Screen Gems

Excited for ‘American Crime Story?’ Time for some Clinton-era gayness

Primary Colors

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Eerie: Primary Colors

Author Joe Klein caused a sensation back in 1996 when he published Primary Colors, his roman-a-clef novel of the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign under an anonymous moniker. The book set off a frenzy as detectives and journalists tried to figure out the true identity of the author, and which events in the novel actually played true to life.

By 1998, the media had unmasked Klien, though that didn’t diminish the hype for the film adaptation, directed by cinema legend Mike Nichols. John Travolta–in the performance of his career–plays Jack Stanton, a southern governor known for his incredible people skills, philandering and his presidential ambitions. He hires Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) to work on his campaign, and Burton immediately feels as though he has wandered into an insane asylum. Burton’s wife Susan (Emma Thompson), a brilliant lawyer, must constantly hide her anger and embarrassment at her husband’s affairs. Campaign strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thorton) pontificates about getting political advantage at any cost. Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), a butch lesbian “fixer” joins the campaign to quash reports of Stanton’s womanizing. Burton wants to believe in the Utopian America Jack Stanton champions but begins to wonder if the candidate cares only about power.

No filmmaker ever directed actors better than Mike Nichols, and Primary Colors features a cast at its best. Given the pedigree here, that says something. It helps too that Nichols has the massive cojones to raise questions not just about the Clinton presidency, but about American democracy as a whole: maybe, in the end, it really is just about winning at any cost. With the future of a nation on the line, does the power struggle justify any tactic, no matter how dirty?

Primary Colors also doesn’t shy away from its queer characters, or the uncomfortable role they played in 90s politics. Kathy Bates nearly steals the movie with her Oscar-nominated performance as the ruthless Libby. The movie also features another wildly underrated actor as a queer character; we can’t identify him here, as it would give away one of the movie’s major twists.

With the Clinton presidency poised to undergo a reexamination in the wake of American Crime Story: Impeachment, we suggest giving Primary Colors a new look. It remains one of the best movies ever made about American politics, one rife with sharp and hilarious observations about the system, and one with ethical questions as elusive as intriguing.

Streams on Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube & VUDU.