The Best Man has an all-star cast. John Larroquette is the morally conflicted Secretary William Russell. Eric McCormack is his opponent, Senator Joseph Cantwell. Cantwell is ethically challenged and will do anything it takes to get the nomination. The two men are in a heated battle with each other for the nomination. Larroquette’s performance is understated but not emotionally devoid. When Russell struggles with whether or not to release a counter attack against Senator Cantwell’s smear tactics, Larroquette’s performance gains depth. As Senator Joseph Cantwell, McCormick has no trouble conjuring up the smiling, confident slimeball.
James Earl Jones is Former President Arthur “Arty” Hockstader. Mr. Jones is an immensely capable actor who deftly handles the role. But his is a piece of gimmicky casting considering, there would never have been a black candidate for president in 1960. It’s obvious why they chose to cast a black man in the role, it mirrors our current political landscape, thus enabling the audience to better identify with the character. President Hockstader is at the convention to endorse one of the two men. Secretary Russell seems to have the advantage after having been the president’s former Secretary of State.
Broadway doyenne Angela Lansbury, in a much smaller role than her last two Broadway outings (Blithe Spirit and A Little Night Music), is Mrs. Sue–Ellen Gamadge, the Chairman of the Women’s Division of the Republican Party. Ms. Lansbury is agile and full of energy. When Mrs. Gammage tells Secretary Russell that the women voters don’t like it when he tries to be funny, Russell quickly points out that Lincoln was a humorist, Mrs. Gammage retorts “the women were not voting in 1860.” Lansbury has a way with a one-liner but can say just as much with a look.
Cantwell’s wife Mabel, played by Kerry Butler is the perfect dingbat to McCormick’s slimeball. Anytime they are alone in the room together they begin referring to each other in the third person as Mama and Papa Bear in cutesy voices. This role is a nice departure for Butler who has been primarily associated with musicals (Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors).
Candice Bergen is Russel’s wife Alice. Ms. Bergen’s performance is unexceptional. She appears stiff and uncomfortable, though that does seem to be perfect for the character. The cadence of Bergen’s delivery is hypnotic. But it is that same cadence that enables her to toss out a snide aside to great effect. While meeting with Cantwell’s wife, Mrs. Cantwell accuses Mrs. Russell of trying to be witty and profound, just like her husband, Mrs. Russell replies “I’d like to think that intelligence is contagious.” Think of Murphy Brown saying that line and you have the idea, it’s very funny.
Michael McKean plays Dick Jensen, Russel’s campaign manager. His performance is perfect as the handler cajoling the candidate into doing things he doesn’t really want to do. Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony award for I Am My Own Wife, is perfect as the nebbishy Sheldon Marcus, a man with a grudge and possible dirt to throw back at Cantwell.
Director Michael Wilson has given The Best Man a nice brisk pace. He uses the clever scenic design by Derek McLane to more efficiently move from scene to scene. The set consists of two turntables that spin into place, creating two distinct hotel suites and a more general playing area. Ms. Lansbury and Ms. Butler both look exquisite in Ann Roth’s costumes. I must, however, take exception to one of the character’s hair color. You are no doubt now asking yourself if you just read that correctly, but two lines in the script refer to Mrs. Russell’s “naturally gray hair.” Ms. Bergen’s hair has the distinct look of highlights and it doesn’t appear so much gray as it does blonde from a bottle. Didn’t anyone notice this in a costume fitting?
Vidal’s script is a peek behind the scenes of something we are living with daily, the advantage here is that it’s gilded with humor. Mrs. Gammage remarks that Russell is “not the ideal candidate for the women.” Doesn’t that sound like a couple of candidates in the current field of Republican contenders? Like Russell does in The Best Man, I’d like to see more enlightened politicians who could admit that they don’t believe in God. President Hockstader remarks “Well, the world’s changed since I was politickin’. In those days you had to pour God over everything, like ketchup.” It would seem everything old is new again.