As I was saying, there’s no one like Frank Langella in American theater—unless, of course, it’s Marian Seldes. Mr. Langella is a star actor who would be at home on a 19th-century stage. He’s a big crowd-pleasing actor, a great big delightful ham. His brilliant portrait of President Nixon in Peter Morgan’s enjoyable Frost/Nixon at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway is the best work he’s done in his distinguished career.
Mr. Langella doesn’t try merely to impersonate Nixon, thank goodness. He captures the tortured essence—the soul of the man—instead. Nixon-haters might feel dismayed that Mr. Langella has us pitying the disgraced ex-President, as if the play itself were another step in his rehabilitation. As I see it, it’s to the star’s credit that he exposes a tragic dimension to Nixon’s wretched life. I couldn’t have been less prepared, however, for a likeable Nixon. The evasive, self-hating, incurably awkward Nixon was surely never as charming as Mr. Langella makes him out to be. The real Nixon was a man who longed to be liked, but never knew how. President Kennedy knew how! Frank Langella knows how!
Then again, Peter Morgan is a writer whose specialty is to represent the fallen and the misunderstood. His sympathetic study of Queen Elizabeth in The Queen conceivably did more for the monarchy than the royal family has managed to do in decades. Mr. Morgan’s choices are surprising: his take on the rise of the monstrous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006); his account in the British TV film Longford of that holy fool Lord Longford and his attempts to win a pardon for the infamous child murderer Myra Hindley.
Mr. Morgan is a good storyteller in the fertile business of docufiction. He combines historic fact with imagined scenes, the better to discover larger emotional truths. Whether the queen really had an epiphany about a stag is beside the point. The best and most dramatically effective scene in Frost/Nixon has the drunk, rambling Nixon making a maudlin late-night call to Frost. “That’s our tragedy, isn’t it, Mr. Frost,” he says. “No matter how high we get, they still look down at us.” The scene never happened.
Frost/Nixon takes place in 1977, when the British talk-show host David Frost—a man with no political convictions, or any convictions save for his belief in the power of television—persuaded Nixon to be interviewed for four TV segments. (In a deal negotiated by his super-agent Swifty Lazar, the former President was paid what was then a small fortune—$600,000—plus 20 percent of the profits of the global broadcasts). The flamboyant Mr. Frost, whose career was on the skids, wanted to save his reputation by getting Nixon to admit to his guilt in the Watergate cover-up and apologize to America.