam and the Nixon administration, but before the Watergate scandal erupted into the national scene. Ironically “The Candidate” is the movie that inspired Dan Quayle (remember him) to enter into national politics.

Redford plays Bill McKay, an idealistic attorney whose father John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas) was governor of California. Having seen all the sleazy maneuvering as a youngster, Bill says he has no interest in politics

Bill is contrasted with Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter), a typical big state politician, bluff and hearty. Luck (Peter Boyle) asks Bill to run for office since there is not much competition. After some soul-searching, Bill agrees on two conditions, that his father be left out of the campaign and that he will enjoys freedom of speech and say whatever he feels, disregarding narrow interests and other political agendas.

At first, Bill’s candor appeals to the public, and his popularity rises, but then with the new stature gained, the burning question is that of compromise, or rather, when and how he will sell out.

The dialogue is sharp and observant, as when Luck says, “The question is whether you can put your ass on the line” to which Redford’s Bill replies, “The question is whether it’s worth it” Most viewers remember the powerful last scene, in which a helpless Bill sits down and passively asks Boyle, “What do we do now”

To a large extent, Bill is a politician whose popularity (like Redford’s) is based on his good looks and charisma. The film implies that it’s necessary to sells out the good values and become morally corrupt as part of the machineif one is to succeed in politics.

As star and producer, Redford, then at the peak of his popularity, was a prime mover of the picture, which was the first film to deal in a realistic manner with the changing nature of political campaigns.

“The Candidate” anticipated the career of Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, but writer Larner and director Richie claimed the story was based on their experiences in the 1970 campaign of John Tunney, Senator from California.

The yarn begins on election night at an unnamed state, where a losing candidate addresses his public of supporters. His manager, on his way to another campaign, sees photographs of Bill McKay in “Time” magazine. He goes to MCKay’s poverty law office to meet the handsome son of a former governor, who champions all the good causes.

Bill McKay seems happy with what he’s doing. Manager: “You’re happy Okay. You claim you’re happy. You saved some trees. You got a clinic opened. Does that make you feel good Meanwhile, Jarmon sits on his committees and carves up the land, the oil, and the taxes.”

At first, all the manager wants is “an air card, a phone card, and a thousand dollars a week,” since it’s only a job to him. He offers McKay the crusader a forum for his causes, and promises he’ll lose the election.

Like many post-1960s activists, McKay is an idealistic crusader. He is nave, apathetic, and suspicious about traditional politics. In the beginning, the campaign is issue-oriented and McKay talks about controversial issues, such as abortion and busing. Shocked by his platform, the reporters react cynically, “That’s a first.”

Gradually, though, McKay begins to recognize the need to be briefed on issues. He grows more dependent on his manager, who takes him to a media specialist. The media consultant is excited about McKay’s youth, handsomeness, and virility, which contrast sharply with his opponent’s progressive age and weariness. He says: “The votes will look at Jarmon and think “The crock…can’t get it up anymore.”

The ensuing image packaging involves a new haircut, cooler suits and ties, and more sophisticated TV ads that are carefully shot and edited. Even so, in the first ads, McKay still talks about issues. However, when he sees the results, he realizes that issues simply don’t work in commercials. McKay is told: “You’re showing your face. That’s what we have to sell first.”

Stubborn, McKay keeps trying to talk about the issues, but the results are not good. He then cedes to what will become the first in a long series of compromises–“Maybe we can use a line or two out of context.” McKay wins his party primary easily; nobody wants to run against Jarmon. Manipulated by his manager and public opinion polls, he now wants to win the election. Says the manager: “You’re only reaching the people who agree with you already. You’re gonna lose.” “But I’m supposed to lose,” McKay retorts back. The manager continues to manipulate him: “You won’t only lose, you’ll be humiliated.”

In due course, McKay makes all the compromises that are necessary to win, including lengthy rehearsals for press conferences, and softening his tone and opinions on hot-button issues. McKay becomes so accustomed to being packaged that when he goes on TV, he asks whether or not to button his coat. Told to change his tie, he first asks why, then gives up, “Never mind.”

Trying to get free coverage, McKay changes his schedule and rushes to a forest fire in Malibu, which the staff thinks is “just perfect.” With no concern for the disaster, his opponent arrives by helicopter.

In the end, the Freudian subplot is resolved too, though it’s still open to interpretation. McKay is persuaded to swallow his pride and solicit the support of his father, the ex-governor whose politics had disgusted him. “Did you really run your own campaign” asks the son. “Shit yes,” says the father before asking, “What’s it like to campaign in this state these days” McKay has no answer: “I wouldn’t know.”

When his father endorses him, “Son, you’re a politician,” it almost sounds like an insult. McKay wonders, “If any one understood what I was trying to do,” to which his father says, “It won’t make any difference.”

The film’s strong message is that, eventually, the campaign completely swallows the candidate, however good, liberal, and idealistic he might have been. McKay follows directions, not knowing where he is or what he is doing. He loses real contact with people, and his campaign staff is so large that he doesn’t know them all by name.

McKay becomes a celeb, with various groups seeking autographs, treating him like a star and a sex symbol. He becomes a robot doing whatever “they” tell him to do. He demands change without being too specific. His speeches become bland media events, a fact that’s underscored by McKay using the same music that his opponent does and the same vaguely patriotic speeches. The process is almost complete when the two candidates become more and more similar.

Stunned when he wins, McKay has the film’s last words, but as noted earlier, they’re depressing. “What do we do now” he asks his manager.

The film shrewdly integrates actual footage of Herbert Humphrey, George McGovern, and John Tunney at a big banquet, resulting in a more credible portrait of the new American political process.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Story and Screenplay (Original): Jeremy Larner

Sound: Richard Portman and Gene Cantamesa

Oscar Awards: 1

Story and Screenplay

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Sound Oscar was the musical “Cabaret.”