Seeking the Nixon Behind the Caricature

April 20, 2007

IN a quiet corner of the bar at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in New York, Frank Langella raised his hands in victory signs, furrowed his brow and shook his jowls violently: the International Symbol for Richard Nixon.

Mr. Langella, one of the most celebrated stage actors of his generation, has tackled both Dracula and Sherlock Holmes; he knows what it means to step into a role that is already cemented in myth. But there may be no caricature as permanently etched in the American imagination as the one he’s playing now.

”Nixon was a great monster for good and bad, a delicious person to caricature,” he said. ”The first week of rehearsals all of the actors were doing him, and I finally had to say, ‘You have to stop.’ ”

”Frost/Nixon,” which opens on Broadway Sunday night at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, is a play about the series of television interviews David Frost conducted in 1977 with Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned from the presidency three years earlier. Mr. Frost paid Nixon $600,000 for the chance to prove he could play hardball and nearly blew it when Nixon swatted away his questions with anecdotes and generalities.

Then came the last interview. Nixon’s startling admission that he had ”let the American people down” was not the coup; the coup, a character in the play says, was having Nixon’s face — ”swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat — filling every television screen in the country.”

The reductive nature of imagery is one of the main points of the play: Make the dual victory signs for five seconds, and that’s who you are for life. Breaking free is hard for the person involved; for an actor with less than two hours to work with, it’s nearly impossible. It was difficult enough in London, where the play won raves before transferring to Broadway.

”We were not prepared for the degree the American audience might want to pull Nixon toward that,” Mr. Langella said of the Tricky Dick caricature. ”After the first two or three previews I said to Grandage” — that would be Michael Grandage, the director — ” ‘They want me to become a clown. We have to ratchet this a little darker.’ ”

Mr. Grandage said he and Peter Morgan, the playwright, wanted to cast someone who had the presence that a role like this required.

”Peter and I were just very, very clear that we wanted to find an American actor of such stature that when they came onstage, it would be as close as you could come to a president coming onstage,” Mr. Grandage said in a phone interview.

Mr. Langella said he did far more research than he had ever done for a role, interviewing journalists and Nixon associates, visiting Nixon’s childhood home and watching tapes of Nixon, including one that he enacts at the start of the show. Then, he said, ”I sort of put all the factual information away and allowed the visceral to take over.”

Now onstage it’s up to Michael Sheen, playing David Frost, to chase down and draw that visceral Richard Nixon out. Mr. Grandage described the play as a thriller.

The cat-and-mouse game of the news media is something Mr. Langella has had a chance to study recently, for his film roles as William S. Paley, the chief executive of CBS, in ”Good Night, and Good Luck,” and, for that matter, Perry White, the editor of a major Metropolitan newspaper, in ”Superman Returns.”

But the media interest him less than how people have to act out the roles the media define for them. Mr. Langella cites Barack Obama as skillful in this kind of theater. Nixon, he said, was not; no matter how hard he or his handlers tried, he could not hide that he was ”an unbelievable bag of neuroses.”

It’s curious: What is admired as authenticity in a politician could just be seen as incompetence in an actor. But Mr. Langella said he identified with Nixon nevertheless.

”I feel empathetic towards him,” he said. ”Not sympathy, but tremendous empathy.”

In 1989 Mr. Langella wrote an essay for The New York Times about actors and their demons: the fear of unemployment, the anxiety of keeping up images and the intense self-loathing that comes with wanting to be liked.

Many of the insecurities discussed in the essay sound remarkably like those of Mr. Morgan’s Nixon, who growls to Mr. Frost in a drunken (and fictional) late-night phone call about ”the people whose respect we really wanted. Really craved. And isn’t that why we work so hard now?”

Mr. Langella, 69 and still maintaining his catlike charm, said that he was not the same person he had been when he wrote that essay, that he was now much more at peace. But when he teaches acting classes, he said, he sees parts of his younger self in his students.

”They are so twisted and tormented with stuff I let go years ago,” he said. ”I was obsessive then, deeply in love and then out of love.”

There are a few known facts here — a marriage, two children, a divorce, a reputation as a tomcat, an affair with Whoopi Goldberg — but he will not give specifics. Like his Nixon, Mr. Langella is an agile interviewee, taking the conversation toward anything but the specifics of his nonacting life.

”My agenda, quite honestly,” he said at one point, ”is to speak about as honestly and directly to you as I can, but to reveal as little as I care to about my personal life.”

But even sticking to abstractions he spoke animatedly about the distractions in his youth and early middle age, when he was ”driven by my sexual energies or my ambition or my competitive urges or my desire for things.”

He clearly has not abandoned his ambition, nor, one assumes, any of those other things. But it’s a matter of control, he said, in a curious little echo of the character he is portraying at the Jacobs: ”You get to a particular point where you say, ‘I’m not going to let them push me around.’ ”

Published in: on April 20, 2007 at 9:57 am  Leave a Comment  

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