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A Washington kind of a lie: Preminger’s "Advise & Consent"

Otto Preminger would have been fascinated by the results of this year’s Presidential election. A nation that can elect its first black president while denying gays the right to marry is the kind of dilemma the Viennese director might have dissected back in the taboo-busting heyday of Bonjour Tristesse and Anatomy of a Murder. Then again, Preminger had already addressed the contradictions within Capitol Hill’s well-oiled machinery in his splendid 1962 Washington D.C. procedural, Advise & Consent. Fatigued as I was with politics following what was arguably the most protracted electoral campaign ever, I nevertheless felt like revisiting the film’s portrait of a tormented queer psyche after learning that California's Proposition 8 successfully banned same-sex marriages.
Now, homosexuality is not what Advise & Consent is about. The fact that Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) had a proto-Brokeback Mountain dalliance with a fellow soldier while stationed in Hawaii years earlier is but one of the elements Preminger’s camera analyzes once the Capitol Dome has its proverbial lid lifted. In fact, for its first third or so the film’s central point of concern seems to be the controversial politician (Henry Fonda) who has been appointed by the ailing President (Franchot Tone) as the new Secretary of State and who has some troublesome past liaisons of his own. Other narrative strands include the Vice President’s (Lew Ayres) concerns about inevitably assuming the presidency, a Southern senator’s (Charles Laughton) private vendetta against the President’s candidate, and an array of slyly cross-associative roles (Gene Tierney and Peter Lawford provide links to JFK, Will Geer is a memento from the McCarthy era).
All of this is watched with the rigorous articulacy that was Preminger’s genius. The body politic may be an anthill of individual goals and arrangements, but the director displays the composure and cool of a practiced surgeon. Fluent yet completely functional camera movements and deep-focus ensure that, no matter how heated the clash of conflicts gets, the image remains whole, neutral. Skeptical of absolute surfaces, Preminger understands how much performing goes into being a politician (like the courtroom in Anatomy of a Murder, the Senate resembles a stage). Yet, Laughton’s Dixie flamboyance notwithstanding, the kind of overt political theatricality Francesco Rosi examines the following year in Le Mani sulla Città is for the most part subdued here. The best “actor” in the film’s Washington is Walter Pidgeon’s wry, quiet, gentlemanly Senate Majority Leader, a man who’s learned how to discard idealism and keep outrage (and his affairs) on a leash, thus adapting perfectly to a system built on compromise, deal-making, and impersonal process. The players have to adjust to what a character calls “a Washington kind of a lie”; unable to do so, Murray’s closeted Senator becomes a bad “actor,” and a tragic figure.
Anderson’s anxious visit to a New York City gay dive to see the ex-lover who’s become a pawn in Senator Van Ackerman’s (George Grizzard) blackmailing scheme is in several ways the picture’s most problematic sequence. Stylistically, it breaks from the film’s long-take flow—a two-minute passage is splintered into ten increasingly agitated shots. The fragmentation reflects the sequence’s garishness, with effete barkeeps, swirling lights and distorted romantic music (sung, hilariously, by Frank Sinatra) that make Anderson recoil. Subjective hysteria cracks objective contemplation. Everything is shot through lurid lenses, yet what’s striking about the scene is the way it visualizes the character’s revulsion less toward homosexuality than toward the dishonesty he discovers within himself. In that, he’s closer to troubled Preminger protagonists like Jean Simmons in Angel Face or Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse—characters left to face an inner abyss—than to queer sacrificial lambs like Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour or Sandy Dennis in The Fox.
Preminger’s “big issue” works are often compared unfavorably with his earlier noir classics. Like Exodus and The Cardinal, Advise & Consent showcases a scope that may be too broad for genre fans who prefer the seductive ambiguities of Laura, but, also like the other late pictures, it remains scrupulously sensitive to the human frailties that made their subjects controversial to begin with. As the country begins a new political chapter, it should be valued as a reminder that, even in well-oiled machines, there are people caught between the gears.
Terrific piece, Fernando. “A&C” has always been one of my favorite Premingers, and political wonks frequently cite it to this day as the most accurate inside-Washington picture ever. I love that the cast list in the opening credits conclude with “and the voice of Frank Sinatra.” I’ve never been able to find an account of how Sinatra came to contribute that song to the film.
Thanks a bunch, Glenn. I wonder if Sinatra did the song as a favor to Preminger, who had directed him in “The Man with the Golden Arm”? A recent Preminger biography didn’t shed any light. Happy Thanksgiving.
2008 is my Otto Preminger year. I am big fan of “Laura” since I was a teenagar… since then I watched many of his films. But this year I dedicated most of my movie-time to read and watch his works. Amazing many of them. Extraordinary “In Harms Way”… but the real surprise was “Advice and Conset”. What a piece of art and cinema! Maybe the best political drama made in Hollywood!
Peter, have you seen DAISY KENYON? That was my stunning discovery of last year.
Let me come out and say it: I don’t like Advise and Consent – in fact, I deeply resent the movie. First, the movie is supposedly about “politics” – but Preminger never gives any concrete portrait of what the underlying political debate actually is. The policy debate (which really doesn’t exist in the movie) is some openly transparent piffle about Fonda’s character being too internationalist (or something, I don’t think the policy debate is meant to be grasped) – but we never hear what positions he’s taken or what he’s done that pisses Cooley (Laughton) off. It’s a movie supposedly about politics that turns policy questions into a soap opera (essentially, who’s sleeping or slept with whom?). Second, it’s billed (and bills itself) as “hard-hitting” but the ending completely erases any possibility of that. We’re asked to believe that the Senate essentially is decent enough to stifle Cooley’s plots and recognize good-heartedly that Fonda’s character is virtuous or something. Preminger pulls his punches when he could have shown what a Southern Senator was really about (hello, WCC!). This is an institution that had Joe McCarthy and Dickie Nixon in it a mere few years before the film’s release and we’re asked to believe that the Senate would block Cooley’s scheming?

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