Robert Redford's Mealy-Mouthed Reluctant Virgin of a Politician in "The Candidate"

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August 3, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 31

films in focus
By Andrew Sarris

Cinema, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. "THE CANDIDATE," for example. (I couldn't.) It so happens that I find myself more in critical harmony with Bella Abzug's recent blast in the kvetch section of the Sunday Times than with the raves for the film written by Vince Canby and most of his colleagues. I was away communing with the cosmic vibrations of the ocean when "The Candidate" opened to almost unanimous acclaim. Indeed, I have been told that there was spontaneous applause at a critic's screening. And yet most of the word-of-mouth I've heard from nonprofessional moviegoers has been bad.

It may be that the critics have sold themselves a bill of goods only to find that the public isn't buying. But why would so many critics fall for a piece of cheese like "The Candidate?" Robert Redford cultism? Partly, I suppose. Redford seems to have convinced a great many people that he has more integrity than any other 30 actors put together. He comes down from his kingly mountain-top in Colorado only rarely and only reluctantly to mingle in the madding crowd for the sake of his muse. He never hangs around at Sardi's with all the other phonies trying to make the scene. No, he's too pure for that. Of course, he does take options on film properties, and currently he is campaigning for his slice of the profits in "The Candidate" with all the meditative monasticism of a Fuller Brush Salesman. But we never hear about this side of his soulful nature in all the interviews he manages to squeeze into his spiritual days. All we hear is how hard the corrupt world is trying to rape pure Robert, and how manfully Robert is resisting the rape, and, this, in short, is the main thesis of "The Candidate."

Robert Redford plays a good-looking poverty lawyer named Bill McKay, who is minding his own business in sunny California with his black and chicano and eco-freak clients and a youthfully adoring staff when who should appear but Mephistopheles himself as Lucas (Peter Boyle) the bearded manipulator of bourgeois politicians. We never find out too much about Bill McKay beyond the fact that he is the son of a former governor (Melvyn Douglas) and hence tainted by heredity with the curse of electoral politics. Young McKay doesn't really want to run for senator. It's too much like selling out, but Lucas mysteriously persuades him to run with the promise of certain defeat. I say mysteriously because Jeremy Larner's script is very short on motivational rhetoric so that the why is generally fuzzy even when the what is reasonably lucid. Indeed, the best things in the movie are nasty insights into the systematic bruising of egos along the campaign trail: the losing liberal incumbent and his gallant family at the very beginning of the movie suggesting nothing so much as the faintly comical notion that a family that poses together too much for television begins to look too much alike for real life, the semi-political academic at a McKay rally trying to make it with a real-life Natalie Wood and being very sweetly shunted back into the academic woodpile, the staff subordinates standing up on their hind legs every so often for the sake of their self-respect, and then rocking back on their heels when their point has been made and ignored. It would seem that Larner's experiences with Gene McCarthy's children's crusade have permanently soured him on the political system.

Well and good, but "The Candidate" still doesn't qualify in my eyes and ears as "one of the few good, truly funny American political comedies ever made." Off the top of my head the following American movies strike me as better and/or funnier and/or more likable than "The Candidate": "Convention City," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Flamingo Road," "The Great McGinty," "Advise and Consent," "The Best Man," "State of the Union," "The Manchurian Candidate," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "A Face in the Crowd," "The Last Hurrah," "The Phoenix City Story," "The Sun Shines Bright," "A Lion in the Streets," "Wilson," "The Glass Key," "Citizen Kane," "The Great Man Votes," "Judge Priest," "The County Chairman," "Meet John Doe," "All the King's Men," "Hail the Conquering Hero," and even "The Man." Which should indicate how low on the list I place "The Candidate," but also how much more often Hollywood has dealt with politics than most reviewers realize. Some years ago Dwight McDonald complained in his monthly Esquire column that there were very few American films about politics, and Stuart Byron promptly wrote in a long list, and McDonald blithely printed the list with no suggestion of embarrassment. At the time MacDonald and I were engaged in a bitter feud, and I chose not to comment on this particular contretemps. As an animal probably more political than cinematic, MacDonald obviously fancied politics as a fascinating subject for movies, and despite Byron's solid research, the fact remains that a relatively small percentage of the American cinema has concerned itself explicitly with the political process, and for good reason. Most films on politics have not done nearly as well at the box-office as they deserved to do. In this respect, films about politics are as jinxed as films about sports, and for much the same reason.

What is interesting about an election or an athletic event is not so much would should happen as what actually does happen. In the good old unconceited terms of movie morality, Bobby Fischer should be the biggest heavy since Richard Widmark pushed the old lady down the stairs in "Kiss of Death," but if he beats Spassky he will be king just the same and not knight-errant. Jack Nicklaus may not be as colorful as Arnold Palmer or Lee Trevino, but he is still probably the greatest golfer of all time. Similarly, uncharismatic Rod Laver is probably the greatest tennis player of all time, and cool, stolid, often petulant Kareem Jabbar has simply added a new dimension to basketball. I wouldn't pay a quarter to see any of these titans do their life story on the screen or regale me with their philosophical observations, but I'll walk a mile to watch them perform in the here and now. By the same token, I am presently sitting still for George McGovern's profile shots against Mount Rushmore (and does Frank Mankiewicz really keep a straight face through all this) because I think McGovern is endowed with the will to win, and this year I'd go along with Bugs Bunny against Nixon, and so it's Go-George-Go with no moral compensations for second place.

