Released 60 years ago, Advise & Consent ranks high on any list of the greatest films ever made about American politics. Unlike most of the others, it still holds up. Featuring unforgettable performances from Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, and Walter Pidgeon, as well as a cameo from a young Betty White, Advise & Consent was the first in a string of nuclear-age, Cold War–themed movies—The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Dr. Strangelove, and Fail Safe—that have long been considered classics.
Directed by Otto Preminger, Advise & Consent was based on a 1959 best-selling novel that drew on the actual personalities, debates, and sex scandals that its author, Allen Drury, had witnessed over the course of his 16-year career as a congressional correspondent in Washington for United Press, The Evening Star (a Washington paper), and The New York Times. The book’s early sales benefited from some fortuitous publicity. A chance televised encounter on the tarmac of Chicago’s Midway Airport between the two leading presidential candidates at the time, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy, led to what Drury would later describe as “the greatest publicity a book has ever received.”
During an impromptu press conference, Kennedy was asked to comment on the Senate’s rejection earlier that day of President Dwight Eisenhower’s nominee for commerce secretary. “We do have a responsibility under the Constitution to advise and consent, and we could not in this case consent,” Kennedy, who happened to be toting a copy of Drury’s novel, told the scrum of reporters. At the mention of this senatorial duty, Nixon enthusiastically grabbed the book from the hands of his future opponent and proudly displayed it for the cameras as if it were a newborn baby. “Nearly Everybody’s Reading Advise and Consent,” Drury’s publisher proclaimed in an advertisement featuring an image of the encounter. Advise and Consent would go on to spend a record-breaking 102 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and spawn the modern Washington novel.
Drury’s frank depiction of louche senatorial behavior and skullduggery proved controversial, but there was one transgression that would prove more challenging to portray on film than blackmail, infidelity, deceit, or inebriation. “There has never been a movie that has been so closely watched as this one by all the people who control public opinion,” Drury wrote to Preminger shortly after the director purchased the rights to his book.
One of the major, if not the major, reasons for this heightened scrutiny was the novel’s scandalous gay subplot, premised on a series of actual events that were familiar to Washington insiders but scarcely known outside the Beltway. A lot more than faithful adherence to the source material was at stake in Preminger’s cinematic adaptation. If Drury and Preminger got their way, Advise & Consent would become the first Hollywood production that explicitly depicted the love that dare not speak its name on the big screen.
Drury had based his novel on three real-life Washington dramas in which homosexuality played a central, if tacit, role. The book begins when the ailing president of the United States nominates an upstanding liberal bureaucrat with sterling credentials, Robert A. Leffingwell, for secretary of state. During his Senate testimony, Leffingwell is confronted by a mysterious figure from his past who accuses him of having been a Communist while working as a university professor many years ago. As the senators undertake the constitutional function from which the novel’s title is derived, one of their number, Brigham “Brig” Anderson of Utah, rises in principled opposition to the president’s nominee.
Drury modeled Leffingwell, “a man so popular and with so many friends in Washington and in the press,” on Alger Hiss, the suave and well-connected former State Department official whom Time-magazine editor Whittaker Chambers, in 1948, accused of spying for the Soviet Union. Their explosive confrontation before the House Un-American Activities Committee was the first congressional hearing to be broadcast on live television, and the ensuing drama was suffused with homoerotic undertones as Hiss and his defenders launched a whisper campaign to discredit Chambers, who had a secret gay past, as a spurned homosexual out for “fairy vengeance.”
Another early Cold War confirmation battle that influenced Drury was the one surrounding Eisenhower’s nominee for ambassador to the Soviet Union, Charles E. Bohlen. Bohlen was the State Department’s top Soviet expert when Ike nominated him to the Moscow post. But his role as F.D.R.’s interpreter at Yalta, where Eastern Europe was consigned to the Soviet sphere of influence, rendered him unsuitable in the eyes of Senator Joe McCarthy, who unsuccessfully tried to smear Bohlen as a homosexual.
