The Virginia Film Festival and the Miller Center hosted a screening of “Frost/Nixon” yesterday at the Newcomb Hall Theater. The 2008 film from director Ron Howard chronicles the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon in 1977. Even though he’s invested his own capital in the project, Frost (Michael Sheen) has trouble applying himself to the serious task of interviewing the master politician (Frank Langella). Pitting Frost against Nixon almost feels like a bout in the boxing ring, matches periodically broken up by their respective supporters (Matthew Macfayden, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and Kevin Bacon). It’s unfortunate that the film grossed only about $18 million, because by the end, it’s so easy to believe that Frank Langella is Richard Nixon, or at least, a very humanized version of the former president.
After seeing him onscreen with all the prosthetic pieces and makeup, it was a little jarring when the actor himself stepped across the stage, clad in a dark sweater and jeans. Ken Hughes was an apt choice to conduct the interview, which he joked would be “less intense” than those that occurred in the film. The former journalist has worked with the Miller Center for over ten years in the Presidential Recording Program and has published a number of works on presidents in office during the Vietnam War.
How would Langella characterize the essence of Nixon? “Fear … a discomfort in his own body,” he replied. Nixon is “the freak around us,” he added. The seventy-six year old recounted that the daily physical transformation took over 2 hours to achieve. He nearly pulled out of the part, doubting his ability to play the character until he accidentally played the tapes in slow motion and honed in right away on the fear and discomfort in Nixon’s face.
Langella’s career has spanned nearly 50 years, which gave him the opportunity to work with a number of directors. Having Ron Howard as a director sounds like a exhausting challenge, as Howard is known for doing multiple takes. The telephone call scene in “Frost/Nixon” alone had 16 takes. However, Langella enjoyed the flexibility and freedom that he was given in putting his performance together. Contrast that with stories of his difficult time on “Dracula” with director John Bedham.
The actor also emphasized the importance of staying focused. “You can learn anything if you have focus,” he said, a message he directed particularly to young people. Langella offered a lot of insight into the challenges of taking on a role like Nixon: a figure who continues to fascinate (and admittedly repel) the American public. Hitflix just reported that Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey will tackle the project, “Elvis & Nixon.” It’s too early to gauge how that will fare if and when the production comes to fruition.
Unquestionably, Langella drew the most laughs when he started sharing anecdotes. “Here I go dropping names but I’ve got nothing else to drop!” he remarked with a twinkle in his eyes. He spoke of his experiences with meeting presidents like Bill Clinton; despite their warmness, one always gets struck by the fact that it is a president who is approaching you. Langella left us with a particularly amusing story about Kevin Bacon, who told a particularly disgusting joke on the final day of filming; it was all Langella could think about as he was acting out the final confession scene in the Frost/Nixon interviews!
Frank Langella also came to the Virginia Film Festival for a screening and discussion of Victor Levin’s directorial debut, “5 to 7.” Be sure to return to TV Spyglass to see my piece about that amazing film and entertaining panel, in which much hilarity ensued on Langella’s part.