Thursday, October 9, 2014

In Character: Frank Langella

When Frank Langella is on screen, you pay attention. His presence demands it. With his towering frame, steely gaze and impeccable bravado, he’s the kind of actor who is impossible not to notice. But the thing I love most about him is that, despite his imposing figure, he often prefers to inhabit his characters in a more nuanced and restrained manner. Watching Frank Langella break bad is plenty of fun, don’t get me wrong. But watching Frank Langella threaten to break bad is infinitely more appealing.

Five Essential Roles
Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)
George Prager
Frank Perry’s ferocious and criminally ignored Diary of a Mad Housewife (the movie has still never been released on DVD) concerns itself with Tina (Carrie Snodgress), a kind hearted New York gal who happens to be married to the man from hell. Jonathan (Richard Benjamin) is emotionally controlling and unspeakably mean; he literally treats Tina like a subhuman. So Tina steps out, finding sexual comfort in George Prager, an insanely handsome (yeah, Langella was a fox back in the day) New York intellectual.

George is confident, sly, and, as Tina soon learns, not all that much different from her husband. But there’s an assurance to the way Langella plays him that is absolutely captivating. George was Langella’s first film role (he was already an accomplished stage actor), yet he carries himself with the poise of a veteran.

Lolita (1997)
Clare Quilty
I actually really like Adrian Lyne’s Lolita. Stanley Kubrick’s original film was damn bold for 1962, but 35 years later, Lyne was able to push the sexuality of Vladimir Nabokov’s text even further, thereby creating a far more unsettling film. I still prefer Kubrick’s version, but Lyne’s effort is a worthy one all the same.

Noting that, it can’t be easy to step into a role once occupied so marvelously by Peter Sellers. Wisely, it appears everyone involved in Lyne’s film made the conscious decision to demonize Clare Quilty, as opposed to keeping him a humorous character. Langella plays him not as shifty and outgoing, but more of a hidden, foreboding presence. In Lyne’s version, Clare Quilty’s big moment is saved for the climax of the picture. It’s a doozy of a scene that Langella simply devours. Lyne’s version is a darker and more forceful take on the original novel, but, again, one certainly worth exploring.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
William Paley
My favorite scenes of George Clooney’s masterful Good Night, and Good Luck are the unbearably tense moments between Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), and their boss, CBS owner William Paley.

The CBS network was Paley’s. He founded it, he built it. It was his. When you take that into context, it’s easy to see why Paley was so fearful over Murrow and Friendly’s on-air crusades against Senator Joseph McCarthy. Murrow’s lengthy condemnations about McCarthy helped bring the senator’s reign of terror to an end. Murrow’s coverage on the topic remain a pinnacle of American journalism, and helped cement Murrow as the finest reporter who has ever lived. But in the moment, those broadcasts threatened to destroy CBS, which, naturally, William Paley didn’t take too kindly to. Watching Langella and Strathairn verbally duke it out is as thrilling as any action sequence. Their articulate, precise words are thrown like daggers, ultimately to Murrow’s dismay.

“Let’s walk very carefully through these next few moments,” Langella sternly suggests at one point.

Yes, let’s, indeed.

Starting Out in the Evening (2007)
Leonard Schiller
Here’s a rarity for Frank Langella’s filmography: a quiet and humble man; no danger, no scorn, just a normal man nearing the end of his life. Leonard Schiller is an accomplished author who hasn’t released a major book in years. As he gets closer to his natural end, he knows that his current book will likely be his last. For much of the film, we watch as Leonard shuffles around his New York apartment, occasionally attending parties stuffed with intolerable intellectuals, or hanging out with his grown daughter. So carefully and wonderfully does Langella embrace Leonard’s silent melancholy. It’s all in the nuance; in a slow glance or a hushed admission that his life will soon be done. Leonard’s life is resurged once Heather (Lauren Ambrose), a grad student looking to study Leonard for her master thesis, comes into the picture. Their interactions seamlessly evolve from cautious to accepting, questionable to loving. Although Starting Out in the Evening is just a decent film, Langella does wonders with his character.

Robot & Frank (2012)
Frank could be Leonard Schiller’s long lost brother. Where Leonard gently accepts that his days are numbered, Frank is tired and grumpy and all around pissed off about his aging sensibilities. Plagued with dementia and a shitty attitude, Frank is furious when his grown son, Hunter (James Marsden), brings a small robot to Frank’s house to help the old man with menial tasks. But Frank’s life finds newfound purpose when he realizes that the robot will do most anything Frank tells him, including helping Frank break into places and steal stuff.

