Primary Colors (film)

This article is about the film. For the book, see Primary Colors (novel). For the actual colors, see Primary color.
Primary Colors

Promotional film poster
Directed by Mike Nichols[1]
Produced by Mike Nichols
Jonathan Krane
Neil Machlis
Screenplay by Elaine May
Based on Primary Colors
by Joe Klein
Starring John Travolta
Emma Thompson
Billy Bob Thornton
Kathy Bates
Adrian Lester
Maura Tierney
Larry Hagman
Music by Ry Cooder
Cinematography Michael Ballhaus
Edited by Arthur Schmidt
Distributed by Universal Studios
Release dates
  • March 20, 1998 (1998-03-20)
Running time
143 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $65 million[2]
Box office $52.1 million[3]

Primary Colors is a 1998 film based on the novel Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, a roman à clef about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992, which was originally published anonymously, but in 1996 was revealed to have been written by journalist Joe Klein, who had been covering Clinton's campaign for Newsweek.[4][5][6] The film was directed by Mike Nichols and scripted by Elaine May; it starred John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, and Adrian Lester.

Bates was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and May was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.


Young political idealist and grandson of a civil rights leader Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is recruited to join the campaign of Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a charismatic Southern governor who is trying to win the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. Henry is impressed by Stanton's genuine warmth and empathy with people. He joins Stanton's inner circle of political advisers: Stanton's formidable wife, Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson); ruthless, redneck political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton); intelligent and attractive spokeswoman Daisy Green (Maura Tierney); and sly political operator Howard Ferguson (Paul Guilfoyle) as they journey to New Hampshire, the first state to hold a presidential primary.

After Stanton completes an impressive debate performance against his Democratic rivals, Henry’s ex-girlfriend shows up to question Stanton about his arrest for an anti-war protest during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In addition it's revealed that Stanton called a U.S. senator to help him get released then Stanton persuaded the mayor of Chicago to have his police record expunged. The team becomes worried that Stanton’s past indiscretions may be used against him by the press and his political opponents. They hire Jack and Susan's old friend, tough but unbalanced Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), to investigate allegations that could be used by Stanton's political opponents to undermine his candidacy such as Stanton's notorious womanizing. One of Stanton's mistresses and Susan's hairdresser, Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides), produces secret taped conversations between them to prove they had an affair. Henry discovers that the tapes have been doctored, so Libby tracks down the man responsible for the tapes and forces him at gunpoint to confess his guilt in a signed letter to the American public.

The campaign is then rocked by a fresh allegation when Stanton's old friend, "Big Willie" McCollister (Tommy Hollis) approaches Henry to tell him that his 17-year-old daughter Loretta (who worked for the Stantons as a babysitter) is pregnant and that Stanton is the father. Henry and Howard tell Willie he must allow his daughter to undergo an amniocentesis to determine paternity. Although they convince Willie to remain silent on the issue, Henry is nonetheless sickened and disillusioned with the experience.

Realizing the campaign is falling behind in the polls, Stanton's team adopt a new strategy. Stanton begins going on the offensive by attacking his nearest rival, Senator Lawrence Harris (Kevin Cooney) for casting anti-Israel votes and favoring cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Harris confronts Stanton during a radio talk show in Florida but suffers two heart attacks after the encounter. He suffers a medical setback, subsequently withdraws from the race, and is replaced by his friend, former Florida governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman). Picker's wholesome, straight-talking image proves an immediate threat to the Stanton campaign.

Jack and Susan send Henry and Libby on an opposition research mission on Picker's past. They discover from his ex-brother-in-law, Eduardo Reyes (Tony Shalhoub), that Picker had a cocaine addiction as governor, which led to the disintegration of his first marriage. They also meet with Picker's cocaine supplier Lorenzo Delgado (John Vargas), with whom Picker had a homosexual affair. Not expecting the information to ever be used, Libby and Henry share their findings with Jack and Susan, but are dismayed when they both decide to leak the information to the press. Libby says that if Jack does so, she will reveal that he tampered with the results of the paternity test, proving that he slept with Willie's daughter. Libby commits suicide after she realizes she spent her life idealizing Jack and Susan only to learn how flawed they truly are. Racked with guilt over Libby's death, Stanton takes the incriminating information to Picker, and apologizes for seeking it out. Picker admits to his past indiscretions, and agrees to withdraw from the race and to endorse Stanton. Henry intends to quit the campaign, admitting he has become deeply disillusioned with the whole political process. Stanton begs Henry to reconsider, persuading him that the two of them can make history.

Months later, President Stanton is dancing at the Inaugural Ball with First Lady, Susan. He shakes the hands of all his campaign staff, the last of whom is Henry.


