On today”s Daily Beast, critic Lee Siegel hopes against hope that the Members of the Academy will have the wisdom to reward and encourage real acting —as opposed to camera-aided impersonation— by choosing Frank Langella as Best Actor. Whereas Mickey Rourke’s Randy Robinson and Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk are worthy and workmanlike characters, they only deliver what the audience expects; there are no real surprises and not all that much discovery.
Whereas Langella’s RN cast an entirely new light on what most people thought was a thoroughly familiar figure.
After analyzing The Wrestler and Milk, Mr. Siegel really gets down to business and sinks his teeth into F/N and, in particular, Langella’s N:
Langella’s is not the crazed, antic, merely paranoid and vindictive Nixon that flourishes in the popular imagination, and was institutionalized, as it were, by Anthony Hopkins’ frenetic, almost campy impersonation in Oliver Stone’s film. Langella’s Nixon has something no public interpretation of Nixon has ever possessed: self-knowledge.
Early on, Langella tells his chief aide, superbly played by Kevin Bacon, that he’s going to hire some Cubans to spy, Watergate-style, on David Frost, after he agrees to be interviewed by Frost. Bacon stares at him with panic rising in his eyes. This is the lunatic villain right out of Central Casting! But Langella casts him a stern glance and says: “I’m only joking.” In one stroke, a new Nixon, like a new planet, swims into view.
This Nixon isn’t about to fall to pieces from the pressure of his inner demons. Yawn. Langella’s Nixon is—like Brando’s Don Corleone—a self-possessed, powerful man, who expresses his power by talking and moving slowly, speaking softly, and cannily pulling other people’s mental strings. Rather than responding excitedly to slights, provocations and feared conspiracies, this Nixon is a former leader of the free world—that is to say, his inner ballast and experience of power are so strong that he seems to be humoring reality rather than encountering it. He has experienced, and mastered, too much of the world to be much agitated by it.
That’s not to say that the demons aren’t there, but they are one important segment of this character’s gigantic psychic population. Perhaps the most startling quality that Langella brings to the role is Nixon’s practical intelligence. His frank desire for money has the disarming earthiness of a strictly budgeting housewife from Peoria.
So when Michael Sheen, expertly playing David Frost, finally pries from Langella’s Nixon—during their final TV interview—regret over his crimes, and something like an apology to the American people, you don’t feel that Nixon has been finally tripped up and that the good guys in the white hats have vanquished the black-hatted villain. You feel that Nixon has given up precisely what he is able to give up and no more, and that he makes his avowal in a complicated mesh of self-knowledge, fear of the truth, sudden horror and King Lear-like isolation, all anchored by that sense of having mastered the world, of belonging to history.
And Langella conveys all this complexity while the camera stays on his face for what feels like minutes, which for most actors nowadays is the equivalent of bungee-jumping off the Empire State Building.
As Sam Rockwell—playing James Reston Jr., one of Frost’s consultants for the Nixon interviews—puts it, the triumph of Frost’s Nixon interviews was achieved by “the reductive power of the closeup.”
Mr. Siegel doesn’t let his enthusiasm get the better of his grip on reality. “No one seriously thinks Langella is going to trump Rourke this year, or Sean Penn for that matter,” he admits. “But I like to imagine that Langella has a chance because it intensifies the already suspenseful acting contests to a stark polarity: The art of acting versus the hallucination of acting produced by special effects.”