Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Challenge of Portraying Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon (Frank Langella): You know those parties of yours, the ones I read about in the newspapers. Do you actually enjoy those?

David Frost (Michael Sheen): Of course.

Richard Nixon: You have no idea how fortunate that makes you, liking people. Being liked. Having that facility. That lightness, that charm. I don't have it, I never did.

I only saw "Frost/Nixon" recently. I didn't see it when it was showing in the theaters five years ago.

I wanted to see it. But my personal budget wouldn't allow it. (Still doesn't, for that matter.)

But, if I am to be honest with you as well as myself, I have to admit that I just couldn't see Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, and that was an obstacle for me.

That's one of the problems with movies about prominent people who have lived during one's lifetime, I guess. I was a child during the Nixon years, and I have a pretty vivid memory of what he looked like, what he sounded like. Of course, I only saw him on television. I never saw him in person, but that was probably the experience most Americans had as well. Nixon often spoke about life in "the arena," but the truth was that he wasn't very good at interacting with people. He never seemed to spend much time with them unless he felt compelled in some way to do so.

My gold standard for Nixon portrayals is Anthony Hopkins in the 1995 movie "Nixon." I will be the first to admit that Hopkins neither looked nor sounded like Nixon. But, as I have said many times, he captured Nixon's personality better than anyone I ever saw.

I still feel that way, but, after seeing "Frost/Nixon," I must concede that Langella looked and — not always but consistently — sounded a lot like Nixon.

Nixon was a complex man so I can understand why it would be damn near impossible for a single actor to adequately portray him. In a perfect world, I would combine Langella's external portrayal with Hopkins' internal one.

Perhaps then it would be possible to capture the essence of Nixon.

In a way, though, Langella's portrayal demonstrated quite vividly that an actor with a gift for mimicry probably could duplicate Nixon's unique voice and mannerisms well enough to get by. The movie told the behind–the–scenes story of a disgraced former president who desperately sought to rehabilitate his public image and the up–and–coming British interviewer who saw interviewing Nixon as one more high–profile credit for his resume.

It turned out to be something different than either anticipated.

I'm pretty sure it wasn't what either man expected. Nixon certainly had his moments in those interviews, but so did Frost.

If it was necessary to say which man was more successful after the interviews, I would have to say Frost. His career was revived, and he went on to do many things, including interview eight British prime ministers and all of Nixon's successors except Barack Obama. (Frost died of a heart attack nearly four months ago.)

And that was essentially the moral of the story. Frost went on to greater things; Nixon sank deeper into his post–presidential funk. In spite of the audience that the interviews generated, Nixon was yesterday's news.

As one of the characters said near the end of the movie, Nixon's legacy in his own lifetime was that every public scandal became known with the suffix –gate attached to it.

I still say Nixon was too complicated to be reduced to a single, simplistic phrase like that. But if one must summarize the man's life and work in a single sentence, that isn't bad.