Primary Colors (1998): Mike Nichols’ Political Expose, Starring John Travolta and Emma Thompson

Mike Nichols directed Primary Colors, a serio-comedy, based on screenplay by Elaine May, adapted from the novel “Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics,” a roman à clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The best seller was published anonymously, but in 1996 it was revealed the journalist was Joe Klein, who covered Clinton’s campaign for Newsweek.

The film was critically acclaimed but a box office bomb, earning $52 million from a $65 million budget.

Young idealist and grandson of a civil rights leader Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is recruited to join the campaign of Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a charismatic Southern governor who is trying to win the Democratic Party nomination for President of the U.S.

Henry, impressed by Stanton’s warmth and empathy with people, joins Stanton’s inner circle of political advisers: Stanton’s formidable wife Susan (Emma Thompson); ruthless political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton); attractive spokeswoman Daisy Green (Maura Tierney); and sly operator Howard Ferguson (Paul Guilfoyle) as they head to New Hampshire, the first state to hold primary.

After Stanton’s debate against his Democratic rivals, Henry’s ex-girlfriend shows up to question Stanton about his arrest for an anti-war protest during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

The team worries that Stanton’s past indiscretions may be used against him by the press and his opponents. They hire Jack and Susan’s old, tough friend Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), to investigate allegations, such as Stanton’s notorious womanizing.

One of Stanton’s mistresses and Susan’s hairdresser, Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides), produces secret taped conversations to prove they had an affair. But the tapes are doctored,  and Libby forces the man responsible to confess his guilt in a letter to the American public.

The campaign is then rocked by allegation when Stanton’s old friend, “Big Willie” McCollister (Tommy Hollis) approaches Henry to tell him that his 17-year-old daughter Loretta (who worked for the Stantons as a babysitter) is pregnant and that Stanton is the father. Henry and Howard tell Willie he must allow his daughter to undergo an amniocentesis to determine paternity. Henry is nonetheless sickened and disillusioned with the experience.

When the campaign falls behind, Stanton’s team adopt a new strategy. Stanton begins going on the offensive by attacking his nearest rival, Senator Lawrence Harris (Kevin Cooney) for casting anti-Israel votes and favoring cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Harris confronts Stanton during radio talk show in Florida but suffers heart attacks after the encounter, and subsequently withdraws from the race. He is replaced by his friend, former Florida governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman). Picker’s wholesome, straight-talking image is immediate threat to the Stanton campaign.

Jack and Susan send Henry and Libby on an opposition research mission on Picker’s past. They discover from his ex-brother-in-law, Eduardo Reyes (Tony Shalhoub), that Picker had a cocaine addiction as governor, which led to the disintegration of his first marriage. They then meet with Picker’s cocaine supplier Lorenzo Delgado (John Vargas), with whom Picker had gay affair.

Jack and Susan decide to leak the information to the press. Libby says that if Jack does so, she will reveal that he tampered with the results of the paternity test, proving that he slept with Willie’s daughter. Libby commits suicide after she realizes she spent her life idealizing Jack and Susan only to learn how flawed they are.

Guilty over Libby’s death, Stanton takes the incriminating information to Picker, and apologizes. Picker admits to past indiscretions, and withdraws from the race and to endorse Stanton. Henry intends to quit the campaign, admitting he has become deeply disillusioned with the whole political process. Stanton begs Henry to reconsider, claiming that they will omake history.

President Stanton is dancing at the Inaugural Ball with First Lady Susan. He shakes the hands of his campaign staff, including Henry.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Kathy Bates was nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Elaine May was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

John Travolta as Governor of Arkansas (later US President Stanton)

Emma Thompson as First Lady of Arkansas (later First Lady of the US) Susan Stanton
Billy Bob Thornton as Richard Jemmons
Kathy Bates as Libby Holden
Larry Hagman as Governor Fred Picker
Adrian Lester as Henry Burton
Stacy Edwards as Jennifer Rogers
Maura Tierney as Daisy Green
Diane Ladd as Mamma Stanton
Paul Guilfoyle as Howard Ferguson
Kevin Cooney as Senator Lawrence Harris
Rebecca Walker as March Cunningham
Caroline Aaron as Lucille Kaufman
Tommy Hollis as William “Fat Willie” McCullison
Rob Reiner as Izzy Rosenblatt
Ben L. Jones as Arlen Sporken
J. C. Quinn as Uncle Charlie
Allison Janney as Miss Walsh
Robert Klein as Norman Asher
Mykelti Williamson as Dewayne Smith
Robert Easton as Dr. Beauregard
Geraldo Rivera as himself
Charlie Rose as himself
Larry King as himself
Chelcie Ross as Charlie Martin
Tony Shalhoub as Eddie Reyes
John Vargas as Lorenzo Delgado
Robert Cicchini as Jimmy Ozio
Gia Carides as Cashmere McLeod
Bill Maher as himself
Sophia Choi as herself


Directed by Mike Nichols
Produced by Mike Nichols, Jonathan Krane, Neil Machlis
Screenplay by Elaine May, based on Primary Colors by Joe Klein
Music by Ry Cooder
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Edited by Arthur Schmidt
Production company: Mutual Film Company
Distributed by Universal
Release date: March 20, 1998
Running time: 143 minutes