Primary Colors (film)

Last updated
Primary Colors
Promotional film poster
Directed by Mike Nichols [1]
Produced byMike Nichols
Jonathan Krane
Neil Machlis
Screenplay by Elaine May
Based on Primary Colors
by Joe Klein
Music by Ry Cooder
Cinematography Michael Ballhaus
Edited by Arthur Schmidt
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release date
  • March 20, 1998 (1998-03-20)
Running time
143 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$65 million [2]
Box office$52.1 million [3]

Primary Colors is a 1998 American comedy-drama film directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay by Elaine May was adapted from 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 starred John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman and Adrian Lester.


It was critically acclaimed but was a box office bomb, earning $52 million from a $65 million budget. 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 civil rights leader, Henry Burton, is recruited to join the campaign of Jack Stanton, a charismatic Southern governor who is trying to win the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. Henry is impressed by Jack's genuine warmth and empathy. He joins the governor's inner circle of political advisers: Jack's formidable wife, Susan Stanton; ruthless political strategist, Richard Jemmons; intelligent and attractive spokeswoman, Daisy Green; and sly political operator, Howard Ferguson, as they journey to New Hampshire, the first state to hold a presidential primary.

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

The campaign is then rocked by a fresh allegation when Jack's old friend, "Fat Willie" McCollister approaches Henry to tell him that his 17-year-old daughter Loretta, who worked for the Stantons as a babysitter, is pregnant and that Jack 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, Henry is sickened and disillusioned.

Realizing the campaign is falling behind in the polls, Jack's team adopt a new strategy. The governor goes on the offensive by attacking his nearest rival, Senator Lawrence Harris, for casting anti-Israel votes and favoring cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Harris confronts Jack 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. 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 into Picker's past. They discover from his ex-brother-in-law, Eduardo Reyes, 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, 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 decide to leak them to the press. Libby says that, if Jack does so, she will reveal that he tampered with the paternity test results which showed that he had 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, Jack 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 endorse Jack. Henry intends to quit the campaign, admitting he has become deeply disillusioned with the political process. Jack begs Henry to reconsider, persuading him that they can make history.

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



Following the publication of the book in 1996, director Mike Nichols paid more than $1 million for the screen rights. [7] The film was scripted by writer and director Elaine May, who had collaborated with Nichols in a comedy double-act in the 1950s and 60s. [8] 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 between Henry and Susan Stanton 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] [9] [10] [11] [12]


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. [13] 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. [14] Entertainment Weekly called Travolta "Clintonian". [15] The Cincinnati Enquirer gave accolades to the character portrayals of Bill and Hillary Clinton. [16] Syndicated reviewer Roger Ebert said the movie was "insightful and very wise about the realities of political life" [17] and The Cincinnati Enquirer said the film was a "nuanced dissection of how real American politics work". [16]

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". [18]

Primary Colors currently holds an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 79 reviews, with an average rating of 7.30/10. The site's critics' consensus reads: "Well acted and surprisingly funny." [19]

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]

Awards and nominations

YearAwardCategoryNominated workResultRef.
1998 Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress Kathy Bates Nominated [22]
Best Adapted Screenplay Elaine May Nominated
1998 Golden Globe Awards Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy John Travolta Nominated
Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture Kathy Bates Nominated
1998 British Academy Film Awards Best Supporting Actress Kathy Bates Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Elaine May Won
1999 Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Supporting Actress Kathy Bates Won
1999 Writers Guild of America Best Adapted Screenplay Elaine May Nominated

Home video

Primary Colors was released on VHS and DVD in September 1998. It was released on Blu-ray in October 2019. gave the transfer a negative review, calling it "a digitally processed mess. Grain is frozen in place, edge enhancement is obvious, clarity struggles, and details are sloppy and indistinct." [23]


The soundtrack album, featuring music by and produced by Ry Cooder, was released in March 1998. [24] [25]

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  23. Primary Colors Blu-ray , retrieved 2019-10-11
  24. Billboard - 28 Mar 1998 - Page 55 "VARIOUS ARTISTS Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack Primary Colors; Music By Ry Cooder"
  25. 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