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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

23 July

Monica Lewinsky born, 1973

Today in 1973, Monica Samille Lewinsky was born, in San Francisco, USA. Best known for giving a US president a blow job, which the US president bizarrely later claimed did not equate to “sexual relations” (since he was receiving rather than giving the favour), Lewinsky was a 22-year-old intern at the White House at the time her relationship with President Clinton took place. It came to light because Linda Tripp, a fellow worker at the Pentagon – where Lewinsky was moved by superiors concerned at the amount of time she was spending with Clinton – decided to record all the telephone conversations she had with Lewinsky about Lewinsky’s relationship with the leader of the free world. Tripp also persuaded Lewinsky not to dry-clean the notorious blue dress, which bore evidence of presidential ejaculate. After the scandal broke, Lewinsky at first tried to capitalise on her fame, appearing on TV, designing handbags, contributing to Andrew Morton’s book Monica’s Story, before changing tack, moving to London and enrolling at the London School of Economics. She graduated in 2006 with an MSc but has found gainful employment a tough nut to crack.

Election (1999, dir: Alexander Payne)

When Election debuted in 1999, almost every reviewer pointed out that Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick was some sort of stand-in for – or was modelled on, or satirised a society that could lionise – Monica Lewinsky. This didn’t really hold up at the time and stacks up even less with hindsight. But it was a peg and you can see why it might have been useful. Because Tracy is the sort of politicking eager beaver who always has her hand up in class, who is a member, if not president, of every school club, who has it all and does it all with a cheeriness bordering on the demented. And in the other corner we have her teacher, Jim McAllister, played with a dog ear and a tweed jacket by Matthew Broderick, a man whose life of quiet desperation and compromise is challenged by the very existence of Tracy. He kind of has a thing for her too, which just makes things worse. Doubly so because he’s friends with the teacher Tracy seduced the previous year.

The film plays out from McAllister’s point of view, as he first tries to recruit someone (a nice dumb jock turn by Chris Klein) to stand against Tracy in her bid to become school president, and then has to deal with fallout as the unintended consequences start to pile up. McAllister has the same defeated tone of voice Payne would entertain us with in Sideways – his comedy about two midlife sad sacks on a wine tour of California – but it is to Payne’s credit, and makes the film feel less like a rant, that he gives Flick the whip hand.

Watch it as an unusual underdog comedy – the underdog being the guy in charge this time out – or watch it as a satire on the whole electoral process, whereby some perky do-gooder who’s secretly only out for themselves sets off on getting themselves elected to something at an early age, doing whatever is required, smiling winningly, handing out bribes (480 cup cakes in Tracy’s case) and setting in train a process that will last the entire rest of their professional lives. Either way Witherspoon’s performance is a thing of wonder to watch – after the arch Pleasantville and Cruel Intentions this is the film that really confirmed her as an actress of devious subtlety – and Broderick matches her with a variation on the weak puppy role he seems to have settled into too easily, and has fans wondering whatever happened to Ferris Bueller. A classic high school comedy, and an unusual one, since this time around it’s not really aimed at a teenage audience.

Why Watch?

  • The career redefining film for Witherspoon
  • One of Broderick’s best performances
  • Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s biting script
  • A smart political satire

Election – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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