Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Art of Acting: Frank Langella edition

Last year while in New York for the summer I had the opportunity to see Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon. The play (coming to a theater near you soon in a Ron Howard-directed film) chronicles the negotiations about and tricky execution of the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon, which culminated with Nixon's admission of culpability in Watergate.

I thought of Langella's performance as I watched him in Starting Out in the Evening, last year's independent film in which Langella plays a forgotten novelist enjoying a late-life flirtation with a grad student named Heather (Lauren Ambrose) who wants to write her thesis about him and reintroduce his work to the world. As Nixon, Langella's image was projected on giant monitors to duplicate the effect of watching the interviews on television. The monitors weren't necessary though, because just as you'd expect from an old pro Langella's performance touched even me in the next-to-last row of the theater. Every moment of Nixon's attempt to evade Frost's questions through a mix of humor, arrogance, and obfuscation, came through just as if I had been watching the whole thing on DVD. Nixon managed to use up most of the allotted interview time avoiding the questions everyone wanted Frost to ask, and Langella (an actor playing a man putting on a performance to avoid confronting himself) is spot-on at playing Nixon's desire to write his own legacy.

Leonard Schiller, Langella's character in Starting Out in the Evening, is a man too long cut off from any kind of meaningful personal connection. Racing to finish his last novel before health problems prevent him from working, Schiller at first has no time for interviews with the student who seems to idolize him. But Heather is persistent and soon not only has Schiller talking about his work but kissing her (and more) as well. There's a moment at their first meeting when Leonard, after heather has impulsively kissed his hand, reaches out and touches her head. He puts his hand over her eyes for a moment, reinforcing the idea that Heather's perception of her hero is confused, before withdrawing with embarrassment at his own behavior.

The way Langella plays the scene it's a formal moment, awkward but full of an unbearably touching desire for intimacy. It's the fact that can play a state of such high emotion to the back row of a Broadway theatre and also get Schiller's almost entirely interior self-loathing and desire that inspires this post. I recall him as the acting teacher in the too-brief HBO series Unscripted, unable to understand why no one offers him work anymore. The cliched wrap-up here would be something about how Langella is coming into his own late in his career. But he's always been this good; now we're just getting a chance to appreciate him.

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