Otto Preminger's adaptation of Allen Drury's best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 novel isn't seen very often today, but at least it's available on DVD; Drury's book, the first (and still among the best) of all "Washington insider" novels, has been out of print for over 20 years. The book, despite its overlength and occasionally purplish overwriting, still holds up reasonably well as a snapshot of the inner workings of the U.S. Senate before the torrents of the 1960s and the modern-day "culture wars" cast even that venerable, somewhat stuffy institution into the maelstrom. Preminger's film rewrites Drury's ending, downplays the roles of one or two of the book's major characters, and softens the hard edges of one or two others, but it gets the major details right and refuses to pick sides, instead presenting D.C. infighting as a product of the actions of a group of mostly honorable people striving to do the right thing -- though the definition of "right thing" differs dramatically from person to person. The one individual who refuses to play by the rules gets a comeuppance before the end -- and even that is relatively mild, given what has come before.
ADVISE AND CONSENT was actually the first of a series of Drury novels featuring a cast of characters who bore more than a passing resemblance to important political figures of the day. Some have argued over the extent to which Drury's works are true romans a clef, but, having read most of them, I can honestly say that the "Match Game" is least important in ADVISE, the basic plot of which is relatively straightforward. An ailing President played by Franchot Tone -- supposedly based on FDR, but in truth reminding me a bit more of Adlai Stevenson -- nominates Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), a liberal egghead, for the post of Secretary of State, thereby stirring up the wrath of Dixiecrat Senator Seabright Cooley (Charles Laughton, in his last movie role). Convinced that Leffingwell is an appeaser, "Ol' Seab" trots out a former employee of his (Burgess Meredith) who claims to have been associated with Leffingwell in a Communist cell many years before. Leffingwell pretty much decimates his foe (no surprise, as Meredith does a good job of selling the fact that his character is mentally unstable), but the controversy gives young Utah Senator Brigham Anderson (Don Murray), the chairman of the subcommittee holding the Leffingwell hearings, considerable pause. (And with good reason, as we eventually learn that Meredith was in fact telling the truth.) Anderson is soon under pressure from both the President and a hot-headed peacenik Senator (George Grizzard) who's willing to go to extreme lengths to get Leffingwell confirmed -- including blackmailing the straight-arrow Anderson with proof of a homosexual dalliance during the latter's time in the service. The Gordian knot is sliced through thanks to a combination of two tragic events, one faithful to the novel (and more besides -- see below) and one a cop-out of sorts that "resets the dials" just when the climactic Senate vote on Leffingwell's confirmation is about to be completed. In the end, the Senate's dignity is preserved, and justice (at least as defined by the strongly anti-Communist Drury) is done, but not without cost.
A few reviewers squawked at Preminger's accurate depiction of the fact that not all Senators are noblemen -- or, should I say, noblewomen; Betty White gets a brief cameo as a female Senator from Kansas, 16 years before Nancy Kassenbaum. (Preminger also reportedly wanted to cast Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a black Senator from Georgia (!), but he couldn't convince King to do the part.) The stalwart Senate Majority Leader (Walter Pidgeon) and the skirt-chasing, but principled, JFK-standin Lafe Smith (Peter Lawford -- yes, I capiche the irony here, too) are the closest things that the movie has to true moral centers, apart from the tragic Anderson. Grizzard's demagogic Senator, who's trailed everywhere he goes by a band of acolytes who would have been wearing shades had the movie been made 30 years later, serves as the villain, but he's far less harshly dealt with here than in Drury's cycle of novels, where he turns out to be a truly evil Communist sycophant. Drury was, however, well ahead of his time in pointing out that a Joe McCarthy-style figure was just as likely to arise on the Left as on the Right. Easily the most memorable performance here is that of Laughton, who struggles on occasion with his cornpone accent but otherwise has the mannerisms and figures of speech of the "old-style Southern senator" down pat.
If this film is remembered at all today, it's for the memorable -- and, for 1962, shocking -- depiction of a gay bar and "assignation pad." Trying to track down his former lover in New York, Anderson visits both haunts. Yes, the beaded-curtain decor, ambience, and tight muscle shirts are all laughably stereotyped, but Preminger deserves credit for putting this stuff on screen at all; Drury only referred to it tangentially.
Just like its literary source, the film version of ADVISE AND CONSENT is well worth seeking out. The movie moves slowly at times, but stick with it and you'll be rewarded with a thoughtful experience that puts most contemporary Washington melodramas to shame.