Thursday, June 17, 2010

All the King's Men: Mr. Stark Goes to Baton Rouge

In politics, truth is stranger than fiction; reality is crazier than the movies.

All the King’s Men, adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, is a film about politics. Politics and the movies have had an uneasy screen relationship. I think fictional political films (though Warren’s novel is a fictionalized version of the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long) are difficult to do well because any scenario a screenwriter could dream up usually pales in comparison to the actual drama of politics. How can Hollywood compete with a President receiving blowies in the White House, an entire state conspiring to rig a Presidential election, a President so paranoid he has spies break into the hotel where his opposing party’s headquarters are located, or—the cherry on top—a gee-whiz, golly-shucks B-list actor actually winning the highest elected office in the land? (Or better yet, an Austrian-born muscleman-turned actor best known for playing a killer robot whose grasp on the English language is questionable at times becoming the governor of California.)

No way could Hollywood make that crazy shit up.

Also, casting a well-known political figure is difficult. Many people have pre-conceived notions of how a politician should be portrayed, and what actor should play them. Sometimes, the casting fits like a glove—Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Other times, the choice is out of left field. Welsh-born Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon? (Actually, Hopkins is quite good as Tricky Dick, but he looks nothing like Nixon and the guy best known for playing a cannibalistic serial killer wouldn’t be my first choice to depict a Commander-In-Chief, but then again, someone who played a cannibal would make a perfect Nixon. Hopkins also played John Quincy Adams, proving that I know dick-all about casting. But, I digress—back to the topic at hand.) Disco-dancing, Italian and New York as hell John Travolta as a fictionalized Bill Clinton? (Yet Travolta was also good.)

Finally, any film about politics is almost assuredly going to piss off a certain percentage of its audience. Conservatives holler about a film being too lefty or not righty enough. Liberals complain about the opposite. Historians nitpick over inaccuracies. Maybe the film ends up over-glorifying or over-condemning its subject to be effective. Maybe a film is simply too agenda driven. And finally—if you’re Oliver Stone, perhaps—maybe you are deliberately trying to make a film so incendiary that the intent is to actually piss your audience off.

All of these factors make for a difficult recipe for a political film to be successfully cooked up. Despite the Oscar glory obtained by All the King’s Men, I didn’t really like the film very much. For me, the biggest hurdle All the King’s Men had to overcome was the passage of time. What played as revolutionary in late 1949 came off as recycled in 2010.

Louisiana politics are at the center of All the King’s Men. Broderick Crawford (in a Best Actor-winning performance), plays Willie Stark, a man running for local office on a platform of government reform (Louisiana is a state long filled with political corruption in all levels of government). Willie loses his first election, but catches the eye of Jack Burden (John Ireland), a reporter from a wealthy family. Jack is endeared to the candidate because he feels that Willie is a rare breed indeed—a politician that cannot be bought. Although Stark loses the election, he makes his first important political connection in Jack, and with his wife’s encouragement, Willie obtains a law degree.

Fate steps in, as a tragedy occurs at an elementary school when during a fire drill, the fire escape some students were using collapses due to shoddy masonry, killing several children in the process. Willie files a lawsuit against the builders, and exposes nepotism in the process. This endears Willie to the locals, who will now fully back him in a run for County Commissioner. However, his charismatic and populist campaign catches the eye of the corrupt officials in the state government, who befriend Willie under false pretenses and encourage him to run for Governor. Their strategy is that Willie will split the “hick vote” that wishes for reform, allowing the corrupt puppet to win the election. Willie’s entry guarantees that scenario will play out, but he is alerted to this strategy by Jack and politico Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge, who won Best Supporting Actress in her debut role).

Jack and Sadie remake Willie—who delivered boring, fact-filled speeches about the government screwing over the common man. Once Willie learns that nobody likes listening to how badly they’ve been taken for fools (since of course, Willie also realizes that he is being played), he changes tactics, calling himself a “hick just like you” and giving thunderous, commanding oration, encouraging the “hicks” to “nail up” the corrupt politicians holding them down. Despite his changes, Willie loses the gubernatorial election, though he learns that rousing speeches and noble intentions aren’t enough to win. On Willie’s third go-around, he isn’t nearly as naïve, accepting money and gifts from anyone willing to guarantee votes, and in many ways, he becomes like the corrupt politicians he is trying to unseat. This time, his strategy pays off, and Willie Stark ascends to the office of Governor.

Willie rationalizes his corruption by arguing that by using cutthroat tactics and accepting graft to gain office, he can ultimately do more good after the campaign and he is firmly entrenched in office. For a while, Willie makes good on his promises of reform, building schools, playing fields, hospitals, and giving benefits to farmers. Yet each of his reforms are bull-rushed through the Louisiana legislature in a manner that more accurately reflects a benevolent dictatorship than a democracy. Ultimately, Willie loses his moral turpitude as well. He engages in extra-marital affairs, first with Sadie, then with Jack’s fiancé, Anne (Joanne Dru). Willie covers up a fatal drunk driving accident in which his son was behind the wheel. He tries to blackmail his Attorney General. More and more, Willie abuses his power until he is brought up on impeachment charges. Though Willie beats the rap, he is assassinated outside of the capitol.

