Richard M. Nixon adored the movies. He walked out of “West Side Story,” which he dismissed as “propaganda,” but he revered John Ford, kept up with the New Hollywood experiments, including Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” and screened hundreds of films while living in the White House, some of them three times, including “Patton” and an older one often accounted as his favorite: “Around the World in 80 Days.”
It’s easy to imagine Nixon sitting down at the piano and serenading no one in particular with that 1956 Oscar winner’s familiar theme song. It’s easy to imagine, particularly as parody, because the surface Nixon is easy, as easy as the Nixon psyche is not. The man’s vocal and physical mannerisms turned America into a nation of amateur Nixon impersonators, a cynical Greek chorus backing up the routines of David Frye and Rich Little.
Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Rebecca Hall
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 5 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 23 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
After all these years and all the Watergate revelations, the disgraced president has been depicted on-screen more often than anyone had a right to expect. The latest to have a go is Frank Langella, reprising his Tony Award-winning stage performance for director Ron Howard in the engaging new film “Frost/Nixon,” opening Dec. 12. Written by Peter Morgan, whose exercises in deft, small-scale biographical portraiture include “The Queen” and “The Last King of Scotland,” the film focuses on the run-up to a televised, civilized war of words, the 1977 Nixon interviews conducted for television by British talk show host David Frost (played by Michael Sheen).
Langella’s performance has generated a lot of Academy Award-nomination talk. Actors love playing Nixon: so many hypocrisies, so much intelligence, so much self-destructive paranoia. Irresistible. Yet he’s “a can’t-win proposition,” according to Mark Feeney, Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe arts writer and author of the book “Nixon at the Movies.”
“Almost everyone in the audience already has this image of him, so on the one hand, (an actor) can’t descend too far into simple impersonation. But if he gets too far away from the familiar tics and idiosyncrasies, then people say: ‘But that doesn’t look like Richard Nixon!’”
Langella’s empathetic portrait joins a cinematic Nixon gallery painted in generally less forgiving and darker hues. Anthony Hopkins tried the subject on for size in Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995). In the 1999 comedy “Dick,” Nixon was played for cheap (if reliable) laughs by Dan Hedaya.
Many feel the cinematic Nixon to beat is the least like the real thing. In 1984 director Robert Altman filmed a stage play, “Secret Honor,” performed by Philip Baker Hall. Ranting into a microphone like a refugee from Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Hall’s Nixon was like a cornered animal, fighting for his life. Freed from impersonation, Hall tore it up. His hound-dog countenance and creased visage were close enough an approximation to take care of the believability issue. The performance is genuinely ferocious.
Nixon has been referred to as our first film-noir president. His voice of authoritative doom was the voice of second thug from the left. Or the thug’s boss. Even when he was young, and the House Un-American Activities Committee was in full flower, he sounded like that. (Peter Riegert portrayed a young, ambitious Nixon, with Alger Hiss in his legal sights, in the 1984 American Playhouse miniseries “Concealed Enemies.”)
No stranger to 1950s American pop culture, Nixon became an indelibly famous face - memorably distressed, opposite the more telegenic John F. Kennedy - in the 1960 presidential debates.
“If one was first amused by him, one was ultimately astonished,” wrote Philip Roth in a 1961 issue of Commentary. The debate, he wrote, provoked within Roth “a type of professional envy.” Against such a strange mixture of show business and politics, Mr. Cool versus the blinking, sweating man, what chance did a fiction writer have?
Hopkins’ performance in the Stone movie “Nixon” never cohered for reasons that had everything to do with Stone’s feelings about his subject. If he was a man without a sense of himself, or a soul, then the actor must dazzle us with the unsettling fragments. Hopkins was all surface and no psychology. His was a Nixonian performance but in the wrong way, conveying mostly sweat and effort.
Langella’s performance, honed by hundreds of warm-up performances onstage in London and New York, is another story. “Frost/Nixon” doesn’t try to explain the man. It’s a procedural, empathetic to all parties, about a TV event and how it came to pass, and how the key players tried to maximize the publicity. We return to Richard Nixon, on film, in opera (“Nixon in China”), in literature, because as Feeney says “there’s no resolution to him.”
Are we destined to re-examine George W. Bush as often as we return to Nixon? “Of course not,” Feeney says. “Nixon is simultaneously Iago and Richard III, and at the end of his life, a bit of Prospero, as well as Malvolio from ‘Twelfth Night.’ He’s like a walking Shakespearean concordance. George Bush ... is barely a sitcom.”
“Frost/Nixon” opens in theaters Dec. 12. The real-life “Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews,” came out on DVD Dec. 2; go online to frostnixon.com for details. Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” and Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” are widely available on DVD.