Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

21 June 2017

Visions from 1964: Part One

I have seen rather a lot of films from 1964. The big Academy-Award-winning movies that year were My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek, Becket, and the camp classic Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But long ago when I started watching Oscar-nominated movies, I also screened Robin and the 7 Hoods (a musical with Frank Sinatra in which he sings "My Kind of Town"), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (you've heard of her, I assume), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (widely considered a classic), and the James Bond picture Goldfinger.

Other films nominated for Oscars in 1964 were Marriage Italian-Style, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, as well as the eventual winner of the Foreign Language Film, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (also with Loren and Mastroianni), the Tennessee Williams film The Night of the Iguana, a Leslie Caron–Cary Grant war-comedy called Father Goose, the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, the Jacques Demy musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and the classic Japanese horror film Woman in the Dunes.

In other words, 1964 was a good year for the Academy Awards

Two weeks ago I looked at the list of forty films nominated, and I had twenty left, and I thought, well, why not watch the rest of 'em in the next month? So I started doing that. Here are the first three...

John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May is a superb political/military thriller starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, Edmond O'Brien, and Ava Gardner. This movie felt pretty extraordinary to me at just this moment in USAmerican history because it was totally about the power of the president and a plot on the part of the head of the joint chiefs of staff to – of all things – overthrow the government! The chairman (Lancaster) is a hawk who believes that the President (March) is too soft on the Russians, and because the President favors a treaty with the Russians that will involve joint disarmament, the chairman decides to kidnap the president and declare a military junta. The chairman is a popular politician as well, and so he believes that this will work. The main character of the film (Douglas) is the man who figures out the plot and goes to the president to try to stop it.

Seven Days in May is riveting stuff. And it is beautifully acted. It also stars Ava Gardner as a former lover of Lancaster's. Gardner is superb in this movie, and whenever I see one of her movies I am reminded of just how underrated of an actress she was. She is brilliant in literally everything, as far as I'm concerned.

What is most interesting, I guess, about Seven Days is the film's investment in the office of the president. Seven Days believes that disarmament is the right thing to do for the planet, but the film also acknowledges that some of us may be freaked out about the Soviets using nuclear arms against us while we become sitting ducks – or doves, as it were. But the movie, finally, believes that the people of the United States elected the president, and that it is the president's job to make these kinds of decisions. We can't have military leaders deciding that they know better than the person elected to represent the people.

Another presidential film made in 1964 is The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. The Best Man's poster makes it look rather like it might be a comedy, and the first few minutes of the film do nothing to disrupt that impression, but The Best Man is quite a serious film about two men in a presidential primary. The candidates are Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. Fonda plays a wise old man who quotes Marcus Aurelius, is in favor of racial equality, and has decided always to "do the right thing" (even though he is a bit of a philanderer, apparently). Robertson plays a truly odious politician who will do anything to win, is a complete racist, and seems to have not a sensitive bone in his body. The cast is rounded out by the former president (whose endorsement would crown the victor in the race) and Fonda's wife, who is a no-nonsense, lovely sort of woman who knows her husband doesn't really love her. Robertson's wife is rather an important character, too, but she is not given much of a part.

This is only a so-so sort of picture. It doesn't actually make sense that someone quite so conservative and someone quite so liberal are fighting for power in the same party – one of them could at least have been a centrist of some sort. But also the film just doesn't generate interest in its own questions. Whether or not one man will do the right thing is not really the most fascinating topic. One rather wants to see his favorite character win. Fonda's character does all the right things, but his inability to get down into the mud and do all he can to make sure that this basically evil person doesn't become president really means that he himself is not presidential. And he knows it. He is not willing to get his hands dirty, and so over the course of the picture he comes to realize that he doesn't really have what it takes to be the president. I am not sure why the film is invested in men who are willing to get their hands dirty, but The Best Man sure believes that the office of the presidency needs that.

Robertson at center, looking shifty
Where The Best Man gets really interesting is when someone in the film discovers that Cliff Robertson's character had an incident when he was in the army where he was brought before a court martial and accused of ... and I about clutched my pearls when someone said it, in 1964 no less ... homosexual activity! They talk around it for a little bit, but then someone actually says the word. I was shocked. And the film seems to believe that Robertson's character did do something back in the army... and that this makes him a particular kind of person. The Best Man's feeling about homosexuality is negative, of course, and certainly makes the man unfit to be the president, but what is perhaps more interesting is the way the film stages denial of homosexuality, accusations of homosexuality, and the code of honor that dictates that such things are not discussed in public by respectable men. Either way I found the whole thing quite surprising.

Finally, there is yet another film from 1964 about the presidency. This one is called Kisses for My President, directed by Curtis Bernhardt and starring Polly Bergen and Fred MacMurray. In this movie, the first woman is elected president of the United States and laughs ensue when her husband has to deal with being the new first lady. You'll pardon my enthusiasm, but the entire movie hinges on the idea that it is just hilarious that a man would be the first lady and would have to follow the orders of his wife, Madam President.

This is a one-joke picture. Where the joke actually works is when we get to the White House and no one – and I mean no one, including her political opponents – behaves as though it is abnormal for a woman to be the president. The only person who can't seem to quite figure it out is the president's husband.

But Kisses for My President is not a serious movie in the least, and the movie opts for an easy ending when the president becomes pregnant and decides to resign because the doctor says the stress of the presidency will be too much for the baby. I'm rolling my eyes all the way to the back of my head. Kisses for My President is invested in both the absurdity and the impossibility that a woman could be president, and it finally decides that women are unfit for such jobs because they might get pregnant and, well, shouldn't they be taking care of their families in the first place? No thanks.