Frank is one of my favorite Frank Langella curmudgeons, of which there have been many. Again, like Starting Out in the Evening (the two films really are quite similar), Robot & Frank isn’t a great film, but Langella is great in it. The movie wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without Langella’s contribution.

The Best of the Best
Frost/Nixon (2008)
Richard Nixon
The easiest way to criticize a film that claims to be based on a true story is to call out the scenes that are completely fabricated. I’ve taken many Based on a True Story films to task for doing this very thing: manipulating audiences with heartfelt, fake sequences that make us care for the characters. Frost/Nixon is the rare exception to this particular criticism. A key scene in the film, in which a drunken Richard Nixon phones a weary Robert Frost in the middle of the night, never happened in real life, yet it remains the best scene of the film. And, arguably, of Langella’s entire career.

The five minute sequence is a masterclass of acting. We watch as Nixon stumbles and stammers his way through a tirade – daring Frost to bring his A-game in their upcoming and final interview together, while also relenting how similar the two men actually are. Nixon’s aggression mounts, culminating with the furious delivery of “We’re gonna make those MOTHER.FUCKERS. CHOKE!”, while Frost stares off, completely dumbfounded by what he’s hearing.

And hell, that’s just one damn scene of this movie. Of course, Langella owns the entire film with his unique humility and uncanny rage. A lot of damn fine actors have embodied Nixon over the years, but Langella’s take on Tricky Dick may be the most accomplished yet. Simply put, there isn’t a shred of Frank Langella found in his Nixon. Real or not, the actor became the man.

Other Notable Roles
in Superman Returns
The Twelve Chairs (1970)
The Deadly Trap (1971) 
The Wrath of God (1972)
Dracula (1979)
Masters of the Universe (1987)
1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Dave (1993)
Bad Company (1995)
Eddie (1996)
The Ninth Gate (1999)
Sweet November (2001)
House of D (2004)
Unscripted (2005)
Kitchen Confidential (2005-2006)
Superman Returns (2006)
The Tale of Despereaux (2008)
The Box (2009)
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
All Good Things (2010)
Unknown (2011)
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013)


  1. I have to say that I never would have said Langella was a "fox" per se (but what do I know about beauty/hansome-ness - everyone's own perspective) but I certainly have no fault with your pic of DoaMH on here. I was able to watch that a year or so back on Youtube (shitty quality be damned) and while I wasn't overly enthralled by the movie itself, Langella is the one thing I always remember about the film. His portrayal in that film is just impeccable and damn funny imo. Huge douche for sure.

    Also love the pick of Robot and Frank. I remember I was looking for something to watch one night and I hadn't seen that film yet so I just decided to go into it not knowing anything about it other than it involving some sort of a robot and Frank Langella - and I was really into it actually. I found it really charming and funny. Definitely a great curmudgeon performance from Langella, and actually bringing some real heart and soul to a type of character that we've all seen before time and time again. I had heard in an interview with Langella back around the time of his nomination for Frost/Nixon that he regards his performance in Starting Out in the Evening as one of his very best (I have yet to see the film) but based on your assessment I have to say that I find it interesting how actors tend to pick some of their most low-key and more intimate roles as their favorites (Brad Pitt said in the same interview that he regards his work in TAoJJBTCRF as one of his best as well) - so I'll have to check that one out.

    1. I had a chuckle at your first paragraph, mostly because I was laughing at himself for calling him that. But hey, good lookin' dude. Have you read his memoir? Let's just say the man is... sexually liberated. He's had 'em all, many times over.

      I watched Robot & Frank in the same exact way, for the same exact reason. I nice surprise there. And I love when stars go to bat for these smaller movies. I do remember Pitt saying Jesse James was probably the best work he'd ever do, and I have to agree.

  2. Definitely agree Frost/Nixon is his best role. I was going to suggest the recent Robot and Frank and you had it here (once again anticipating me.)

    I actually feel the Lyne version of Lolita is better than Kubrick's and the biggest reason for that is the Quilty character. Kubrick was hampered by the censorship of the time (and Peter Sellers' tendency to mug for the camera) so in the 60s version Quilty if a goofball and a clown, whereas in the 90s version he's a monster like he's supposed to be.

