Uh-oh! Symbolism alert!
As Donald Drumpf oozes his way towards Republican candidacy, it seemed appropriate to watch George Wallace, the John Frankenheimer-directed teleplay about another figure who sought to give the American people what they wanted… whatever it might be. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others,” he doesn’t quite say.
Gary Sinise won an Emmy for this role the day Wallace himself died, the kind of thing you couldn’t make up, and asides from the obvious political amusement value of a Reaganite wingnut in the role, he’s very well suited to it. Obviously any actor is going to be better looking than any politician, but the snakily sexy Sinise does have some kind of a working resemblance to his subject. He also deserved his Emmy for giving much of his performance from behind some pretty awful old age makeup.
Prosthetically enhanced nasolabial madness
Sinise later reprised this role, uncredited, in Path to War, Frankenheimer’s last major work, about LBJ’s Vietnam entanglement — sadly, this piece doesn’t have nearly as good a script — too much exposition, backstory, showing off the research, characters as mouthpieces, some good stuff but some truly awful stuff. Joe Don Baker is wasted in a role that demands he deliver exactly the same dollar-book Freud analysis of Wallace, twice, in scenes set seventeen years apart. Mare Winningham is great as Mrs. W, but her role seems sculpted after Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon in the Oliver Stone movie, whose baleful influence hangs heavily over this one (unhelpful flashback structure; meaningless fluctuations into b&w). Both women are made into that most irksome of feminine characters, the person who pleads with the an/protagonist not to do what he’s got to do. Yeah, spend more time with your family, George. That’ll make riveting television. Worse, in order to make these women “sympathetic,” both pieces avoid giving them any politics of their own — they are mutely compliant ciphers (which is the role politician’s wives play in public, but I imagine often behind the scenes they understand and agree with a good bit of what hubby is up to). So Lurleen Wallace’s only role is as Pinocchio’s conscience, but without the insights. “And if you do become president, will that finally quell the raging beast that dwells within you?” she doesn’t quite say.
(The script does manage one nice use of backstory — the Wallaces roleplaying the first time they met, which gives them a moment of sweetness while filling in some history [as always with backstory, we don’t actually need it, but in this case it pays for itself in present-tense character stuff].)
Also along is a young Angelina Jolie, fairly melting the celluloid. The script can’t quite decide what to make of her. She’s as driven to win as George — perhaps that makes her bad? She’s sexy — perhaps that makes her bad? Whatever, it’s a fierce, animalistic performance from somebody who’s clearly going places.
Who else? Clarence Williams III is moving as a prison trustee working in the governor’s mansion, who turns out to be fictitious, a fact revealed in a final title, which kind of collapses his part of the piece like a house of cards. Where the film works, it tends to be in (a) showing Wallace’s monstrousness — his famous line about having been “outniggered” — “As God is my witness, I’ll never be outniggered again,” he doesn’t quite say. And (b) showing Wallace suffer — Sinise is chairbound again, in constant pain, and yes, we can feel some sympathy for a soul in hell even though damned if he deserves it. Where it resorts to special pleading or faking up sympathy it flounders. Williams isn’t doing a DRIVING MISS DAISY, quite (that would be too horrific), and there’s some merit in showing that Wallace THINKS he likes black people, personally, and thinks his ability to have them around the house proves he’s not bigoted, but this piece of fiction damages the film nevertheless, because it hurts its credibility.
The Klan brings out Frankenheimer’s compositional brio
I have somewhere in the house a 70s book on Frankenheimer, probably buried in the folds of my floordrobe, with a substantial interview in which he talks about his liberal politics. Maybe nowadays anybody talking about “negros” will just seem dates and clueless, but Frankenheimer seems to have problems that go beyond just terminology — I believe he uses the expression “the Negro problem,” which is falling into a major linguistic trap. You’re saying, I believe, that there is a problem because there are some people called Negros. Back up. Try again. Try better.
But Frankenheimer’s political engagement (American liberals tend to be pretty right-wing by the standards of the rest of the world) does allow him to portray his real-life friend Bobby Kennedy squaring off against Wallace (Mark Valley is pretty good in the role, though again a shade too handsome). And the historical events and the actions of the main figure (one heistates to use the word “character”) had us watching with our jaws hanging open. Some of the facts we knew, but it’s mostly before our time, and it’s another country, so a lot of it was new to us.
The movie takes Wallace’s reformation seriously — he asks forgiveness of African-Americans. As an audience, having watched this human bellwether flip-flop for three hours, we’re not quite willing to go with him. It would be entirely in character for Wallace to renounce his former racism just to stay fashionable. It’s good that he did it, whatever the reason, just as Drumpf’s racism is equally toxic whether he believes it or not. Political hot air has real consequences.
JF’s signature shot, first wheeled out in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A nostalgia for the mechnics of TV runs all through his later work.
The music in this show is not good. Orchestral synths piping presidential themes at us — John Williams could play NIXON epic because he had the musical grandeur to pull it off, and the script made enough clumsy gestures Nixon being a tragic figure — King Liar. “He doesn’t deserve this music,” said Fiona, as the pseudo-strings swelled soupily around Sinise. “He deserves, maybe, a toy piano.” Or a kazoo and a rattle. Gary Chang did some good scores for Frankenheimer, especially on the thrillers, but this isn’t good.
The problematic script is by Wallace biographer Marshall Frady and Paul Monash, whose career swings from the crappy add-on scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL, to fifties TV shows including one with Frankenhemer (I haven’t seen The Death of Manolete) to the magnificent THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.