Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Smudgy Colors

By Jackson Baker

MARCH 30, 1998:  It gets ever curiouser. This is a moment, after all, when much of the civilized world is wondering: Will the real Bill Clinton please stand up? … Well, perhaps that should be rephrased. Anyhow, we now have some additional confusion about Jack Stanton, the Clintonian alter ego created by the formerly “anonymous” Joe Klein in the novel Primary Colors and freshly re-created in the movie of that name by director Mike Nichols.

There is a superficial likeness between the two Stantons, just as each of them resembles the president now under journalistic and legal siege for some of the same peccadilloes attributed to Stanton in the book and film. (I mean, what timing, right? It’s as if a brand-new state-of-the-art ocean liner had taken a dive just before the release of a certain other blockbuster movie last Christmas.)

Both Stantons possess what Primary Colors’ narrative voice, Stanton aide Henry Burton, describes as a “goofy” grin, and we have all surely seen something like that on Clinton’s face – especially of late. Here the personae diverge, however. The available evidence suggests that the real Clinton, a notorious policy wonk, is a serious and preoccupied man on the inside, with The Grin showing up embarrassingly from time to time as something extraneous and revealing – like, say, an unzipped fly. (Needless to say, that’s a plot hook.)

Pundit Klein’s book – aptly subtitled “A Novel About Politics” – is crowded with enough incident and detail to suggest a similar figure. But John Travolta plays the character inside out; the goofiness is internal, and the occasional serious stuff is a typical politician’s mask. (Travolta’s toothy smirk as Stanton almost seems to be left over from his role as the bad guy playing the good guy in last summer’s Face-Off.)

This is not to find fault with Travolta. When the script calls for him to make a moving feel-your-pain speech a la Clinton, he has you crying in your seat. You’ll need almost as many hankies for Primary Colors as you take to Titanic.

The problem – if that’s what it is – is that director Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May seem to have reverted to their old 1960s incarnation as a hip husband-and-wife comedy team. Scenes become sketches in the process of being transferred from page to celluloid, and the novel’s systematically wry tone is transformed into broad burlesque.

Example: Klein takes a line or two to describe Stanton and some down-home companions in a “mommathon” – a kind of competition in paying homage to one’s mother. In the movie, this stretches out like one of those occasional Saturday Night Live skits that won’t gel but won’t quit, either. There are several such expansions in the Nichols-May version, and too many of them suffer from longueurs.

Plus, you would think that if the fine British actress Emma Thompson can get the Georgetown vocables of the Hillaryesque Susan Stanton right, then Travolta should be able to do a convincing border-state accent – not one that sounds like The Beverly Hillbillies’Jethro on glue. (Well, at least he isn’t asked to say “you-all.”) That this is Nichols/May’s conception rather than the actor’s seems clear from the general corn-pone context of so much else. And why is Travolta, the most graceful dancer on film since Fred Astaire, made to flail about arrhythmically when he pairs up with Thompson in Primary Colors’ one out-and-out party-down scene?

The movie’s intent would seem to be one of perfecting its caricatures rather than of plumbing its characters. Appropriately, the one role that is most unchanged from book to film is the most broadly drawn, that of Libby Holden, the acerbic, blustery, unstable (but, of course, Golden-Hearted) lesbian who serves Stanton both as his defensive co-captain and – ultimately and fatally – as his conscience. Kathy Bates is wonderful (as when is she not?), but it would be nice to see her allowed to play low-key and subtle once in a while, as she proved she could in movies like Fried Green Tomatoes and Dolores Claiborne.

Since Primary Colors was a roman-a-clef in which readers were implicitly invited to match up this or that character with this or that real person, it would be interesting to know just how Bates’ on-screen portrayal might strike Betsey Wright, the considerably more phlegmatic type who served as Clinton’s CEO in Arkansas and emerged again in his 1992 run for the presidency as his real-life “dustbuster” – charged especially with the suppression of what she referred to, memorably, as “bimbo eruptions.” (There are numerous such eruptions in Primary Colors – including a key one that is obviously based on Clinton’s Gennifer Flowers. Nichols/May have not quite caught up to the present, but then who could, including even MSNBC?)

One has to imagine that James Carville would be grossed out by Billy Bob Thornton’s Richard Jemmons, the manic brass-tacks strategist who is shown hitting on the campaign’s nubile “muffins” (and is assigned the whip-it-out scene that is getting to be obligatory in self-respectingly hip films these days) but who gets to portray precious little strategizing.

Adrian Lester is exactly right as Burton, the young African-American aide (loosely based on non-brother George Stephanopolos), who, against his will, is seduced into taking part in Stanton’s presidential campaign. Lester has the right middle distance; his persona is suspended perfectly between doubt and belief, between idealism and scorn. He never quite makes up his mind about the character of the man-of-nine-lives he serves, so “calm in a shitstorm,” so able to land on his feet through misadventure after misadventure, so elusive of interpretation, so insistent on being loved. So much like the real Bill Clinton.

The novel ended with Stanton – having just seen the last major obstacle to his party’s nomination dissolve – appealing to a somewhat disillusioned Burton, on grounds of both history and loyalty, to stay with him through the rest of the hardball political season, all the way into the White House itself. Klein chose to leave the issue of Burton’s answer moot.

The film quite properly disposes of this no-brainer mystery; it tacks on an inauguration-ball scene, and Henry Burton is right there, as why would he not be? We know enough of the ambition of politicians and their hangers-on, and we have seen enough of it rendered in this film, for all of its satirical distance, that any other resolution would have been preposterous.

It is a triumph, then, for Larry Hagman to have made plausible the character of Fred Picker, the charismatic ex-Florida governor who becomes Stanton’s chief opponent late in the primary season and, dramatically as well as politically, becomes the film’s most obvious point of contrast to Stanton. Ultimately, Picker drops out as much because he lacks ambition (and policy options, for that matter) as because he is threatened with the revelation of an old cocaine habit.

Travolta gets yet another opportunity to show Stanton’s apparently inexhaustible streak of empathy when he consoles Hagman/Picker and assures him that he would never have been the author of his rival’s exposure. (We wonder: Does Stanton believe it himself?) And his bafflement at Picker’s willingness to go gently into political oblivion is nicely understated.

For all their Second City instincts (which, all too often, tend to put the audience at a second remove from reality), Nichols and May are able occasionally to layer in some real depth of feeling. And when things get hectic – as happens frequently enough in Primary Colors – some of the same honest (and revealing) friction occurs as in Nichols’ late, great adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

But just as that 1965 film ended without any real epiphany to leaven its stresses, so does Primary Colors. In the movie, as in the book, as in life, there is a lingering sense of anti-climax. The simple fact is that the once pseudonymous Joe Klein is not the “anonymous” one any longer. His ultimately inscrutable central figure is, and seems – for all the sound and the fury he now engenders – likely to remain so. There aren’t enough colors in Nichols/May’s palette, or in Klein’s, or maybe in anyone’s, including the president’s and his current prosecutors’, to make this portrait clear.

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