    1. Ha, I do try.

      I love that you prefer Lyne's version over Kubrick's. Couldn't agree more about how censorship hampered Kubrick's production. And Sellers' performance, while still great to me, does feel like a Peter Sellers performance. You're right, Langella truly inhabited the monster of the character. Well said.

  3. Frank Langella is awesome. The guy often delivers as I love him in Starting Out in the Evening while I do remember him in Adrian Lyne's version of Lolita which I haven't seen in a very long time. I also liked him in Dave and Superman Returns as I'm one of those that enjoyed the latter.

    1. I liked Superman Returns just as much as most other superhero, which is to say, well enough. I guess I didn't really understand the huge backlash against that one. Better said: I'd rather watch Superman Returns 3 times in a row than Man of Steel once more.

      But anyway, love that you're a Langella fan. He's great in Dave as well.

    2. MOTHERFUCK YEAH BOY!!!! A late of friend of my parents whose cats I inherited loved, loved, loved Superman Returns as it reminded him of why he loved Superman. I too would see that a million times than Man of Steel as well.

  4. I love Langella's work. I think he's screamingly funny in Dave, for instance and he's menacing while understated in The Ninth Gate.

    But he's magnificent in Frost/Nixon. Ho-lee cats, but that's a performance for the ages.

    1. He's really the only thing I like about The Ninth Gate. Langella, coming in to save the picture. And Dave... I was so close to adding that to this list. He's great in that.

  5. Oh, he's such a reliable screen presence, isn't he? Certainly an actor who, no matter how good or bad the film, just elevates the film due to his acting. His best performance is definitely Frost/Nixon, but I still need to see a lot of his other films. Great post!

    1. Thanks! SUCH a reliable presence. Whenever this guy comes on, you know it's going to be worth it.

  6. I always think of him playing Zod, especially when you talk about how restrained he is. He doesn't get up in your face and scare you with volume. His intimidation is much more subtle, yet creepy. It's almost like knowing it's so much worse to disappoint than anger your parents. He's on the brink of getting furious without actually going there. Really well put, Alex.

    1. Thanks Kristin! I love the way he threatens danger. Many young stars who have a large physique feel they have to SHOW they can be dangerous. Langella threatens, and it's so effective. Love it.

  7. Yes, Frost/Nixon is his best performance. He is simply amazing in that. I'm also very happy you included Robot and Frank, too. Agreed, it's not a great movie, but he is great in it. I also loved him in The Box. That wasn't great, either but I liked it and he was all sorts of creepy. Great post, Alex.

    1. Thanks man! I didn't like The Box at all, except his performance. Creepy bastard with half a face - I dug it. So glad to hear you're a Langella fan.

  8. Langella is awesome. I've had Robot and Frank in my Netflix queue forever, I really need to watch it.

    1. It's a good one. Doesn't ask much of you; a pretty breezy little flick. Hope you like it!

  9. As soon as I saw the name Frank Langella, I immediately hoped Richard Nixon was the number 1 spot. I remember seeing that movie in a "Reel History" class in my freshman year at high school, and was simply amazed by Frank Langella. I didn't know his name then, but I realized how great the performance was. The scene I remember the best is of course the drunken midnight call (I have seen the film since), what he was able to do with that scene was astonishing.

    Also really happy Robot & Frank was on here, I liked that movie quite a bit (but also acknowledge that it isn't perfect). Gotta say, this is a great list overall too. All of these works really show the range of Frank Langella, phenomenal list again.

    1. Nice man, really pleased that you like the list, and Langella's work in general. I think it's cool that you were allowed to watch Frost/Nixon as a freshman in high school. Granted, it's a soft R, but my high school showed us movies like Remember the Titans when I was a freshman. Frost/Nixon > Remember the Titans. Ha.

  10. GREAT choice for this series. I'm glad that you included Robot & Frank, one of my favorite "under the radar" flicks from the last few years (mostly due to Langella's terrific performance).

    I really need to see Frost/Nixon.

    1. Thanks man! Frost/Nixon is a really solid film, and Langella KILLS it. Robot & Frank was a nice little gem, for sure.

  11. I'm so glad you included Diary of a Mad Housewife on here! One of my favorites and a severely under appreciated film that will hopefully get a nice DVD release. Isn't that still from The Twelve Chairs though?

