Filmed at Nebraska's Papillion-La Vista High School, 1999's Election featured budding star Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, a compulsive overachiever running for class president at George Washington Carver High School. She wages a campaign against Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) and his sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), but her real enemy is teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who tries to sabotage the election in favor of the doltish Paul.
Alexander Payne co-wrote and directed the R-rated high-school comedy, based on Tom Perrotta’s titular novel. Paramount/MTV Films released the film in the spring of 1999, but the film grossed just $14,902,041, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews. The filmmakers surmised that Paramount didn’t know how to market the movie, which catered more to adults than teens. But the film garnered Witherspoon her first Golden Globe nomination (she'd go on to win one in 2006, the same year she won the Oscar) plus a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination for writers Payne and Jim Taylor. Here are some facts about the satire, which Barack Obama has (twice) called his favorite political film.
1. Tom Perrotta's book Election was included by the 1992 Presidential election.
Tom Perrotta told HuffPost that the inspiration for the novel, which was published in 1998, came during from 1992 election, when Ross Perot, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush vied to become the most powerful person in the world. “I was unemployed and got caught up in that race,” Perrotta said. “When it was over, I just felt a little bit bereft. I thought I wanted to write a political novel, but I don’t know anything about politics that anybody else doesn’t know.”
2. Alexander Payne didn't want to write or direct a high school movie—until he read Election.
Though Election wasn't published until 1998, producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger gave Payne a copy of the manuscript in 1996. “I didn’t read it for a long time, because there were a lot of high school movies at the time,” Payne told HuffPost. “I couldn’t be less interested in making a high school movie. And then finally I read it and I liked it. It was set in a high school, but it wasn’t a high school story, per se. Also what attracted me was the formal exercise of doing a movie with multiple points of view and multiple voice-overs.”
3. Reese Witherspoon was torn between playing Tracy and Tammy in Election.
At one point in the film, Tammy, Tracy, and Paul each deliver speeches to the school laying out their presidential platform. Tammy's contribution is, “Who cares about this stupid election?” “That speech alone made me want to play Tammy!” Witherspoon told the Los Angeles Times. “So I was terribly conflicted—I didn’t know if I wanted to play Tammy or Tracy!”
4. Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise were considered for the role of Mr. McAllister in Election.
Payne told HuffPost that Paramount wanted him to cast one of the Toms for the teacher role: Hanks or Cruise. “The one actor we all could agree upon ultimately was Matthew Broderick,” Payne said. “I met with him and he was only too happy to do the part, and I’m so glad he did. I never thought Tom Cruise would have been right for the part. Tom Hanks is a wonderful actor, but I knew at the time there was no way in hell he would take the part. It just felt right that we eventually got to Matthew Broderick.”
5. Chris Klein had never acted in a movie before Election.
Chris Klein—who went on to star in American Pie—was a senior in high school in Omaha, Nebraska, when Payne discovered him. “Alexander Payne was scouting our high school as a location for Election,” Klein told The Huffington Post. “[Principal] Dr. Rick Kolowski made sure that he introduced this Hollywood director to the resident theater guy, and I had made quite a name for myself from all the high school plays and then in the community theater. So he made that introduction, and a couple weeks later Alexander Payne called me up at my folks’ house and brought me in to audition for the movie.”
Klein read the script but turned it down because of a certain scene that he thought would upset his grandmother. “‘I can’t have my grandma see me getting a blow job,’” Klein told Payne. “And Alexander Payne laughed and said, ‘Okay, kid, listen. We’ll take care of it. Just come and do the movie. Just trust me.’”
6. The Omaha Public School superintendent was horrified by the Election script.
In the movie, Papillion La-Vista High School stands in for George Washington Carver, but Payne had a difficult time finding a school that would allow him to film. “I toured almost every high school in Omaha and selected one high school and was forbidden to shoot there because the superintendent of Omaha public schools asked to read the script and was horrified by it,” Payne told The Huffington Post. “So he forbade my using any high school in the Omaha public school system because he said we would never have a student and a teacher having an affair and some of the immoral behavior he didn’t want associated.” Payne went outside the school district to Papillion, Nebraska.
