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Sex Scandals & Politics

10 minutes read

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Weird stuff happened at the most recent MTV Movie Awards ceremony: Justin Timberlake grabbed Mila Kunis’ breasts, Mila Kunis grabbed Justin Timberlake’s crotch, Robert Pattinson kissed Taylor Lautner instead of Kristen Stewart, and winners in the various categories were given trophies that look like overstuffed popcorn bags.

Yet, the weirdest thing at the ceremony held last Sunday evening in Universal City was watching a 35-year-old woman playing the role of Old Matriarch to a crowd filled with men and women in their 20s. The 35-year-old in question was Reese Witherspoon, the recipient of this year’s MTV Generation Award.

After telling fellow Water for Elephants player and all-around jokester Robert Pattinson that he should have called himself the “best motherfucker in Hollywood,” Witherspoon made a U-turn and decided to teach audience members and TV viewers alike a Moral Lesson: “I get it, girls, that it’s cool to be a bad girl. But it is possible to make it in Hollywood without doing a reality show. When I came up in this business, if you made a sex tape, you were embarrassed and you hid it under your bed.

“And if you took naked pictures of yourself on your cell phone,” Witherspoon added, apparently referring to rumors about Gossip Girl star Blake Lively, “you hide your face, people! Hide your face!"

In other words, if you’re naughty, make sure no one finds out – a Moral Lesson for the ages if ever there was one. And perhaps a naive one at that, considering what took place the day after the MTV Movie Awards.

I mean, New York Democratic senator Anthony Weiner’s face was nowhere to be seen in the Twitter picture that may seriously damage his political career. Americans forgot all about unemployment, Medicare, extreme weather, and the national debt ceiling to focus all their attention on the man’s bulging underwear – which, I should add, occupied the whole frame. No face.

And that – I’m referring to Weiner’s possible political fate, not his underwear – made me think of movies in which a go-getting public figure has his/her career and/or sociopolitical crusade jeopardized as a result of private sexual dalliances. (Weiner had been investigating right-wing Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas’ dealings, among other things.)

The five movies that first came to mind are all centered on men caught in sex scandals and/or blackmail incidents. What? No women? Well, we all know men are pigs, whereas women are saints, not sows. Or perhaps they’re just better at covering their tracks.

Below, check out the five cinematic cautionary tales I’ve selected, in chronological order.

Don Murray, Charles Laughton, Advise & Consent
Don Murray, Charles Laughton, Advise & Consent

Advise & Consent (1962)

Especially after his departure from 20th Century Fox in the early 1950s, Otto Preminger set out to break one taboo after another. He took on the Production Code Administration when he released the 1953 sex comedy The Moon Is Blue without a seal of approval, cast Frank Sinatra as a hardcore drug addict in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the 1960 (un)historical melodrama Exodus.

In the 1962 all-star political drama Advise & Consent, Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes (who adapted Allen Drury’s Pulitzer-winning novel) dealt with another mostly taboo subject: homosexuality.

True, Montgomery Clift uncovered the truth about the mysterious Sebastian Venable – who became the brunch of angry (and I assume hungry) North Africans – in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer (1959); Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence admitted enjoying some rough, man-on-man action with an Arab rapist in David Lean’s Anglo-American Lawrence of Arabia (1962); and Barbara Stanwyck’s New Orleans madam clearly held a particular fondness for Capucine in A Walk on the Wild Side (1962). But as a general rule, in Hollywood films of the time homosexuality remained not only The Unmentionable, but pretty much The Invisible.

Not so in Advise & Consent, in which Don Murray’s bright, young – and very married – senator Brigham Anderson is blackmailed by George Grizzard’s ruthlessly ambitious Fred Van Ackerman, after he uncovers a gay affair in Anderson’s past. Needless to say, tragedy ensues.

Regarding his getting cast in Advise & Consent, Murray would tell the Los Angeles Times’ Susan King in 2014:

“I went in to meet with Preminger, and he asked me if I would be reluctant, as some stars had turned it down. He said, ‘Do you think that playing a homosexual will hurt your career?’”

“I said, ‘Do you think playing a Nazi [in Billy Wilder’s 1953 World War II drama Stalag 17] hurt your career?’ And he said, ‘Being a Nazi didn’t hurt my career.’ He was talking about his reputation for being such a dictatorial director on the set.”

As an aside: Advise & Consent featured the first depiction of a gay bar in a major American movie since the 1932 Clara Bow vehicle Call Her Savage.

Also in the Advise & Consent cast: Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, Franchot Tone, Gene Tierney, Burgess Meredith, Lew Ayres, Peter Lawford, Will Geer, and Betty White.

A contender for the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, Advise & Consent – in my view one of the most effective political dramas to have come out of Hollywood – earned Charles Laughton a Best Foreign Actor nomination from the British Academy, and Burgess Meredith a Best Supporting Actor Award from the National Board of Review.

