Advise and Consent (dir. Otto Preminger, 1962) might be called a political epic, a 138-minute long saga in which the nomination of a U.S.
senator government official (Henry Fonda) as Secretary of State sends ripples of discord through the halls of Washington. Like so many of Preminger’s films, it never really lands in the places you think it will. Who would guess that Robert Leffingwell (Fonda) actually turns out to have attended Communist meetings? Or that the film turns out not really to be about Fonda’s character at all (he disappears from the film halfway through)? By the end of the film we may wonder, “what exactly is this movie trying to be about, anyway?”
Whatever else it may be about, Advise and Consent is a key film in the history of onscreen homosexuality. It was the first Hollywood film to depict a gay bar, where Senator Brig Anderson (Don Murray) attempts to track down a former lover. Blackmailed about this affair, Anderson commits suicide, sealing his fate as a gay character in pre-Stonewall Hollywood cinema. But there’s another homosexual in the text: Charles Laughton, who plays Senator Seab Cooley as a kind of drawling, sweaty, South Carolinian swamp rat. The film establishes Cooley as presumably heterosexual (he wistfully ogles passing women), but Laughton’s off-screen homosexuality leaks into this film, one so much about leakages and disclosures, and lends extra tension to the sexual strand of the film’s plot. If we overlay his presumed heterosexuality with Laughton’s own queerness, we end up with a variation on the figure of the closeted gay politician as Communist witch-hunter and homophobe—someone not so different from, say, Roy Cohn—who not only ferrets out Fonda’s Communist past but also indirectly brings about Brig’s suicide. And note the moment, seen above, in which Cooley and Anderson meet secretly on a park bench. Earlier, Cooley has a similar secret meeting in the park with a Treasury clerk, which he jokingly (?) calls a “rendezvous.”
P.S.: OMG Betty White!!