    1. (sigh) Indeed it is. I substituted quality for accuracy (plus, they were released months apart, so I thought it was fair). But I've since changed it. Man, I wish they'd release that flick on DVD.

  12. Oh he is such a wonderful actor, very memorable presence in all his roles I saw. "Watching Langella and Strathairn verbally duke it out is as thrilling as any action sequence" - that's how I felt during watching Frost/Nixon, which is one of my all time favorites. I love it the most when the tension and suspense can be achieved simply by perfectly written lines and rich characters involved in some sort of duel, when they are on opposite sides.

    I may see Starting Out in the Evening one day, I loved Lauren Ambrose since Six Feet Under so whenever she is in the movie, sooner or later I'm gonna see it.

    1. Peter Morgan really wrote the hell out of Frost/Nixon. I bet that play is damn fine as well. A war with words if there ever was one.

      Ambrose is really good in Starting Out in the Evening. The only thing I'll say is that the dialogue in that film is very New York entitled. It fits the mood well, but the characters' method of speech was often stuffy, even if it's supposed to be on purpose.

  13. Oh, he's terrific in Frost/Nixon, and he's very good in Starting Out in the Evening and Good Night, and Good Luck. I really need to check out his other work that you mentioned.

  14. A shame you haven't included Those Lips, Those Eyes' and 'Eccentricities of a Nightingale' Next to 'Dracula' my favorite Frank Langella films. He is a brilliant actor and was gorgeous when he was younger. Love 'Starting out in th Evening' too.

    1. I'll have to check out those early roles. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!

    2. Both are on DVD. Those Lips Those Eyes is one, Frank said in an interview, of his favorite parts. I.M.O he was never sweeter and more gorgeous then in Eccentricities of a Nightingale, together with a fantastic Blythe Danner this filmed play is a real treasure.

    3. So completly different from the 'angry' and 'smouldering' parts he's played a lot.

    4. I love that these films show a different side to Langella. Thanks again for the recommendations!

    5. Hope it's okay if I write a bit more in reply to the things you said about Frank's parts , even though this blog is from 2014! I only found it last week, but if you mind, just let me know, I'll stop 'talking'!!

      You said about Frost/Nixon : . Simply put, there isn’t a shred of Frank Langella found in his Nixon. Real or not, the actor became the man.
      For me that's the reason I'm not crazy about that one! Even though I can see that the acting he's doing is absolutly brilliant, but I can't find anything of him in it anymore. Same goes for 'The Ninth Gate'. And he scared the living daylights out of me in 'Lolita'!!Boy was het mean in there.
      I'm also still hoping that 'Dairy of a Mad House Wife' will be released on DVD one day. The two movies I told you about weren't released until not so long ago either. I love his older films.
      Have your 5 favorites on DVD and most of the ones on your list aswell. I'm a big fan so to speak!!
      What I admire most about him, is that he's always great and different in every part he plays, even films that aren't that good, 'Sfynx' for instance , are worth watching just to see what Frank does with the part.
      I think I love 'Starting out in the Evening' so much, because it also shows a much 'softer' side, although at the end the anger comes out a bit when he slaps 'Heather'in the face. (which she deserved, patronizing him the way she did!!).
      It seems now he's getting old(er)! he chooses more gentle parts, in his 50ties and 60ties there were so many in which he played really angry men, boy, could he play out the rage in Çuttthroad Island'. Always great to watch the anger and rage build up, starting in the eyes!! One wouldn't want to be the target!!
      But these last years he's more into mellow part. And he's soo funny.Did you see '5 To 7'?? He's hilarious!!
      I hope to see his last film 'Youth in Oregon' one day soon. Have to wait if it's released overhere in Europe on DVD.
      Anyway, have boored you long enough. Thanks for the nice article and best wishes. Ina

    6. Of course it's okay! I love the enthusiasm you have for his work. I hear what you're saying about his work in Frost/Nixon. He's so engulfed in Nixon, he disappears. And if you're a fan, that can be a bit off putting. I agree that he is such a versatile acting, and whether he's playing mean, gruff, soft, or gentle, he always brings something fresh to his work. I haven't seen 5 to 7 but I'll have to check it out now!

  15. Thanks for understanding my feelings about Frank in Frost/ Nixon! Have signed up for your blog. Like all your lists and did comment on a couple. Best wishes, Ina