The third, and most consequential, episode informed the tragic death of Drury’s hero. A faithful husband, doting father, and “one of the few men in American politics with sufficient courage and integrity,” Brig Anderson, like his adversary Robert Leffingwell, also harbors a dangerous secret, albeit one even worse than a youthful flirtation with Communism: a wartime love affair with another soldier. When a left-wing senator and supporter of Leffingwell’s threatens to release a compromising photo of Brig and his erstwhile beau, Brig slits his own throat in his Senate office. This tragic dénouement was inspired by the 1954 suicide of Wyoming senator Lester Hunt, who shot himself in his Capitol Hill office after two of McCarthy’s Senate allies threatened to expose his son’s arrest for soliciting a police officer in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House.
At a time when homosexuality was illegal in every state, classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, and the target of a “lavender scare” as brutal and repressive as the concurrent Red one, Drury refused to condemn homosexuality or treat it in a prurient or scandalous manner. On the contrary, in Brig Anderson he created what might very well have been the first gay hero to appear in a work of mainstream American fiction. Drury’s patriotic, anti-Communist protagonist served as a riposte to the conflation of homosexuality and Communism that figures such as McCarthy had done so much to popularize in the public imagination.
Despite Drury’s forward-thinking attitude, his book still sent a chilling message to gay readers who might have been considering a career in politics. “If I needed any further evidence that my sexual orientation and elected office were incompatible,” future congressman Barney Frank recalled of his teenage self, “I received it from [Advise and Consent].”
Discretion and Restraint
If Drury needed a director known for pushing the envelope, he could not have found a better collaborator than Otto Preminger. As explicit depictions of homosexuality were prohibited under the Motion Picture Association of America’s infamous Production Code, Drury was well aware that Preminger would be under heavy pressure to excise the book’s gay content.
Preminger had done battle with the M.P.A.A. before, releasing two films—the 1953 romantic comedy The Moon Is Blue and the 1955 drama The Man with the Golden Arm—without M.P.A.A. seals of approval due to their portrayals of, respectively, “illicit sex” and drug abuse. In a November 1959 memo to Preminger, which I discovered in Drury’s papers at Stanford University while conducting research for my book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, Drury explained why airbrushing Brig’s sexual orientation would threaten the integrity of the plot:
The homosexual aspect of Brig’s death is not imperative, providing Mr. Preminger can think of something else sufficiently grave to bring down a character of such strength. An illicit romance, even an illicit child, won’t do it; Grover Cleveland fathered a bastard and went to the White House. And, any kind of financial speculation or corruption would be so utterly foreign to Brig’s nature that he wouldn’t be Brig any more and the whole story would be wrenched so violently out of shape that it wouldn’t be ADVISE AND CONSENT any more.
In other words, homosexuality was part of Brig’s nature—and a morally neutral one at that—while infidelity, fathering children out of wedlock, and corruption were choices. Needless to say, this view was radical for its time, and all the more noteworthy given Drury’s otherwise conservative Cold War politics.
Three months after this memo was written, M.P.A.A. Production Code director Geoffrey Shurlock traveled to Capitol Hill to inform a House subcommittee that any depiction of sexual perversion in Congress would “have to go” from the film version of Advise and Consent. A few days later, Preminger also made the Washington rounds, lobbying a group of senators to let him film inside the Senate chamber. and telling a group of reporters at the Washington Press Club that he “couldn’t care less about a Code seal.”
While defiantly battling the M.P.A.A. in public, Preminger was privately negotiating a compromise on what Variety dubbed the film’s “homo part.” Shurlock agreed to Preminger’s inclusion of a character not featured in the book, a male pimp, provided that he not be a “swishy type” but rather “a sort of beatnik character.” In return, Preminger agreed to Shurlock’s request, undertaken in deference to the Pentagon, that the photo used to blackmail Brig and his former lover not show them in uniform.
