I rented Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent for sociological reasons more than anything else. For this reason only is the movie, clocking more than 2 hours, worth watching. As a film itself it would be weak coming from a lesser director, but it certainly fails to deliver the usual punches you get from Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal, and The Man With the Golden Arm.
The plot is simple. The president nominates Robert Leffingewell (Henry Fonda) to be his Secretary of State. This puts the senate in an uproar because the nominee is controversial. The majority party (not named but implied to be Democrats), which is also the president’s party, is split itself over the nomination. From here, the plot diverges into a couple of directions involving different bits of shady dealing that all lead to one form or another of character assassination. Leffingwell is painted as a Communist, and in the McCarthy era would have been considered one; though he never joined the party and later renounced Communist notions. The chairman of the sub-committee hearing the nomination is then blackmailed over a homosexual tryst—though this is only implied (very directly, but still only implied). This leads to his suicide. There is still about 20 minutes remaining in the tale at this point, though the end is unimportant, as I will explain below.
The acting is the only strong point of the film. Henry Fonda plays a very strong nominee with the best bits of midwestern pragmatism and Yankee pride (which is saying a lot coming from a Southerner such as myself). Walter Pidgeon is excellent as the Senate Majority Leader keeping the reins tight despite a fractured party. Don Murray is charming and likeable as the Junior Senator from Utah, Brig Anderson who takes his own life. And special kudos go to Charles Laughton, the brilliant British actor, who plays the curmudgeonly Senior Senator from South Carolina Seab Cooley—it is oddly funny how much he presages the appearance almost 2 decades later of the curmudgeonly Senator from North Carolina Jesse Helms (though Laughton has far more charm). Oh, and Betty White has a brief appearance that is memorable if for no other reason than that she doesn’t play a doddering fool.
The plot is simply not strong enough to stave off apathy. Initially the movie is about Robert Leffingwell becoming the next Secretary of State. Senator Cooley works some shenanigans to paint Leffingwell as an appeasing egghead when it comes to Communists. These shenanigans force Leffingwell to lie. He admits this and wants his nomination withdrawn, the president will not do it. At this point, a second plot involving hidden secrets pops up.
The character actor George Grizzard plays an uppity senator from Wisconsin who wants so badly to have Leffingwell approved that he digs up a “tired old sin” on Senator Brig Anderson of Utah. Once this blackmail begins, the movie takes such a turn as to completely forget that Leffingwell, remember this is a movie about Leffingwell, even exists. Once he leaves the hearing room for the last time, Leffingwell just disappears. Once the movie focuses on Mr. Anderson’s blackmail, the movie spins out of control.
Anderson goes to New York to try to find the man who is the center of the blackmail, the man with whom he apparently had a tryst while stationed in Hawaii. The scene where he goes into the gay bar and what follows is actually a famous scene for people who watch gay documentaries about Hollywood. Anderson walks into the club and can barely hide his disgust as he sees the gathered crowd. Because homosexuality at the time was considered both criminal and a mental disorder, there were almost no uncloseted men. This meant that the only role models that anyone had to create a ‘character’ around were the mincing queens. It is the Truman Capote, Quentin Crisp sort of ‘character’ along with the Charles Atlas mimics whose bodies were meant to distract from their sexuality that populate the bar. This is what I meant about the film being sociologically interesting. Ray recognizes Anderson and takes off after the senator as he dashes from the bar. They have a brief exchange while Anderson gets into a cab and then pushes Ray into the filthy gutter as the taxi pulls off. The symbolism would be lost on no one. This and the fact that the film is one of the first to take on the subject, however poorly, make it famous beyond its actual merits.
The suicide is crappy as a plot device. It is a way to bring the film, which has spun out of control, to a conclusion—any conclusion really it doesn’t matter. For me it is impossible to look at it from the vantage point of 1962. If this were a popular movie for its time—and I have no idea if it was—then the suicide could only have served to force gay men further into the closet (yet one more reminder that their behavior was a sin, however tired and old). It is difficult not to be angry by this even knowing how quaint a notion it is (mainly because the idea of nothing being wrong with homosexuality is still only accepted by the coasts and larger cities mainly—so there is still a large land mass that would agree with at least some level of action that Anderson takes with regards to his sexuality).
Sociologically speaking, there is one extra bit that I’ve never seen anyone discuss. The address where Anderson expects to meet Ray is not Ray’s apartment, but a sort of safe house. The man in the apartment, fittingly and poorly stereotypically decorated with 2 Persian cats, belongs to a man who allows his place to be used as a meeting place for gay men who cannot hook up at their own places. This was the alternative to the tea room (public restroom) hook ups that often ended badly for everyone involved. These sort of places were necessary nearly every before Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the de-listing of homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, then sadly in other places even well after these two events. Still, from a sociological standpoint, it was the most interesting part of the film for me.
The film is only for those interested in what I’ve spelled out or for hardcore fans of either Charles Laughton or Henry Fonda; if you are not in any of the categories, you likely would consider the film a massive waste of time.
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: None of the Above
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