Cliff Robertson, The Best Man
Cliff Robertson, The Best Man

The Best Man (1964)

Adapted by Gore Vidal from his own play, The Best Man has more dirty politics, more homoerotic activity in the distant past, and more Henry Fonda.

The “Best Man” of the title refers to the guy who shall eventually win the presidency of the United States. The title, however, is ironic. The film’s “hopeful” ending notwithstanding, Vidal, who also penned the homosexuality-cannibalism-lobotomy-themed Suddenly Last Summer, makes sure we understand that the U.S. presidency actually belongs to the most skillful game player.

Eager to win his party’s presidential nomination, Cliff Robertson’s young, ambitious Joe Cantwell is an expert at political gamesmanship. But there’s a glitch: namely, an intimate relationship with another man back during World War II.

Franklin J. Schaffner, best known for Planet of the Apes and the Oscar-winning Patton, directed. Though not as fierce as it should have been, The Best Man remains one of Schaffner’s best efforts.

Also in the Best Man cast: Edie Adams, Ann Sothern, Lee Tracy, Margaret Leighton, Kevin McCarthy, Shelley Berman, Gene Raymond, and Richard Arlen.

The Best Man earned veteran Lee Tracy Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category. Tracy’s fellow MGM veteran Ann Sothern earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Photo: Via Doctor Macro

Emanuele Gargiulo, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Pianese Nunzio
Emanuele Gargiulo, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Pianese Nunzio

Pianese Nunzio, Fourteen in May (1996)

Writer-director Antonio Capuano’s Pianese Nunzio, Fourteen in May focuses not on a political figure, but on a politically active religious one.

Set in Naples, Pianese Nunzio chronicles the anti-mafia crusade waged by Don Lorenzo Borrelli (Fabrizio Bentivoglio). Worshiped by the local population, Don Lorenzo is both feared and hated by the Camorra. How can the relentlessly determined priest be stopped?

Well, it turns out that Don Lorenzo has fallen in love with thirteen-year-old Nunzio Pianese (Emanuele Gargiulo), a poor, family-less, and handsome teen with whom the priest has a “sexual-spiritual liaison” – Don Lorenzo sees eroticism and physical intimacy as manifestations of spirituality.

Instead of judging Don Lorenzo, Capuano makes clear we understand that Nunzio is no naive little victim: the teenager knows exactly what he’s doing – in fact, Nunzio not only likes it, but he also has a profound admiration and respect for the priest. And while not in Don Lorenzo’s company, Nunzio has both a young girlfriend to hang out with and an older woman to make out with.

Neither Nunzio nor Don Lorenzo sees anything wrong with their relationship, but the authorities and the general population surely will. The mafia, of course, sets out to discredit the priest, trying to pit Nunzio against him.

Though a challenging, beautifully crafted drama and one of the contenders for the Golden Lion at the 1996 Venice Film Festival, Pianese Nunzio was mostly ignored by Italy’s Academy of Film and that country’s National Syndicate of Film Journalists. It received a single David di Donatello nomination, for Best Sound.

Emma Thompson, John Travolta, Primary Colors
Emma Thompson, John Travolta, Primary Colors

Primary Colors (1998)

Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Elaine May, adapting Newsweek political columnist Joe Klein’s novel, Primary Colors is a surprisingly effective fictionalized account of Bill Clinton’s run for the White House.

In the film, Southern senator Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is an affable, slimy, untrustworthy, and perennially horny fellow. His goal – and that of his party’s movers and shakers – is the White House. Obstacle to be removed: an alleged affair with a 17-year-old black woman that resulted in a baby.

Ah, homosexuality also raises its damning head in Primary Colors, but the political candidate with that sort of dirty past belongs to the opposition. As if the gay stuff wasn’t bad enough, the character (played by Larry Hagman) also had drug-addiction woes.

Primary Colors’ Hillary Clinton, “Susan Stanton,” is played by Emma Thompson. Also in the Primary Colors cast: Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Billy Bob Thornton, Adrian Lester, Diane Ladd, Caroline Aaron, and Rob Reiner.

A financial disappointment upon its release, Primary Colors was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Kathy Bates) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010)

Directed by Academy Award winner Alex Gibney, the documentary Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer attempts to show that former New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s downfall was quite possibly set up by his powerful Wall Street enemies. Unlike his fellow politicians who cozy up to generous corporate biggies, Spitzer was after the Wall Street crowd.

Spitzer’s fall from grace was the revelation of his connection with what has been described as a “high-class prostitution ring” – involving black socks and actual physical contact with pricey sex workers, not the usual impeccably dressed whoring found in the hallways of political power.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer was nominated for the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild awards in the Best Documentary Feature category.

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