Ah, the thrills of an election: the unabashed moral compromises, the public gaffes that find eternal life on news broadcasts. With Donald Trump outdoing anything a certain Frank Underwood could even think of on House of Cards maybe truth really is stranger than fictions.
With House of Cards finding excellent approval ratings on Netflix and the UK dealing with the whole Brexit in/out issue, as well as the US facing it’s most incredible Presidential election run in ever, it’s clear that politics are the pop-culture flavor of the month — giving us the perfect opportunity to survey election films of days gone by.
It would be difficult to ignore the two granddaddies of the modern election film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Frank Capra’s populist valentine to the ideals of American politics, and Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles’ landmark study of a publishing tycoon’s Machiavellian ambitions. Put together, this pair of disparate classics offers a fascinating distillation of Depression-era attitudes towards politics. These films have become such inextricable parts of our popular culture that images of Jimmy Stewart’s impassioned filibuster and Welles at the podium now signify the two extremes of American politics: the noble underdog striving to serve the people and the corrupt tyrant seeking to subvert the system to his own desires.
John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate has justly earned a place in movie history, if only for its sheer weirdness. Simultaneously satirizing paranoia over Communist conspiracies while building suspense around the same, George Axelrod’s loopy screenplay doesn’t tip its cards (literally) until the climax. It’s up to the viewer to piece together the puzzle involving a brainwashed Congressional Medal of Honor recipient (Laurence Harvey) and the political aspirations of his domineering mother (Angela Lansbury). Starring Frank Sinatra in his best on-screen performance as the intelligence officer charged with uncovering the conspiracy, The Manchurian Candidate remains a breed apart from other election films. Back in circulation in repertory cinema and on video after being withdrawn for many years in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, The Manchurian Candidate remains a political thriller fan’s must-see.
Between the riots of the 1960s and the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, confidence in American politics hit a new low in the 1970s. This cynicism found light on screen in two films starring the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford. Director Michael Ritchie’s scathing 1972 drama The Candidate maintains its provocative edge despite its beige 1970s patina. Released just as Watergate started to percolate, The Candidate charts the erosion of Redford’s Bill McKay from a straight-talking liberal outsider to the ultimate empty suit, a “viable” senate candidate toeing the party line. Redford’s McKay and his shifty campaign manager (Peter Boyle) create a subdued tension representing the schism between the ideals and the business of politics. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner astutely observes an election race as the sport of strategists and politicos, one that offers little hope to idealistic candidates struggling to stay that way.
Redford found himself on the other side of the ballot box four years later in All the President’s Men. Alan J. Pakula’s no-nonsense adaptation of the book by the Washington Post reporters who broke Watergate open, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Among the most authoritative political dramas in movie history, William Goldman’s screenplay skewers not just the corrupt Nixon White House, but the crusading press as well. As Woodward (Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) conduct their quest, it becomes clear that the media’s motivation for telling the truth is as much grounded in exploitation and the need to sell papers as it is in serving justice — a theme Orson Welles explored Citizen Kane 35 years earlier.
Perhaps appropriately, given the president’s unabashed Hollywood worship, the Clinton era brought with it a regular flow of election-oriented movies. As Clinton campaigned for his first term, Tim Robbins made his writer-director debut with 1992’s Bob Roberts (1992), a mockumentary following a right-wing folk singer’s run for senate. As a result of Robbins’ propensity for wearing his commitment to liberal causes on his sleeve (as evidenced in his more recent efforts, Dead Man Walking and Cradle Will Rock), today Bob Roberts stands more as an excoriating send-up of Reagan/Bush era social conservatism than as an insightful election satire. Nonetheless, with a stellar and cameo-laden cast, Bob Roberts remains a cheeky pleasure — at least to those on the left.
While Bob Roberts suffers for its overbearing political sensibilities, The War Room offers a truer portrait of the inner workings of a campaign. Documentarians D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) and Chris Hegedus set their sites on the two minds behind the Clinton candidacy, the “Ragin’ Cajun” campaign director James Carville and youthful communications director George Stephanopolous, and capture the tone of the campaign immediately as the Gennifer Flowers accusations hit the headlines. As the documentary limns the slings and arrows of a particularly tumultuous bid for the White House, Pennebaker gives viewers an intimate look behind the press lines to see the idealism that fueled the Herculean efforts of the campaign that catapulted Bill Clinton into office. Coincidentally enough, the film’s most rhetorically inspiring moment comes not from a speech by Clinton, but by Al Gore, leading a crowd in a revival-style call and response. It’s surprising the Gore campaign didn’t dust off this nugget for a grand example of the current Democratic candidate’s flair on the stump.
As the Clinton administration settled in for a second term of scandalous prosperity, Hollywood’s fascination with the inner workings of the elected only increased. Mike Nichols’ glossy adaptation of Primary Colors, (based on the “anonymous” novel by Newsweek’s Joe Klein) barely registered with moviegoers, appalled at the prospect of watching John Travolta strut his a Clinton impression for two-plus hours. Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, released mere weeks before the Lewinsky scandal claimed the headlines, failed to live to its impressive pedigree. Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro sleepwalk through David Mamet and Hilary Henkin’s screenplay, resulting in a movie whose provocative implications never quite hit their targets.
Arguably the most successful political satire of the 1990s, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), offers something to offend everyone. Beatty stars as an incumbent Democratic senator who takes out a contract on his own life. With his political career’s exit clearly marked, Bulworth finds himself at liberty to say anything on his mind, regardless of its effect on his reputation, his constituency, or his aides. Hiding out in South Central Los Angeles, the senator finds a renewed purpose in the beleaguered African-American community (and in the heart of Halle Berry). Though some viewers may be put off by the notion of seeing Beatty rap, Bulworth brashly probes the causes underlying the racial and economic standoff that keeps American politics in gridlock. Beatty’s provocative film caught the notice of Senator John McCain, who incorporated some of its antagonist views of mainstream politics into his bid for the Republican nomination.
On the lighter side, Rob Reiner’s 1995 sleeper The American President became something of a Friday night perennial at the video store. Michael Douglas (in his most likeable role since he patrolled The Streets of San Francisco) stars in this fairy tale as a president whose personal romance with a lobbyist threatens to destroy his reelection chances. While Annette Bening acquits herself handily as the president’s best gal, the most colorful characters are the eclectic White House staffers led by Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox. Writer Aaron Sorkin would strike critical gold a few years later with The West Wing, a prime-time series looking at life behind the scenes in the Oval Office, this time with Sheen as the chief.
To finish where we started House of Cards, which has recently finished it’s fourth season on Netflix, plays out like a thinly veiled account of the Clinton administration. It’s most recent season saw Frank and Claire (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) campaigning as President and Vice President. Once upon a time that might have seemed very much to belong in the realms of fairy tale but quite frankly nothing can match the current Trump/Clinton dust up when it comes down to it.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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