April 22, 2007

A Fresh View of History with "Frost/Nixon"

Watching an actor impersonate some famous celebrity has never been one of my favorite things. Pretending to be someone doesn’t make sense if you don’t recognize the celebrity but mimicked voices and imitated gestures usually strike me as silly. And yet “The Queen,” in which Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth grappling with the death of Princess Diana; and “The Last King of Scotland,” in which Forest Whitaker portrays the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, were my two favorite movies last year. Now I find myself surprisingly taken with Frost/Nixon, the new play about the events surrounding the 1977 interviews in which British broadcaster David Frost got Richard Nixon to make his first public apology for his role in the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency. It stars British actor Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon. It’s staged with the ferocious intensity and pageantry of a prizefight. And although not quite a knockout, it packs a solid punch

What all three works have in common is that they were written by the same man, Peter Morgan. In a terrific interview on NPR (to read or hear it, click here) Morgan explains that his primary focus has always been on relationships, the real people behind the famous personae. He has certainly been lucky in the actors he’s gotten to do his scripts. Both Mirren and Whitaker won Oscars for their performances and Sheen deserved a nomination for his portrayal of Tony Blair in “The Queen.” Now Morgan has hit pay dirt again with Langella.

Nixon has been caricatured so many times that even I’m now used to seeing others pretend to be him. And I wanted to see the show because I wanted to see Langella on a stage again. My husband K and I enjoyed him so much when we saw him in Fortune’s Fool, the until-2002 unproduced play by the 19th century Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev, that two years later, we rushed to see him in Match, a less successful contemporary comedy in which Langella nonetheless still charmed. Still, it took me a couple of minutes to even recognize Langella when he first walked onstage with Nixon’s familiar stoop-shoulder and heavy-footed gait. Langella folds himself into the role and what emerges is a more human Nixon than I’ve ever seen, including in news footage.

K, a Broadway pit musician, couldn’t get off work and so I went to the show with my friend Ann, a former model, who in the ‘60s traveled in the swinging circles on both sides of the Atlantic. The great love of Ann’s life was the producer of “Frost in America,” the talk show Frost did from New York in the mid-‘60s and that is referred to in the show. Frost/Nixon opened a trunk-load of memories for Ann and after the show, she shared goodies about some of the real people being portrayed on the stage. But even without Ann’s commentary, Frost/Nixon is worth a trip down that stretch of memory lane.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Langella is great. Tried to get him for a film I produced but schedule didn't work.

harvardj said...

Your blog on the Nixon play really made me want to see it. I also loved the way you referred to the movies; that really helped me create a frame of reference. But I felt terribly teased by what Ann might have or might have not told you. Please don't tease us!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Yes, the impersonation thing can sometimes be a bump in the road, but hey: only for those enough to remember Nixon. I suspect there will be those in the audience for whom this Nixon will be the only one he/she knows. Ah yes, as always, it's about the suspension of disbelief.

(Yeah, I also want to know the gossip Ann passed along.)

Anonymous said...

I knew the story well, but was surprised it held my attention for 2 hours!

What a treat to see my daughters friend from college Remy Auberjonois (last time I saw him was in a college production of BENT) making his Broadway debut as John Birt the producer of Nixon/Frost interview.

michael samachson said...

I read about Langella, Sheen, and Peter Morgan in Chicago Tribune. In the article, Langella said he didn't want to play Nixon at first, but was won over by the script, and realized that he could get to do many things so that people of today would know who the real person was.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't at all sure that I wanted to see this, for the very reason you mentioned - thanks for your review - I bought tickets this morning.

But I also think that only a Langella can get away with this - it shouldn't be a cue to others to start doing impersonations onstage.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks for sharing!

This is the Broadway play I'm most looking forward to seeing this spring. I vividly recall the media hype surrounding the actual David Frost interviews of Richard Nixon and the manner in which both were seeking some level of redemption. In my mind, that provides the type of riveting story you simply can't make up.

As a student of history, I'll let you know what I think after I've seen it!

Anonymous said...

Andew Billen, a UK theatre critic, had this to say about Morgan: "Morgan's work suits the sophisticated conservatism of our age. His well-made plays provoke laughter more often than tears, but it is the laughter of affection, not ridicule. We are moved to sympathy for our rulers, not rebellion." I thought that was a pretty interesting perspective. One could argue, however, that Frost/Nixon creates sympathy for Nixon but, at the same time, demands that our former leader "stand trial" and confess. Morgan, in this play, insists on both compassion and
justice.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see Frank Langella's Nixon when we visit New York next month. Thanks for the review.

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I was trying to decide what I was going to take my 18 year old son to see.....after reading your blog, now I know! Thanks. AB

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