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Advise and Consent

There are numerous moments of sheer cinematic pleasure in Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962). Take the brief scene of mature-yet-easygoing romance between Senate Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon) and socialite hostess Dolly Harrison (Gene Tierney); or the long tracking shot that shows Sen. Brig Anderson (Don Murray) making a death march to his office, his face a kaleidoscope of emotion. And there is the signature "Preminger" moment, when the wide-angle-lensed camera pans left while following a character, who passes through an unaccountable shadow (presumably the camera's itself). These pleasures are mostly external to the primary goal of the film, which is to adapt Allen Drury's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 novel to the screen in as realistic a manner as possible. A behind-the-scenes look at Washington, D.C., the story follows the machinations set into play when a second-term president (Franchot Tone) surprises his party by putting forward a controversial nominee for secretary of state. Drury was a reporter-turned-pop novelist, and his perch as local observer gave his book the authenticity of a roman à clef. Meanwhile, Preminger resembled numerous directors from the 1940s, such as George Stevens and William Wyler, who had made their name in small comedies or genre films, but in the 1950s transitioned to epic dramas usually adapted from bestsellers or earlier hit films. Preminger was the most successful at it, with a keen eye for the right source material. He also had a knack for courting publicity-inducing controversy, partly out of an authentic desire to topple censorship boards, and he supervised his productions even down to the ad campaigns, in which poster typefaces and imagery (usually by Saul Bass) were matched with the credit sequences.

Though notoriously difficult to work with, Preminger attracted top actors. Here, the president's nominee is one Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), a cross between Alger Hiss's career bureaucrat and Adlai Stevenson's egghead. Pidgeon's Munson, a version of LBJ, attempts to do his duty and his party leader's bidding but faces numerous impediments, one being Dixiecrat Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton, in his last role). Cooley's wholly personal bias against Leffingwell sets the tragic events into play, and their victim is Murray's Anderson, a Utah senator (and presumed Mormon) who heads the sub-committee that is supposed to rubber-stamp Leffingwell's nomination. The white-suited Cooley unearths a Whittaker Chambers equivalent (Burgess Meredith) to decry Leffingwell as a communist (new information that troubles Anderson), while the fanatically pro-peace, pro-Leffingwell senator Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), who marches around with his own mono-suited "brain trust," stops at nothing to make sure that Anderson votes his way. Peter Lawford also appears as a JFK-like bachelor senator whose dismay at what happens to Anderson compels him to vote against his party. Preminger adds several nice touches: While Munson and others tool around D.C. in cabs and limos, Cooley is shown arriving by public transit (though he is also not above ogling the occasional secretary). And there is a wonderful scene at a party between Munson and the neutralized, isolated vice-president (Lew Ayres) that reveals the VP to be, in a tradition that stretches from Mr. Smith goes to Washington to Dave, the moral center of this Beltway universe.

*          *          *

Released as part of Warner Home Video's "Controversial Classics Collection," Advise and Consent comes in a beautiful black-and-white anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with monaural DD audio. An audio commentary is provided by USC film professor Drew Casper, who offers an impassioned and fast-paced commentary (you can hear his pages shuffling in the background) that covers Preminger's career, the differences between Drury's novel, the intermediary stage play, the final film and its controversial elements, plus career summaries for cast and crew. He makes the case that Preminger is underrated; in fact, there is no richly deserved major critical study or definitive biography. He notes that Preminger was always careful to give his actors, even the lowliest, a good entrance moment, and he reveals that Preminger, a fan of novelty casting, tried to net Martin Luther King in a cameo as a senator.

Casper's enthusiasm is so infectious and his points so well-taken that one feels churlish in dissenting from his lone criticism of the movie: that the sequence involving Brig Anderson's secret past is homophobic. Casper mocks the sequence, in which Anderson flies to Manhattan to look up an old boyfriend, finding him in a gay bar where men in tight shirts swoon to Frank Sinatra, from which a sickened Anderson flees, though not before pushing his ex-lover into the gutter. Casper objects that this sequence (which isn't in the book) sort of springs Anderson's homosexuality on the viewer, whereas Drury carefully sets it up carefully early in the novel. He also dislikes the outlandishness and vulgarity of the New York sojourn. But a defense of the sequence can be made. The world of Preminger's Advise and Consent is a man's world; its women are bimbos or hookers (Lawford's fare), asexual housewives aspiring to normalcy, or men's women like Tierney (who is as much a pimp as the man Anderson contacts in NY while searching for his ex-lover). The ultimate extreme of this male world is the gay subterrania that Anderson seeks to disavow. When Anderson goes to New York, Preminger, in a bold move, shows Club 602 and the swishy denizens of gay culture through Anderson's eyes, his self-hatred and hopeless yearning for "normalcy" discoloring that world into grotesquery (we don't see another gay bar in American cinema until the equally grotesque venue in The Detective). The thing is, Anderson has no reason to fly to New York in the first place. On a straightforward plot level, his trip is unmotivated. But emotionally it is a manifestation of the heartbreaking war raging in his heart between two equally desired worlds. Also on board is the original theatrical trailer (4 min.), a widescreen presentation that highlights the making of the movie as a news event, concentrating on "making-of" footage (but also spoiling a key plot point). Keep-case.
D. K. Holm

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