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TCM Spotlight On Political Films

Host Ben Mankiewicz talks politics and film

Fred MacMurray becomes the

Credit: Warner Brothers

Above: Fred MacMurray becomes the "First Lady" when his wife Polly Bergen is elected as the first woman president in "Kisses for My President."

With the presidential election just around the corner, Turner Classic Movies is programming a political film series that highlights the best and worst in American politics.

Politics is inherently filled with drama so with the presidential election about to come to an end, Turner Classic Movies has launched a Spotlight on Political Films. The films range from screwball comedies to serious documentaries.

Hillary Rodham Clinton might make history on Nov. 8 if elected as the first woman president in the United States, but that’s old news in Hollywood. Back in 1964, Polly Bergen made it into the Oval Office in the film "Kisses for My President." Of course not even Hollywood was ready to take that too seriously.

"Polly Bergen is the president and Fred MacMurray is her Bill Clinton. And it deals with everything you’d sort of imagine 1960s would think was funny about that," TCM host Ben Mankiewicz said.

After getting sworn into office, Bergen moves into the White House where she's shown the president’s bedroom. Her reaction to it is: "It isn’t very feminine."

But MacMurray's bedroom is!

"It’s totally amusing because it’s Fred MacMurray and he’s so unbelievably likable all the time but no question this movie is heavy with 1960s sexism even as it’s about a movie about the first female president of the U.S.," Mankiewicz said.

Mankiewicz is the perfect person to look at the intersection of Hollywood and politics since his grandfather wrote "Citizen Kane," his great-uncle wrote and directed "All About Eve,” and his father was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary. He says his dad pointed to John Ford’s “The Last Hurrah” and Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate” as the two films that best represented the political process.

"'The Candidate' is so realistic that it feels like a documentary," Mankiewicz said.

Although made in 1972, "The Candidate" has lost none of its bite or relevancy. The film casts Robert Redford as an idealistic lawyer named Bill McKay. McKay gets drafted to run as the Democratic candidate for California senator.

"The beauty of it is that hey man, you can say whatever you want because you are never going to win," Mankiewicz said. "It takes us through that campaign and how the campaign changes even the most ideologically pure and uncorrupt among us. But it’s a really good lesson for people who are overly idealistic about politics and I don’t want to crush people’s idealism but politics works in part because it probably crushes too much idealism. This is a good perspective on what being part of that system does and does it even to the best politicians who accomplished the most good for the most people."

With razor sharp wit, the film dissects the campaign process and hones in on the way a candidate is packaged for the public. How he looks, what he says, how he’s dressed, who he’s seen with … it’s all carefully controlled.

"All these things that have had the cumulative effect of making us feel politics is inherently phony and of course much of it is phony, not all of it. The work, the policy work isn’t phony at all but the optics are incredibly phony and have left a generation, multiple generations supremely jaded about politics as if it doesn’t matter who they elect and that is supremely unfortunate," Mankiewicz stated.

But cynicism about the political process is nothing new in Hollywood. One of the best political comedies of all time is Preston Sturges “The Great McGinty” from the 1940s. Mankiewicz says the film manages to give you extreme circumstances without making them so silly that you lose interest in the people and the story.

"Because on paper the idea of a hobo, forgive the terminology but it was the 1940s, rises one rung up at a time up the political ladder until he’s at the top is absurd but somehow in 'The Great McGinty' it all makes sense while also amusing you every step of the way," he said.

Much of the film’s cynicism comes from a character played by William Demerest. He’s a political veteran who’s seen it all and has a knack for summing up situations like this: "If it wasn’t for graft you would get a very low type of people in politics, people without ambition, jellyfish."

"It is incredibly cynical about the process," Mankiewicz said. "It also just shows you that as cynical as we think we are now in 2016 about American politics we were plenty cynical in 1940 and this movie was released basically a year before we joined the fight in World War II and patriotism and belief in our political leaders was at an all time high."

Whether you are feeling cynical or idealistic about this year’s election, you can find a diverse array of cinematic choices with this month’s TCM Spotlight on Political Films.

You can listen to my full interview with Mankiewicz on the Bonus Election Podcast.

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