More often than not, film versions of popular novels tend to give rise to unfavorable comparisons; the former pulling the literary qualities into the realm of the never-never land of American movies, the Democratic little guy and gal based on some vague, shared concepts of he American Liberal Dream whether faded, battered and bruised, comatose, dead or still with a faint heartbeat. One of the strangest adaptations in cinema was Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Allan Drury’s Advise and Consent at the height of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962,his masterpiece by the same name.
The peculiarity here is that Drury’s novel dealt with a controversial nomination for Secretary of State, within the larger idea of the President being appeasers of a Nuclear Soviet Union, corrupt, dabblers in Commie and Pinko politics, and responsible for the death of a Republican subcommitee chairman who is blackmailed about a homosexual affair. GOP righteousness on display; and why should Preminger, a dyed in the wool Dem film this book? Well, he did not really….
Preminger took the Senate setting, and the idea of a controversial nomination with its resulting conflicts. He bought Drury’s two “buried pasts” : the leftish one and the sexually controversial one, and that’s about it. A series of changes, most very subtle, make Drury’s indictment of Roosevelt and his condemnation of the Liberal position with all the fire and sacalding brimstone, into a calm and civilized movie about “the finest machine for governing yet invented,” in Preminger’s words, and about some people caught in a momentary grinding of those gears.
Preminger’s changes were quite deliberate; the Broadway version, written by Loring Mandel, with Drury holding right of approval was held up as what he did not want. This was typically Preminger to skirmish on tricky ground and here was a novel that had sold over a million and a half books in under twenty-four months. Previously, Preminger defied the Motion Picture Code with The Moon is Blue, where the use of the word “virgin” on the sound track raised an issue of importance even if the movie was sub-par. The Man With the Golden Arm broke the Code veto on the contemporary theme of drug addiction. By hiring Dalton Trumbo to do the screenplay for Exodus, Preminger lifted the boycott on blacklisted screen writers; and no credible people tried to ascribe discreditable motives to this move.
With Advise and Consent, half thebattle was already won when Henry Fonda was cast as the man whom the president wants for his Secretary of State. Fonda could read the Communist Manifesto to a D.A.R. meeting and be applauded; as soon as he appears in a committee hearing we know that no matter what they say, we know he is an honorable man. He no longer speaks the lines of Drury’s office seeker, but of a man who believes he may contribute toward keeping this world in one piece.
We are also made to feel that the chairman commits suicide not because he is hounded by a blackmailer under the orders of the President, but rather because he is caught between love for his wife and the realization that his homosexual past is still alive, within himself. Nor is the blackmail plot instigated by the President.
Most important, in the movie, Drury’s hero Orrin Knox, the Taft like figure who replaces the chairman has well-nigh vanished. Edward Andrews, who plays the part, has only a few moments as an inimical senator and committee member. Good Sense is represented by Walter Pidgeon as the Senate Majority Leader; all in all, Preminger’s film discards with real heroes and no need for one since there is no villain. George Grizzard as the blackmailing senator is not taken quite seriously. The film does not depict the U.S. Senate as a kind of Wild East with bad men of the appeasing Liberal sort and good guys of the Conservative, reactionary variety.
Instead, we have a human theater with people acting according to their lights; and the lights of the President and his hapless nominee actually seem to shine brighter than those of their opponents. How close is all t
to reality, both then and now? Certainly, there is a taste of reality without some of the dreariness. The film has faults, in particular the layers of icing whipped up out of senators’ home lives, but in the end, what is impressive is Preminger’s ability to take a piece of work like Drury’s novel and turn it inside-out by perceiving in it the makings of a movie which serve as its antidote.