Film / Advise & Consent

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A 1962 political drama based on the bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Allen Drury. Directed by Otto Preminger, the film stars Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Don Murray, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney, and Franchot Tone, among others.

The President makes a controversial nomination for Secretary of State, one Robert Leffingwell (Fonda), a man who advocates a more conciliatory approach to the Soviet Union with the hope of thawing the Cold War. Political machinations ensue to get the U.S. Senate to "advise and consent" to the nomination.

The novel is not a Roman Clef, but it does depict incidents and character traits that would have been familiar to Americans who followed politics at the time. Most obviously, a president who is hiding the extent of his illness and who serves with an honest but out-of-the-loop Vice President would have evoked Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Notable as the last film appearance for Laughton, who plays Sen. Cooley, the leader of the opposition to the President and to Leffingwell. And look for Betty White, who was not always old, in a small part as the Senate's lone female member.


This movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: Leffingwell, who if not exactly a hero, is much less villainous than the book's Leffingwell. He lies about his past but is highly conflicted about it, viewing it as a Necessary Evil to achieve his high-minded goals and ultimately going through with it only to protect a friend whose reputation will also be ruined by the news. He also gets several Pet the Dog scenes with his family. (Being played by Henry Fonda undoubtedly helps.) In the novel, Leffingwell is both a liberal caricature and a Villain with Good Publicity; he shows no remorse for lying and actively participates in the conspiracy against Brig Anderson, which, in the film, takes place long after he has withdrawn from the public eye until after the confirmation.
  • Artistic Title: Designed by Saul Bass.
  • Author Tract: Again, averted by the adaptation. The book overtly villainizes the President and Leffingwell, and Drury's conservative politics dominate the story. Preminger offers a more nuanced, though still somewhat-cynical take on Washington politics.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Seab Cooley deliberately plays up the image of being a Large Ham Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit who is out for petty revenge of a minor insult years prior from Bob Leffingwell. In actuality, even at his advanced age, Cooley is still one of the sharpest members of the Senate, manages to figure out who the third man was in Leffingwell's communist cell simply through logical deduction, and does have concerns with Leffingwell's politics, legitimate or not.
  • Bittersweet Ending: With the Senate vote tied, VP Hudson is poised to break the tie and confirm Leffingwell, but doesn't because the President has just died and technically Hudson isn't Vice President anymore. He could probably still make the vote, but abstains, instead deciding to choose his own Secretary of State, ironically showing exactly the kind of initiative and leadership that would've made the president less determined to get Leffingwell in the first place. The Senate breaks with a friendly air of competitors having no ill-will towards one another, except for Van Ackerman who is going to be deservedly ostracized for his part in the blackmail plot.
  • Blackmail: Brig Anderson, who as chairman of the committee is holding up Leffingwell's nomination, is blackmailed by Sen. Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), who learns of a homosexual dalliance Anderson had in his youth in the armed forces.
  • Bury Your Gays: Sen. Anderson's gay romance while he was in the Army is about to be exposed, so he kills himself.
  • The Chains of Commanding: The President is burdened with the knowledge that he must live up to the examples left by his predecessors and not allow the United States to fall lest the sacrifices of past generations of Americans be for nothing. It's gotten so bad that the burden is literally killing him.
  • Cruel Mercy: Van Ackerman receives this from Munson and Danta. They don't want to bring up Brig Anderson's "old sin" by censuring Van Ackerman for his blackmail. So, they tell him he can remain in the Senate, but it's clear he'll be a non-entity, shunned by both parties and considered a disgrace.
  • Cut-and-Paste Note: The threatening notes sent to both Sen. Anderson and his wife.
  • Decided By One Vote: Leffingwell's nomination fails on a 47-47 tie. Averted in the novel in which the nomination goes down in flames.
  • Death By Genre Savvy: Senator Anderson knows full well that playing your cards close to your chest is a good idea in Washington. Too bad it's this secrecy that leads to his death.
  • Democracy Is Flawed: Some venal characters and some self-serving motivations on display.
  • Demoted to Extra: Senator Knox is one of the novel's protagonists. He's a minor character in the movie, with his meatier speeches given to Cooley.