In 1949, I’m sure that the notion of absolute power corrupting absolutely was shocking and eye-opening to a vast percentage of the audience of All the King’s Men. Filmgoers in 2010 are overloaded on political scandal. I watched the Supreme Court hand a tainted election over to George W. Bush. My parents lived through Watergate. We all know far too much about the kinky sex lives of our elected officials. We live in the era of Too Much Information. Hell, crooked politicians are used as punchlines to jokes. We’ve grown accustomed to lying, cheating, and weaselly politicians. The only thing that surprised me about Willie Stark is that it took him half the movie to become truly corrupt. I figured he’d be there by about the twenty minute mark of All the King’s Men.

Not only was the film’s message unsurprising, my viewing experience was made worse by the fact that I didn’t think All the King’s Men was particularly artfully made. A predictable story and message can be overcome by dynamic filmmaking, but this film is rather staid. What I hated the most was that it was blatantly obvious the film was filmed on studio backlots (and in Stockton, California). Not once did I feel like I was in Louisiana—a state rich in flavor and culture. The acting is on the whole, dull. Broderick Crawford won the Best Actor Oscar, but even some of his bigger moments come off flat, especially the “Nail ‘em up!” speech (look what Sean Penn does in the 2006 remake—while containing some very excellent acting it unfortunately is also not a very good film—to see how a really great actor brings the part to life) that is central to Willie Stark’s campaign. Crawford also gives off more of a used car salesman or blustery high school football coach vibe than that of a ruthless, canny politician.

Mercedes McCambridge, in her role as Sadie Burke, does capture those qualities. McCambridge’s performance is easily the highlight of All the King’s Men, and she maximizes every moment of her scant seventeen minutes of screen time. McCambridge makes Sadie’s motivations and actions clearly understood and felt—it is perfectly understood why she initially helps Willie, why the two have an affair (and how burned Sadie feels when Willie spurns her for another woman—hell hath no fury like a mistress scorned), and why she is the only one with enough stones to suggest to Willie that he needs to be held morally accountable for his actions.

McCambridge’s performance is a master class in supporting acting—it isn’t simply one killer scene or an equal part of an ensemble or a lead role billed as a supporting role to reap Oscar acclaim—her Sadie Burke exists to compare, contrast, and illuminate the character of Willie Stark while making Crawford a better actor in the process. McCambridge also never forgets that her while her character’s role is small, her Sadie is also a fully formed human being with wants, desires, jealousies, and heartbreak. If only the rest of the film were as awesome and impassioned as her performance in it.

I’ll conclude my discussion of All the King’s Men and political films by describing a political film I found to be truly radical. About a month after viewing the 1949 Oscar winner, I viewed for the first time a very famous political film released ten years earlier—Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra’s film and Robert Rossen’s film have very little in common save for their political themes, and both films have some serious flaws (in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra overindulges in sentiment, coincidence, and unbelievable situations—especially in the final third of the film). Yet Capra’s film uses optimism to its advantage. The protagonist, Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart in one of his quintessential roles), has politics thrust upon him, as he is named Senator by his Governor after the previous Senator has passed away. Smith—devoid of any ruthless political ambition—simply wishes to not embarrass himself or his state. His naïveté and optimism become infectious as the film unfolds, and as the narrative builds to Smith’s epic filibuster against graft in the Senate, I found myself believing in the power of our Constitution and the principles of our government if they remained unpolluted.

Both Willie Stark and Jefferson Smith begin their films as political neophytes. Both have populist roots. Inarguably, both of the characters are dynamic. Each of these characters have also had decades of turbulent political history working against them. I was surprised to find myself identifying with the idealistic, naïve, and let’s face it—kind of hokey film where a single man can enter the lion’s den of American politics and come out with his integrity intact. Willie Stark is the more realistic and—when viewed through the lens of 1949—prescient portrait of an American politician (and let’s not forget, he was modeled on actual Louisiana Governor Huey Long), but after bearing witness to decades of American political scandal, the character is neither surprising nor incendiary. Jefferson Smith, the naïve optimist, is far more refreshing and revolutionary.

Perhaps a future filmmaker will realize that if he wishes to make a truly special political film, a vision of politics that appeals to the better nature of man will be far more eye-opening than one mired in scandal and immorality.


All the King’s Men (1949)

Director: Robert Rossen

Starring: Broderick Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, John Ireland, Joanne Dru

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Actor—Broderick Crawford, Best Supporting Actress—Mercedes McCambridge) out of 7 total nominations (Best Director—Robert Rossen, Best Supporting Actor—John Ireland, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing)

NEXT BLOG: 1940’s Oscar Review, then into the 1950’s with All About Eve

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