If Drury and Preminger got their way, Advise & Consent would become the first Hollywood production that explicitly depicted the love that dare not speak its name on the big screen.
In September 1961, Preminger triumphantly returned to the Washington Press Club to announce that, due to his efforts, the Production Code would no longer prohibit depictions of homosexuality. A week later, the M.P.A.A. officially confirmed the change, announcing that “in keeping with the culture, the mores and the values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint.”
The filming of Advise & Consent began in the fall of 1961, less than a year into the Kennedy administration. After eight drab years of Eisenhower, the nation’s capital was in the midst of a dazzling cultural and political transformation, embodied by a president and First Lady who rivaled any Hollywood twosome in beauty and glamour. Preminger was fascinated with the First Couple, who reminded him of old-world European royalty, and his casting of Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford in the role of a tomcatting senator was a sly tribute to the handsome president.
But so busy was the director turning the capital of the Free World into his own personal soundstage that twice he turned down Kennedy’s invitations to join him for a meal at the White House. “It was a wonderful moment to be in Washington,” remembered George Grizzard, who played the conniving senator behind the plot to blackmail Brig. “This was Camelot, after all, when all the bright young things were there to build a new world.” The excitement that surrounded the making of Advise & Consent is still palpable in the film’s trailer, which spends more time conveying the drama behind the scenes than the drama on-screen.
In his hunger for publicity, Preminger announced that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had accepted the role of an African-American senator from Georgia, a claim King politely denied the following day. But real journalists were enlisted to re-create the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and bona-fide socialites populated a party scene filmed at the massive Tregaron Estate.
Preminger’s conscription of the city’s beau monde served a purpose beyond verisimilitude. Employing prominent journalists, politicians, and society matrons as extras gave the nation’s most influential people a stake in the success of his film. As Drury presciently observed in his memo to the director, however, portraying Washington too honestly might upset the very people Preminger was hoping to impress. And while the film, like the book, obviously took some liberties in its depiction of Washington, the area in which it departed from the novel most drastically was in its treatment of “the homo part.”
Whereas Drury had condemned society for its senseless prejudice against gay people, lamenting how prevailing attitudes could drive a patriotic public servant to suicide, Preminger’s film treated homosexuality as so lurid that viewers were left feeling that suicide might indeed be preferable to exposure as a deviant. In the book, Brig never encounters his never identified wartime lover. In the film, he tracks “Ray” down to “Club 602,” the first gay bar to be depicted in postwar American cinema, where his former fling is working as a prostitute. Brig flees this decadent scene in horror, rejects Ray’s entreaties to come back, and slits his own throat.
As Vito Russo observes in The Celluloid Closet, whereas the literary version of Brig kills himself “because he is being blackmailed in Washington,” his movie analogue commits suicide “because he had gone to New York and found people with whom he had something in common and is so repulsed that he sees no alternative to the straight razor.”
Drury, who settled in the Bay Area and remained a bachelor until his death, on his 80th birthday, in 1998, described the predicament of his protagonist so movingly that some readers assumed he shared Brig’s secret. Richard Nixon was one such reader. “Allen Drury is a homosexual and so is [columnist] Joe Alsop; some of our best friends are,” Nixon can be heard telling his aides John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman in a previously redacted, 14-second snippet from a 1971 White House conversation I obtained in the course of researching my book.
If Nixon’s suspicion was correct, Drury, who would portray sympathetic gay characters in a number of future novels, would not have been the only man involved with Advise & Consent whose sexuality wasn’t entirely straight: Laughton, Pidgeon, and Grizzard reportedly all had affairs with men. And it would go some way toward explaining his disappointment with the cinematic adaptation of his runaway best-seller. After watching the film, Drury made a curt announcement regarding his hotly anticipated second novel. A thriller of high politics set at the United Nations, it would not be “available for sale to the movies.”
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James Kirchick is a contributing writer for Air Mail and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Washington, reviewed by Jonathan Darman for AIR MAIL