  • Driven to Suicide: Sen. Anderson kills himself to avoid exposure, while his lover commits suicide out of guilt for telling his story to the blackmailers.
  • Everyone Has Standards:
    • Sadly averted in the novel. Once Senator Anderson's homosexual affair comes to light, the editor of the Washington paper personally visits him to inform him that they won't be printing the story because it amounts to little more than petty character assassination. However, he also warns Anderson that someone, somewhere won't have any standards and will print it.
    • The President was fully willing to blackmail Senator Anderson with the evidence of his affair, but he never actually meant for the information to go public. He's genuinely disgusted by Senator Van Ackerman's demagoguery and refuses to have anything more to do with him after Anderson's suicide.
  • Fat, Sweaty Southerner in a White Suit: "Seab" Cooley. Somewhat averted later, when he puts on a regular suit, and does the honorable thing at the end.
  • The Film of the Book: A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Allen Drury.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Although The Hays Code was still technically in effect, Otto Preminger barely bothered.
    • An attractive woman is seen leaving a senator's hotel room first thing in the morning, wearing the same Little Black Dress and mink stole she was presumably wearing the night before. The majority leader then enters, finds the senator still in his bathrobe, and gently suggests that perhaps a senator should project more stability by getting married.
    • This is the first American movie with a scene inside what is obviously a gay bar.
    • It's also pretty strongly implied that Sen. Anderson and his wife aren't intimate very much.
    • In a mild Precision F-Strike, Dolly jokingly refers to herself as "an old bitch" in one scene.
  • Government Procedural: Not the first, but certainly codified the tropes and conventions associated with the genre today.
  • Gray and Grey Morality: Pretty much no one has clean hands in this one. But, with the exception of Van Ackerman and his cronies, everyone also wants what they believe is best for the country rather than "just" to advance their own political careers.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: Leffingwell has to testify about his past and political views.
  • Hidden Depths: In the novel, once Harley Hudson realizes that the President is indeed going to die soon and that the country will need him, he promptly takes a level in badass and becomes much more competent. He even manages to stare down the Jerkass Soviet ambassador. The ending of the novel implies that Hudson will be a capable if perhaps not extraordinary president. The film has a similar scene where he meets Sen. Anderson on his fateful plane ride to New York, and leaves him with the admiring impresson that the VP is "the most underestimated man in Washington."
  • Honor Before Reason: Subverted in the film, where Munson releases all the senators from the obligation of their pledged votes right before the final call. To the untrained eye of Van Ackerman, this looks like a clear-cut case, but to the rest of the cast it's apparant that without this magnanimous gesture distancing the nomination from the scandal surrounding Anderson's blackmail and suicide, the nomination would've gone down in flames like it does in the book. Thus, this is instead a case of the honorable thing also being the reasonable one.
  • It's Personal: In the novel, the entire Senate takes the blackmail induced suicide of Senator Anderson as a personal affront from the President. It results in the Leffingwell nomination going from being an even split to having almost zero supporters in less than a day. In the film, it at least ruins Van Ackerman's career. They tolerate a lot of things there, but not destroying one of their own.
  • Lots And Lots Of Characters: Not as many as the novel, where seemingly every Senator has at least a walk-on, but there's still a dozen major characters to keep track of.
  • Mr. Exposition: Or rather Ms. Exposition: several diplomats' wives appear at the first Senate hearing to explain and discuss the verities of American politics.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Almost everyone in the novel and film has this viewpoint. The problems arise when the different definitions of 'right' and 'wrong' clash with each other.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Almost every single person involved in the scheme to blackmail Senator Anderson has this reaction once he commits suicide.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: All the characters are fictional, but they are all clearly inspired by Real Life individuals.
    • As noted above, the President who is dying, but concealing that from the public, and the Vice President who is ignored by the administration, are pattered after Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. While the parties wouldn't be right, that could also describe Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon's relationship.
