Political strategist Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) has been handed an assignment that would surely make a saner man run fast, run far. The Democratic Party is anxious to field a candidate in the California race for U.S. Senator—but that means taking on a powerful Republican incumbent, three-time Capitol Hill veteran Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter). The Dems have been unsuccessful convincing anyone to challenge the “Crock,” but Lucas has an idea: an old friend of his from college, Legal Aid lawyer and activist Bill McKay (Robert Redford), has been getting a good deal of positive press of late and he just might be the man the party is looking for.
McKay has another plus: he’s a member of a political “dynasty” as his father John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas) is a former Golden State governor. But Bill is determined not to ride on John J.’s coattails; truth be told, he has no stomach for politics at all (we learn later he’s not even registered to vote). In meeting with Lucas, McKay is told that the odds of Jarmon winning a fourth term are so strong that Bill isn’t expected to win. He can use this opportunity to say whatever he wants and allow his activism to reach a wider audience. (Marvin even gives him a receipt, scrawling “You lose” on a matchbook cover.)
McKay’s entry into the race gives voters a refreshing respite from the usual cookie-cutter politician…although admittedly, Bill’s win in the Democratic primary has a lot to do with the name recognition from his famous pop. Then Lucas gives the candidate the plot twist: the campaign’s projections show that McKay is going to lose by an overwhelming margin, and while it’s been expected by the party they weren’t counting on Bill’s being completely humiliated. So, as the campaign continues, McKay’s positions become blander and more generic—or as veteran ABC-TV journalist Howard K. Smith (as himself) notes in an televised editorial, “mush.”
I’ve had The Candidate (1972) on the DVR for quite some time now because I thought—I can really be a silly little fool sometimes—it would be a change-of-pace from my father’s obsession with Technicolor Westerns. (I suggested watching it…and he responded with his parental veto.) Since we’ve already plunged into the 2020 election (and it’s just going to get worse from here on in, folks) I decided that it would be the perfect time for a re-watch. I’ve seen the movie multiple times; it’s one of my favorite films on the subject of politics. The night it was shown on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ both star Robert Redford and director David Lowery (of what Bob says will be his final film role, 2018’s The Old Man & the Gun) were on hand as “guest programmers.” I didn’t watch all of their chinwag with Ben Mankiewicz (because…well, Ben Mankiewicz) but I did catch the part where Redford remarked that what attracted him to the project was his belief that political campaigns were starting to become less about ideas and policy and more about personalities—a concept that is still in full force today, sad to report.
Writer Jeremy Larner (who won an Academy Award for Candidate’s screenplay) was a one-time speechwriter for Senator Eugene J. McCarthy during McCarthy’s presidential campaign in 1968. Director Michael Ritchie (who had worked with Redford previously on 1969’s Downhill Racer) was also no stranger to politics, having worked as a technical advisor on John V. Tunney’s successful 1970 campaign for U.S. Senator from California (Tunney’s opponent was incumbent Senator George Murphy of classic movie musical fame). The Bill McKay character is reportedly based on Tunney (John V. also had a famous dad, boxer Gene Tunney), and Redford, Larner, and Ritchie conceived The Candidate as kind of a “warts-and-all” documentary, shooting the film in about six weeks. The film would eventually be released about a month before the 1972 California Presidential Primary and promotional posters for the film featured Redford’s picture and the slogan “McKay: The Better Way.” (I’m sure it won’t surprise some of you that “McKay” got a few write-in votes.)
In the 1988 Presidential campaign, after Vice President pick Dan Quayle remarked on his resemblance to Redford, Bob humorously turned up at a few Michael Dukakis rallies deadpanning “Hello…I’m Dan Quayle.” The Candidate provided Redford with a most perfect movie role, in so much as he was often dismissed as a pretty boy who got by more on looks than talent. (Redford has some choice comic moments in Candidate; my favorite is when he addresses a women’s club with the poker-faced announcement: “I’m sorry I ate all the shrimp.” Never fails to break me up.) Purportedly, The Candidate inspired Quayle to get into politics; it had the opposite effect on your humble narrator, because I’m convinced I wouldn’t last long if I had to continue watering down my message in the manner of Bill McKay. (I mentioned both my and Quayle’s reactions to The Candidate to a friend of mine one time who then remarked: “Well, now I have to watch this movie.”)
If I’ve ever watched Peter Boyle give a bad performance, I’m sure I’ve forgotten it by now; I find myself returning to one of his lines in this movie time and time again when a TV talking head makes a prediction on the McKay-Jarmon race that sends Boyle’s Marvin Lucas into a rage. (One of Lucas’ fellow political hacks says it shouldn’t matter what they say on TV, prompting Marvin to retort that it matters with voters: “They stay home, schmuck!”) To me, one of the movie’s finest turns comes from character great Don Porter as Jarmon; known for his long career as a popular TV face (as Ann Sothern’s foil and Gidget’s dad), Porter is first-rate in making the conservative Senator accessibly folksy—it’s not difficult to see why he keeps getting re-elected (something that is remarked upon in the film). The scuttlebutt is that James Stewart was offered the part of Jarmon but he turned it down (Jimmy thought the character derogatory) so Porter won out big time with this acting opportunity.
The Candidate is filled with other familiar thesps: Allen Garfield is a consultant who’s in charge of McKay’s political ads; Kenneth Tobey is a union bigwig who has a tense confrontation with the candidate (Bill: “I don’t think we have shit in common.”) yet backs him anyway; and Karen Carlson is Bill’s supportive spouse (who’s unaware that her hubby is having an affair with one of the staffers—a plot point that they wisely chose to keep subtle although the signs [“A toss in the hay with” reads graffiti scrawled on one of McKay’s signs] are unmistakable). Redford’s co-star from Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property is Condemned (1966), Natalie Wood, has a nice bit as herself (the two of them attended the same high school) and the film features a slew of political cameos (even John V, Tunney!). I’m on record as admitting I’m not the biggest Melvyn Douglas fan but he’s pitch perfect as Redford’s dad; my favorite moment of his occurs after McKay, who’s gone off-script during a debate with Jarmon, is spared an ass-chewing from his handlers because the senior McKay has endorsed his campaign. “I wonder if anybody understood what I tried to say?” Bill asks his father. “Don’t worry, son,” John J. replies. “It won’t make any difference.” (Father Douglas later assures Tobey that Redford’s election is in the bag because “He’s cute.”)
Michael Ritchie would follow The Candidate with two films that offered wry, corrosive observations on American culture and society: Smile (1975), which copies Candidate’s semi-documentary approach in sending up beauty pageants (this is a movie that should be better known), and the box office hit The Bad News Bears (1976). What continues to impress me about The Candidate is that though a few of the issues addressed in the film (candidate McKay is asked his opinion on busing and abortion, pre-Roe v Wade) may be a little antiquated, the theme of politics morphing into mere ad campaigns to sell a “product” (candidate) remains as relevant as ever.