Cinema

Notes on a scandal

New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner speaks during a news conference alongside his wife Huma Abedin at the Gay Men's Health Crisis headquarters, Tuesday, July 23, 2013, in New York. The former congressman says he's not dropping out of the New York City mayoral race in light of newly revealed explicit online correspondence with a young woman. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)   | Photo Credit: Kathy Willens

I woke up last Sunday to headlines on British politician Keith Vaz’s alleged drug-fuelled gay sex orgy and was immediately transported back to one of the lecture halls of IIT Madras in the early 1990s. Before you jump to conclusions, let me hasten to add that I was participating in a quiz, part of the annual cultural festival Mardi Gras, as it was called then before being renamed for a species of spotted deer. The quiz master had just played a track and wanted the artists involved and the film soundtrack it was from. The answer was obvious. The song was ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ by the Pet Shop Boys, performed by Dusty Springfield, and was the theme tune for Michael Caton-Jones’ Scandal (1989).

Scandal is easily the best-known film about British politicians involved in sex scandals. It is the 1960s and Stephen Ward (John Hurt), an osteopath with a taste for the good life, spots exotic dancer Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley) and grooms her in how to move in high society. Her friend Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda) also becomes part of this elite circle. Their function is to be escorts to the rich and powerful of the United Kingdom, including politicians, lords of the realm and civil servants. All goes swimmingly well, and one of Keeler’s clients is John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government. Trouble is, around the same time, one of her clients is Yevgeny Ivanov, a naval attaché, meaning a spy, at the Soviet Embassy in London. The British press gets hold of this juicy news (we must remember that we are smack dab in the middle of the Cold War), all hell breaks loose, Profumo is forced to step down, and Macmillan’s government is voted out of power in the next election.

With its keen look at the upper echelons of society and the murky corridors of power, the yellow press and general British mores of the time, Scandal is a minor classic. For further viewing as it were, the television series The New Statesman (1987-94), created by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, is a vicious satire on the peccadilloes, sexual and otherwise, of British politicians, all the more enhanced by a manically gleeful lead performance by the comedian Rik Mayall. I used to wonder whether all of it was fiction, but then I came across Unzipped (2006), a book by an anonymous British public servant that lays bare the sex secrets in the heart of Westminster. The most shocking revelation in the book is that those thirsting for higher office have a superstition — a session with a particular transsexual escort is supposed to be the path to power.

More recently, there is the documentary Weiner (2016) by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg that charts how New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s 2013 campaign goes horribly wrong after details of his prolific sexting emerge. Apart from Weiner’s lurid messages, the film is a closely-observed look at the American political and media circus, and is one of the more rewarding views of the year.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 7:02:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/Notes-on-a-scandal/article14640028.ece

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