    • Playboy Senator Lafe Smith is modeled after John F. Kennedy (and it may be a Casting Gag that Peter Lawford, Kennedy's brother-in-law, plays Smith in the movie).
    • Van Ackerman is based on Joe McCarthy (although Van Ackerman is a left-wing extremist rather than a right-winger).
    • Anderson's suicide is inspired by the real-life story of Sen. Lester C. Hunt, who killed himself in the Capitol building after being blackmailed over his son's homosexuality.
    • Seab Cooley is patterned after Georgia power broker Richard Russell.
    • The loyal, friendly whip Stanley Danta seems to resemble Hubert Humphrey.
    • Betty White's Sen. Bessie Adams is inspired by Margaret Chase Smith.
    • Dolly Harrison, Munson's mistress, is loosely based on Perle Mesta, a Washington socialite who served as Harry Truman's Ambassador to Luxembourg.
    • And the cross-examination of Leffingwell by the Senate subcommittee is strongly reminiscent of the Alger Hiss hearings.
  • No Name Given:
    • The President's name is never mentioned, although Sen. Munson does once call him "Russ".
    • In the novel, the name of Senator Anderson's lover is never revealed. It's rather sad since no one, not even the reader, will ever know who he was beyond the fact that he was gay.
  • No Party Given: One character is the Senate majority leader, another is the Senate minority leader, but party names are never mentioned. The novel actually averts this if one pays close attention. Seab Cooley is mentioned in passing as having been first elected to the House on the same platform as Woodrow Wilson. That would make the Senate majority and the President Democrats and the Senate minority Republicans.
  • Not So Different: Orrin Knox and the President absolutely loathe each other yet the novel routinely shows that the two men are very alike. Both love their country with a passion and both have a vision in mind for her future. Both are also absolutely sure that their vision is best and won't compromise on it. Their final Oval Office conversation makes it clear that if they had been willing to set aside their differences they could have been a great team.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: The President Scheming variety, although he's sincerely motivated to do what he thinks is best for the country.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Senate Majority Leader Munson (Pidgeon) gives two, one to Cooley for his scheming and a more forceful one to Van Ackerman for his role in the blackmail scheme.
  • Red Herring: Sen. Munson, a widower, is carrying on an affair with a Washington society lady, Dolly Harrison (Gene Tierney). This seems like it will be important. It isn't.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The President tries to bribe Senator Knox into supporting the Leffingwell nomination by offering to deliver the nomination at the next party convention. Knox, who desperately wants to be President himself someday, never seriously considers the offer and instead leads the charge to destroy Leffingwell's political career.
  • Secretly Dying: The President's health is rapidly declining after a surgery failed. He wants to get Leffingwell confirmed while he still has the chance. Except it's not that much of a secret. By the time the novel starts, most of the government is already aware of this and preparing to help Vice President Hudson as much as they can when he has to step up to the plate.
  • Title Drop: When Sen. Munson moves to proceed with the vote on Leffingwell's nomination.
  • The Unreveal: In the book, it's never revealed whether or not Leffingwell is still a communist sympathizer. By the end it no longer really matters.
  • Vice President Who: Harley Hudson is ineffectual, mild-mannered, and terrified at the prospect of becoming President. He is generally ignored by the administration. The President, who is gravely ill, wants Leffingwell as Secretary of State because he doesn't think Hudson can handle foreign policy.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The book version of Bob Leffingwell is a Jerk Ass Smug Snake who lies to a Senate committee and is complicit in the blackmail of a U.S. Senator with the aim of becoming the next Secretary of State. He's also beloved by the press because of his anti-war stance. The film version is a far, far more impressively nuanced character. Interestingly, later novels in the series, written after the movie adaptation, go with the film's version of Leffingwell's character.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist:
    • Van Ackerman, who takes some extreme measures to get Leffingwell confirmed. Although it is strongly implied that he's equally motivated by a desire to be a major player in the Senate and hit in with the more prominent senators.
    • The President would be a more straight example of this. He's willing to get his hands very dirty to get the job done but a chapter in the novel makes it clear that he's motivated by nothing more than the continued security and prosperity of his country.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The President (see Secretly Dying above).

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