And that is why I despise Robert Redford's mealy-mouthed reluctant virgin of a politician in "The Candidate." I think Nixon can be beaten in 1972, but not by reluctant virgins and pure idealogues. At the very end of the movie, Redford's McKay has pulled an upset win over the reactionary incumbent, and all McKay can do is ask "What do we do now?" Well, for one thing, Senator-elect McKay can go to the Senate and vote against the confirmations on Renquist, Powell, Burger, and Blackmun, and whatever new hanging judges Nixon has up his sleeve for his second term when he may be able to shape the Court for the rest of this century. McGovern himself, just a week or two ago cast the deciding vote on the minimum-wage law, and less than half a dozen votes in the Senate separate the doves and the hawks on Vietnam.

Bill McKay's opponent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is presented in the movie as somewhat to the right of Spiro Agnew, whereas McKay, compromises and all, is somewhat to the left of George McGovern. Anytime a McKay can beat a Jarmon in California by fair means or foul, it would seem to be a cause for rejoicing. But not here. McKay has paid too high a price. He has been soiled by the public, insulted in the men's room, lusted after by all sorts of females. As Molly Haskell has suggested, male stars nowadays are taking over all the traditional women's siren and suffering roles. Instead of aging actresses like Gloria Swanson and Geraldine Page mourning the past at their dressing tables, we have aging rodeo stars like Cliff Robertson, James Coburn, and Steve McQueen. Redford's Bill McKay is thus ultimately Katharine Hepburn's Morning Glory in drag, gaining stardom at the cost of happiness and integrity and morality. The women in "The Candidate" exist merely to set off McKay as a media stud who wants to be appreciated for his mind. The wife, especially, is denied the slightest trace of anti-bullshit independence common not only among the wives in American movies about politicians but in real-life politicians' wives like Abigail McCarthy, Eleanor McGovern, and even Pat Nixon -- and, of course, especially Martha Mitchell.

Bella Abzug has raised the very interesting point of McKay's finances for his media blitz against Jarmon. It would take millions in a state as large as California. Who raised the money and how and from whom? When Jesse Unruh ran against Reagan for Governor, he was so strapped for cash that he had to stage impromptu press conferences on Reagan's lawn to get free media attention, and no one has ever accused Unruh of being excessively finicky in the realm of fund-raising. But McKay never has to worry about money. That would make him ordinary and human, hardly the qualities of egocentric stardom with a piece of the action. What I find most presumptuous about "The Candidate," however, is its notion that politicians are any more ridiculous than movie-makers or movie-reviewers for that matter. Redford fancies himself so superior to the electoral process that he ends up with a completely fatuous characterization of a politician.

In line with his liking of "The Candidate," Canby recently fabricated a cardboard cultist in order to make a distinction between the presumed merits of Michael Ritchie's direction in "The Candidate" and the irrelevance of that direction in the Ritchie-directed gangster movie "PRIME CUT" which opened the previous day. Curiously, Ritchie's directorial vision has remained remarkably consistent with three different script writers (James Salter for "Downhill Racer," Robert Dillon for "Prime Cut," and Larner for "Candidate"). The editing is nervous, the sense of rapport hopelessly fragmented. Scenes will end with some of the participants brusquely excluded from the final shot, a mannerism particularly evident in the two Redford movies. "Prime Cut" has an idiotic pot in the new vein of gangster sentimentality popularized if not universalized by "The Godfather." Good gangsters don't do much of anything except flaunt their machismo in a regal manner, whereas bad gangsters deal in narcotics, prostitution, and in plain deviltry. Lee Marvin's gangster in "Prime Cut" actually comes out of a Dickens novel as the savior of little Nells victimized by Gene Hackman's Upton Sinclair-type gangster who compounds all his assorted villainies by expressing a loathing for the inner city from his vantage point in Middle America. "Prime Cut" is so cut and dries as a commercial staple that Ritchie was free to concentrate on scenic compositions as derisive counterpoint to the bang-bang stuff. By contrast, Ritchie and Redford together are remarkably compatible in their winning-is-losing puerilities for "Downhill Racer" and "The Candidate."

It is something in the air. It can be found on stage in "The Championship Season" and on screen in "Marjoe." It is a chic attitude that is completely false and condescending and misleading. It is hatred for unfashionable people, an all-or-nothing Faustian fanaticism based on guilt, despair, and hypocrisy. It would be simply ridiculous if it were not potentially harmful in this year of very crucial decision.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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2 comments
Clip Job Rules
Clip Job Rules

What do we do now? 40 years later and still nobody has gotten it right.

Remi Online
Remi Online

Great article, i was reading something similar on another website that i was researching. I will be sure to look around more. thanks...

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