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Primary Colors is the name shared by a 1996 Roman à Clef novel (written by Joe Klein) and its 1998 film adaptation. The film was directed by Mike Nichols, previously known for (among others) The Graduate (1967) and The Birdcage (1996). The novel was adapted to a script by Elaine May. The main stars were John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates and Adrian Lester.
Both works are inspired by the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. Events are seen from the perspective of Henry Burton (Lester), a former Congressional worker who becomes the campaign manager of a Southern politician. The candidate Jack Stanton (Travolta) is Governor of an unnamed state. He is a charismatic but flawed political leader. His philandering ways eventually affect the campaign. His wife Susan Stanton (Thompson) is in some ways the driving force of the campaign and the mediator between the figures involved. Richard Jemmons (Thornton) is the lead strategist of this campaign. Libby Holden (Bates) is the media consultant of the campaign, an outspoken lesbian who has been tasked with nullifying the potent threat of negative media reporting. She is the source of much of the verbal humor and of the film.
The characters are, at least in part, based on real figures. Jack Stanton stands for Clinton himself. Susan Stanton stands for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Burton is based on George Stephanopoulos, though the real figure shared duties with James Carville and David Wilhelm. Richard Jemmons stands for James Carville himself. Carville is better known for coining the phrase It's the economy, stupid. He originally used it as a sign note on in Bill Clinton's Little Rock campaign headquarters. It ended up becoming a political slogan. Libby Holden is thought to be a Composite Character which combines Betsey Wright and Vince Foster. Wright is credited with establishing the rapid response system that was responsible for defending Clinton's record in Arkansas and promptly answering all personal attacks on the candidate. During the 1992 campaign, Wright coined the term "bimbo eruptions" to describe rumors alleging extramarital affairs by Clinton. Foster was a highly-regarded lawyer and a close confidant of Hillary. He participated in the early administration of Clinton but reportedly commited suicide in 1993. The suicide note commenting "I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport." The event has drawn its share of media attention. There are theories that he was Driven to Suicide and Conspiracy Theories which consider him murdered.
The film was not a commercial hit. Its worldwide gross is estimated to 52,090,187 dollars. Which would mean it failed to even cover its budget. About 39 million of these dollars came from the United States market, where it was the 54th most successful film of its year. However, it was a critical hit and remains a well- respected film. It has been praised as "a savvy and thought-provoking look at the nature of contemporary American politics" and as successfully straddling "the line between comedy and tragedy". However there have also been criticisms that it failed to capture the humor of the novel. Elaine May was nominated for an Academy Award for "Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium". She lost to Bill Condons of Gods And Monsters. Kathy Bates was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She lost to Judi Dench of Shakespeare in Love.
The novel and the film feature the following tropes:
- Billing Displacement: Adrian Lester (TV's Hustle) is listed FIFTH in nearly all material for the film, despite obviously being the lead character. John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Kathy Bates are all listed above him. Even though Thornton and Bates play much smaller characters, and even Travolta and Thompson (as a fictional Bill and Hillary Clinton) are back-ups to Lester's Henry Burton.
- Fake American: Emma Thompson playing the politically-active wife of an American politician. The actress is British from London. Adrian Lester himself is a British Jamaican from Birmingham, England. He is playing an African-American.
- The Film of the Book: An epilogue of sorts is added to the movie where we see Jack Stanton won both the primary and the presidential election that was not in the book.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The novel is about the presidential campaign of governor Jack Stanton, who is rather obviously modeled after Bill Clinton. Many other characters in the novel also have real life counterparts.
- Roman à Clef: The novel belongs to this genre.
- Supporting Protagonist: Henry Burton may be the protagonist, but Jack Stanton is the center of attention.
- What the Hell, Hero?: When the Stantons decide to leak Fred Picker's drug use and affair with Lorenzo Delgado to the media, Libby has an emotional meltdown, culminating in her committing suicide.