Program Notes: The Candidate (1972)

The Candidate is a detailed nuts-and-bolts depiction of a campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The issues are all too familiar: Abortion. Poverty. Protecting the environment. The redistribution of income.

The Republican contender wraps himself in God and the flag to defend his pro-business point of view. His Democratic opponent appeals to the citizenry’s sense of fairness and compassion.

Sound familiar?

Well, here’s what’s amazing: The Candidate was made 40 years ago. And it’s like in all that time nothing has changed!!!

Yeah, this is a campaign without e-mails or cell phones, but the issues involved and the basic work of building an organization, achieving momentum, and getting out the vote seems as true in 2012 as it was in 1972 when the picture was released.

Film Screening:
The Candidate (1972)
Saturday, Oct. 13 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

If The Candidate sometimes feels as much like a documentary as a fictional film, it’s undoubtedly because Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning screenplay was based on his own observations of big-league politics.

Larner was a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy in the senator’s failed bid to win the 1968 Democratic nomination for President. (For those of you too young to remember: McCarthy cornered the youth vote with his opposition to the Vietnam War. But back then you had to be 21 to vote, so the youth vote really didn’t exist. Still, my 1963 Plymouth Valiant sported a McCarthy bumper sticker until the day I sold it in several years later.)

In The Candidate a liberal labor lawyer, Bill McKay (Robert Redford), is approached by Democratic party operative (Peter Boyle) to run for the U.S. Senate from California. That seat is now held by old-style Republican pol Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter, who in the late ‘50s became a household name as a regular on the sitcom The Ann Sothern Show).

Basically the Dems are looking for a sacrificial lamb. After three terms Jarmon is so entrenched in state and national politics that he is deemed unbeatable. Being one of those idealist liberals, McKay reluctantly agrees to run if only so he can air issues important to him.

Michael Ritchie – best known for sports-themed movies like Downhill Racer (also with Redford), Semi-Tough, and the original Bad News Bears – directed the film almost as if it were a true documentary, employing lots of handheld cameras and TV news feeds to ground the story in reality.

And, boy, this film does seem very real. The depictions of the various political advisers, advance men, and starry-eyed volunteers feel totally authentic, a mixture of smarts, cynicism, and enthusiasm.

But a funny thing happens. Although he makes plenty of mistakes, Bill McKay starts to build a following. (He’s played by Redford, after all, a man of considerable charisma.) And before long he’s closing the wide gap between himself and Jarmon.

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In a sense, The Candidate is the story of McKay’s corruption. He gets cocky and overconfident. He takes advantage of the women throwing themselves at him on the campaign trail. And he realizes that to get elected, he’ll have to soft pedal or ignore many of his most-cherished liberal beliefs.

Moreover, as his numbers rise he’s faced with a truly disturbing prospect: Now he’ll have to make good on his promises and he has no idea of how to do it.

The film is packed with juicy performances. Boyle (today most of us know him from his long run on TV’s Everybody Loves Raymond) is terrific as a seasoned political brain who handles his candidate with a blend of cajoling, positive reinforcement, and the occasional chewing out. Late in the film he delivers a sardonic/affectionate speech to the young workers who have volunteered for the McKay cause, and it feels so absolutely right that you just know screenwriter Larner heard something exactly like it during a real campaign.

Old-time movie star Melvyn Douglas is fine as McKay’s father, a former California governor (any resemblance between real-life father-and-son California politicians Pat and Jerry Brown is not coincidental). Porter is often screamingly funny and/or infuriating in the way he captures Crocker Jarmon’s smug phony folksiness.

And a whole lot of folks – Natalie Wood, Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern, LA Mayor Sam Yorty, and journalists like Mike Wallace – appear as themselves.

Other films in the series “Everything is Politics”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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