Bill Murray was considered for the role of Jack Stanton.[7]


Following the publication of the book in 1996, director Mike Nichols paid more than $1 million for the screen rights.[8] The film was scripted by Elaine May, who had collaborated with Nichols in a comedy double-act in the 1950s and 60s.[9]

At the Cannes Festival, Thompson said she did not base her performance on Hillary Clinton, while Travolta said he based his on several presidents, but mostly on Bill Clinton.[1]

Nichols was criticized for cutting an interracial love scene from the final version of the film. He responded that he had removed the scene because of unfavorable reactions from a preview audience.[1]

The film also generated controversy for its depiction of a Clinton-like character as it was also released close to the Lewinsky scandal.[4][10][11][12][13]


The film received a positive reception from critics. Variety's reviewer called it a "film à clef" and said that the American public was likely to accept it as a factual account because it so closely mirrored real life characters and events.[14] The Los Angeles Times gave high marks to the movie, noting Travolta's close mirroring of Bill Clinton, but describing Thompson's character as actually not based on Hillary Clinton.[15] Entertainment Weekly called Travolta "Clintonian".[16] The Cincinnati Enquirer gave accolades to the character portrayals of Bill and Hillary Clinton.[17] Syndicated reviewer Roger Ebert said the movie was "insightful and very wise about the realities of political life"[18] and The Cincinnati Enquirer said the film was a "nuanced dissection of how real American politics work".[17]

In a negative review, Jeff Vice of the Deseret News wrote that the last half of the movie dragged, Travolta's performance seemed more like an impersonation than actual acting, the movie lacked subtlety or depth, and it was loaded with cheap and obvious jokes. Nevertheless, Vice wrote that "solid support is provided by Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, and Stacy Edwards".[19]

Primary Colors currently holds an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 75 reviews.

Box office

The film earned a disappointing box office gross,[20][21] only taking $39 million domestically and $13 million in foreign markets, for a worldwide total gross of $52 million against a budget of $65 million.[3]


The soundtrack album, featuring music by and produced by Ry Cooder, was released in March 1998.[22][23]


  1. 1 2 3 David Lister (May 14, 1998). "Travolta reveals Clinton's prime sense of humour". Independent. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  2. Bernard Weinraub (March 23, 1998). "Don't You Wish You Could Get Buttered Popcorn in Civics Class?". The New York Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  3. 1 2 "Primary Colors". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-06-29.
  4. 1 2 David Lauter (March 15, 1998). "What the Movie Gets --and What It Doesn't". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  5. Faye Fiore (March 2, 1998). "Just What He Didn't Need Right Now; Movies: Will 'Primary Colors,' a thinly veiled slice of presidential life, hurt or help Bill Clinton?". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  6. Columnist's Mea Culpa: I'm Anonymous, Doreen Carvajal, The New York Times, July 18, 1996
  7. Locke, Greg W. (26 August 2011). "The Top 25 Roles Bill Murray Didn't Take". Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  8. Richard K. Thompson (April 1996). "Primary Colors: A Nover of Politics". Contemporary Review. Retrieved January 25, 2011.
  9. Kashner, Sam. "Who's Afraid Of Nichols & May?". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  10. Mark Saylor (May 16, 1998). "With Its American Themes, Can 'Primary Colors' Cash In Abroad?". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  11. Patrick Goldstein (March 15, 1998). "They All Have a Secret". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  12. Richard Corliss and Jeffrey Ressner (March 16, 1998). "Cinema: True Colors". Time.
  13. Eric Pooley (March 16, 1998). "Cinema: Tale Of Two Bills". Time. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  14. Todd McCarthy (March 12, 1998). "Primary Colors". Variety. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  15. Kenneth Turan (March 20, 1998). "Inspired Insinuation". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  16. Lisa Schwarzbaum (March 27, 1998). "Primary Colors". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  17. 1 2 Margaret A. McGurk (1998). "Primary by a landslide". The Cincinnati Enquirer. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  18. Roger Ebert (March 20, 1998). "Primary Colors". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  19. Jeff Vice (March 20, 1998). "Primary Colors". Deseret News. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  20. Robin Rauzi (March 30, 1998). "'Grease' Beats 'Primary' but Doesn't Rock the Boat; Box office: Revived musical enjoys a $13-million opening, but Oscar-winner 'Titanic' is No. 1 for the 15th straight weekend.". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  21. Robert W. Welkos (March 31, 1998). "Travolta Films Tail 'Titanic'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 24, 2011.
  22. Billboard - 28 Mar 1998 - Page 55 "VARIOUS ARTISTS Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Primary Colors; Music By Ry Cooder"
  23. Holger Petersen - Talking Music - 2011 -Page 296 "Movie soundtracks, however, kept him creative, at home, and paying the bills. ... That led to Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; Buena Vista Social Club), Louis Malle (Alamo Bay), and Mike Nichols (Primary Colors) asking him to soundtrack their films"

Further reading

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