7. Alexander Payne signed on to direct Election because of one scene.
When asked about what attracted him to the project, Payne admitted that there was a single shot that won him over. “It has this one shot, and that shot so cracked me up that I wanted to have a whole film just for it,” Payne said of the scene in which Mr. McAllister is supposed to meet Linda in a cheap motel. “He puts some champagne in the sink with ice from the ice machine and he puts out Russell Stover chocolates. And then there’s the shot where he gets into the bathtub and he washes his ass and his balls and his d*ck. He’s squatted over in the bathtub washing himself. The whole film was pretty much just for that shot.”
8. Election author Tom Perrotta think Alexander Payne's portrayal of Tracy Flick was better than his.
In The Huffington Post’s oral history of the movie, the novelist explained that in the book versus the movie, “My Tracy is a little bit more of a sexual manipulator, and Reese’s Tracy is more of a go-getter who’s a little bit over her head when it comes to sexual matters. It ultimately was a good change for the movie.”
9. Paramount was skeptical about making an R-rated high school movie.
“It was not an easy movie to get made in a major studio system,” Van Toffler, a former MTV executive and executive producer of the film, said. “Let me just say that I remember being called and lectured at home on a weekend about what I was thinking trying to make what [Paramount Pictures] viewed as a hard R movie based in a high school, where pages were read to me like I’m a crazy man. Why would I think of making a R-rated movie in a high school? It wasn’t a typical Freddie Prinze-like high school movie, as you can tell. At that point, if you were going to make a high school movie, it should be PG-13, not R.”
Also in 1999, another R-rated high school movie came out: American Pie.
10. Election inspired Glee.
“To me the inspiration and Brad [Falchuk's] inspiration and Ian [Brennan's] inspiration was always Election, which had a really strong student and teacher story, which was a satire about ambition,” Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy told Deadline.com. “Our version was a little bit more heartfelt about teachers and the arts. But that’s how it started off."
11. Election's Tracy Flick became the quintessential model for female politicians.
“A lot of the women I’ve met in politics say, ‘Everyone always compares me to Tracy Flick,'" Witherspoon told HuffPost. "And I think, well, isn’t that wonderful in some regards? And then in other regards, why is there only one female political archetype? It was 15 years ago and we have no other really notable women. I guess now we have Veep, which is exciting and which I love.”
When Witherspoon met Hillary Clinton, the presidential candidate told her, “Everybody talks to me about Tracy Flick in Election.”
Because of Witherspoon’s convincing portrayal of the ambitious Flick, the actress told The Washington Post that she “couldn’t get jobs for a year after that because people thought I was that crazy and angry and controlling and strange. But yeah, um, I’m not.”
12. Election's Matthew Broderick almost got in trouble with the White House.
In the film's final scene, Broderick slams a drink into Tracy’s limo, then runs away. “One time we did it and I ran into this park that was across the street from the White House,” Broderick told The Huffington Post. “And Alexander says, ‘Just keep running! I’ll film it, and maybe that would be a funny ending, just to have this guy running into a park scared. But just run as far as you can.’” Broderick kept running but found himself near the White House. “I start to notice homeless guys and dog walkers starting to take notice of me and come toward me because there’s lots of Secret Service in this park who did not like this man running full throttle toward the White House. I think they thought I was going to throw myself at the building.”
13. Election had an alternate ending.
The original ending filmed saw Tracy and Mr. McAllister reunite at his car dealership job. He says to her, “Seems like I’m the last person in the world you’d want to see before going off to college. Are you trying to humiliate me?” She drives him to her place, he apologizes, and he signs her yearbook. This was a much softer ending than the one where Mr. McAllister, in a fit of jealous rage, throws a drink at Tracy’s limo in Washington D.C. Test audiences didn’t connect with the drama-free ending.
“The movie mined [the novel] for more outrageous and subversive humor,” Payne told HuffPost. “I think the audience felt—and we the filmmakers, too—that the rather melancholy ending did not seem totally in keeping with the very funny, subversive movie which preceded it.” Payne and Taylor rewrote the ending and filmed it in December of 1998, a few months before the film was released.
This story has been updated for 2020.