Honestly, I cannot recommend Frank Langella’s book enough. Some years ago, he wrote Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them, which kind of loops around through various times in his life, talking about the list of famous people he’s known over the years. Which seems to acknowledge that, yeah, he’s not entirely as famous as you might think himself. I mean, sure, he has four Tonys and has been nominated for an Oscar, but when you see him, do you remember his name?
In fact, before I read the book, I didn’t reliably myself. Okay, I’m better off than some people—who hear his name and picture, say, Christopher Lee—but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve come to remember his name with any degree of regularity. I recognized his face, and I could tell when I was seeing him, but he still always came as a surprise to me, even when I was rewatching movies. “Oh, yeah, that guy—yeah, he’s really good, isn’t he?”
One of his less celebrated performances is as Bob Alexander, the evil White House Chief of Staff in the Kevin Kline vehicle Dave. He has to convince Dave that he’s not evil, essentially, and it still has to remain clear to the audience that he is. He has to somehow persuade Dave that he has Dave’s, and the country’s best interests at heart while we at the same time stay aware that he’s undermining the Constitution and manipulating Dave to get his preferred legislation passed even though the person who should rightfully hold the Presidency wouldn’t try for it.
You might think that, because of my generation, I remember him as Skeletor—apparently one of his own favourite roles, because it’s so delightfully over-the-top. But in fact I’ve never seen that movie, because by the time I might have been able to rent it, I very much did not care. I might get around to it at some point just out of my fondness for Frank Langella, but I’m not sure that’s enough reason. I’ve watched other movies for that reason, and about half the time, I really just should’ve rewatched Dave.
Or, of course, his Oscar-nominated turn as Richard Nixon. I don’t think he would have attracted half as much praise if he’d done a simple Nixon impersonation. The movie wisely let us have Oliver Platt doing the jowl-shaking and raised fingers and so forth of everyone’s mental picture of Richard Nixon and left Langella to just . . . inhabit the role. He plays Richard Nixon as a man who can neither get over his own demons nor understand why so many people think what he did was wrong—which is, let’s be real, a pretty decent interpretation of Richard Nixon.