by David Cornelius
When we first meet Willie Stark, he’s a shining beacon of hope in a corrupt political system. “What’s so special about him?” an intrepid reporter asks. His boss’ reply: “They say he’s an honest man.” And in the beginning, he is. But then he learns something more important than honesty when it comes to politics: “how to win.”Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All the King’s Men” was inspired in part by the life of the infamous Louisiana governor and Senator Huey “Kingfish” Long, but in reality, the book - and the movie it spawned - could be about any politician. Measure any successful vote-getter’s career, and sooner or later, if you look closely enough and cynically enough, you’ll find the point in which honest intentions lost out to winning big. Many other films studied the same phenomenon - “The Candidate” and “Primary Colors” being just two of the best that spring to mind - and watching, you can see the lead characters slowly but surely convince themselves that some lies won’t hurt the people, some dealings won’t derail the cause.
"Still relevant (and powerful) after all these years."
Standing in for Long is Willie Stark, played with gusto by character actor Broderick Crawford, who won an Best Actor Oscar for his efforts. Our first impression of Crawford’s Stark is that of backwoods hick trying to do good; he’s not very learned, but he’s trying to put himself through law school, with the help of his wife, a local schoolteacher. But while he’s not book smart, he still has his own brand of intelligence, and he’s willing to put himself on the line to take on the dirty politics found in his home county. (The state remains nameless, to give the story a more universal appeal.)
We pick up with Stark years later, with reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland) following up on a series of articles he once wrote on Stark’s candidacy. By now, Stark has already lost a bid for governor, thanks to a dry, lifeless campaign built on listing facts and figures that reveal the problems with the system, but do so in a way that fails to motivate the public. (Hey, Democrats, sound familiar?) Worse, this is all part of a political ploy to keep the incumbent - run the worst guy possible, and Stark fills that shoe.
This time, however, Stark, taken to drinking, lets loose during one booze-fueled campaign stop, tossing his script aside and beginning a massive tirade, during which he keeps referring to the crowd as hicks: “Now, shut up! Shut up, all of you! Now listen to me, you hicks! Yeah, you're hicks too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time, I'm going to fool somebody. I'm going to stay in this race. I'm on my own and I'm out for blood.” The scene is built to floor the viewer just as hard as it floors the extras on camera, and Crawford delivers.
With just one speech, Stark revives his career, but in the process, he sees what it takes to win. Before long, he’s fought his way into power, thanks largely to a powerful rural voter bloc that can be manipulated to show support (or cause havoc for the opposition) whenever Stark calls for it. The new Willie Stark is no longer the crusader for truth, although he doesn’t see it that way. In a touch of irony not unfamiliar to many a real-life politician, Stark still sees himself as the defender of the common man, despite his use of money and power to buy anything he desires, which is usually more money and more power. He remains blind to what he has become.
Others do not, however, and while Crawford overwhelms the film with his gargantuan performance, the film still manages to find room for smaller characters, including Ireland’s morally confused reporter/hanger-on and Mercedes McCambridge’s campaign chief forced to watch the man in whom she places so much faith, trust, and even love devolve into the same dirty boss that he once fought. (McCambridge also landed an Oscar, a well-earned one; her feisty character is perhaps the most engaging supporting role in the movie.) And in case you don’t see the villainy behind Stark’s more successful years, we’re given a sidekick (Walter Burke) who borders on mafia henchman status. It’s not a stretch to imagine Stark not as governor, but as godfather.Rounding out the Oscar tally was one for Best Picture. That it failed to win any more trophies (it lost both Director and Screenplay to “A Letter To Three Wives”) should not play as an indication that the film is not worthy of classic status. Robert Rossen, who directed, produced, and adapted the screenplay, has crafted one of the great political dramas, the blueprint by which all other absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely morality tales have since followed. And above all, it features one of the great performances in movie history, Crawford’s earth-shaking transformation from dumb hick to greedy bureaucrat. His appearance alone is reason to watch this one; good news is the rest of the picture is every bit as commanding.
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originally posted: 02/23/05 17:19:32