Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



Langella In Close-Up


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



[The following is an excerpt from The Sherlock Log, a personal account by Charles Marowitz of the production of Sherlock's Last Case presented at the Nederland Theatre in New York in the late 1990s.]


(Swans - July 12, 2010)   After Sherlock's Last Case wound up its run on Broadway, I saw very little of Frank Langella. He was on the east coast and I on the west, but I followed his activities with an almost -- despite the differences in our ages -- paternal interest. I knew little about him when in Los Angeles he first expressed interest in the play but by the time the show had packed it in, I felt I had doped him out to my own satisfaction and, for what it is worth, I provide that assessment here.

Like every high-octane actor, Langella is powered by a stupendous ego. By which I do not mean he is "egotistical" in a negative sense, but that his strengths as an actor are transfused through that single-minded energy that bubbles through his bloodstream and into his role. He makes the acting choices which seem truest and most effective to himself without necessarily taking into account that collective energy which is usually shared between the members of the acting ensemble. In everything I have seen him do, he stands out due to the subtleties of his choices and the magnetism with which he expresses them.

Some time after he had played Sherlock, he came to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in the role of the captain in Strindberg's "The Father" and I, now wearing my critic's hat, was assigned to review the production. "The effect of Frank Langella's 'Father'," I wrote...

...is like being thrust back in time to the age of Kemble and Booth, Kean and Macready. It is an old-fashioned performance in the very best sense of that term: broad, histrionic, full-blooded, and all-devouring. When it is over, one almost expects to find the remains of masticated scenery strewn upon the stage and puddles of blood drying in the wings. Which is simply a hyperbolic way of saying it is a performance predicated on passion and conveyed with palpitating power. I can think of no contemporary American actor who is prepared go that far out on a limb and who, once there, proceeds to do loop-de-loops. -- Langella's performance is full of eerie pauses and sudden neurotic lurches, all of which convey the captain's internal pressures -- like the mechanisms inside a magnificent clock tower just before its bells are about to toll. Langella employs a recurring piece of business -- his fingers involuntarily counting the brass buttons on the left side of his uniform -- which punistically suggests a man in fear of "losing all his buttons." When, in the final scene, the captain actually flips, the actor plunges into dementia like an Olympian swimmer into a pool of molten lead.

That sense of meaningful detail and tremulous, suppressed power could also be found in his interpretations of Dracula and "Cyrano" and can be discerned in his portrait of President Nixon in the film Frost/Nixon. These are performances in which the sub-text fairly sizzles beneath the text and occasionally erupts into little explosions of detonated tension.

That is the best of Langella; the less salutary aspects arise from his tendency to act "off" rather than with his fellow cast-members -- as if everyone on stage with him is reduced to essaying a supporting role -- whether the playwright ascribes it or not. This is not because he consciously undermines their performances but because he uses them to aggrandize his own. To some extent his potency prevails at the expense of others in the cast because he consciously (or unconsciously) utilizes them as a trampoline to demonstrate his own leaps and bounds.

When we were casting the roles in Sherlock's Last Case, there were several experienced actors who would have made startlingly good Watsons. For some reason, they were passed over and the role went to Donal Donnelly, a talented Irish actor but more winsome and slender than that which the role demands. Watson, in this version, was inspired by Nigel Bruce who toadied up to the supercilious sleuth played by Basil Rathbone, and the entire play was consciously patterned on those Hollywood stars. In this version, Watson is in many ways the juicier role because at the end of the first act, he transforms into a diabolical figure who has been snaring Holmes into his treacherous net for many years during which he has been slighted, catered-to and casually belittled by Holmes. I believe Langella realized that a really virile Watson might have stolen the show out from under the pompous and egocentric sleuth. I believe his actor's sense of self-preservation tilted the casting of this role towards an actor who would pose no histrionic threat to Sherlock's prominence; an actor who in a sense would not possibly upstage the lead.

This is simply a personal impression and may be entirely unfounded, but from the start I felt that the characteristics needed for Watson demanded a more heavyweight performer who could make that subtle transition from underling to nemesis.

In my personal assessment of Frank's Sherlock, I would have to say I was very satisfied with ninety percent of it. The intended pomposity was blazingly present throughout and it happily enlivened the comedy. There is a kind of plus-factor when a pompous actor pours his talents into a pompous character and manages to score as many laughs as Langella did. My only cavil with his performance was that he never quite mastered the upper-class British accent that makes Sherlock the unreformable snob he is -- moreso in this version than in the tales of Conan Doyle. Also, I regret acceding to his request for more text in the final scene to "round out events" whereas I felt (and still feel) ending on a note of ambiguity made for a better finish. But these are minor cavils. I can't think of an actor who combined hauteur and cynicism as perfectly as Frank nor an actor who brought so much inventiveness to the entire process.

If, as I seem to be suggesting, there is a raging egoistic stream in Frank Langella, I need to point out that he is in good company. It is the same unshakeable self-assurance one could find in Henry Irving, Edmund Kean, Edwin Booth, John Barrymore, or Laurence Olivier -- and it may well be that it is this very rampaging egoism that enables him to outshine many of the talented actors of his own generation. A Herculean ego, though obnoxious in social settings, is something of a real asset in the theatre.

There was a period after Langella's Broadway success in Frost/Nixon when the rumor was that, in the upcoming film version, Warren Beatty would be given the coveted role of the disgraced president. When this news reached Langella, he percolated with outrage. The prospect of losing a role he had made his own, for which he had won a Tony and the plaudits of New York critics, was like being consigned to the seventh ring of Dante's Inferno. For many weeks, Langella was something of a wreck; his sense of entitlement burning with a resentment against the inequities of life. As it turned out, Beatty rejected the role and Langella was tapped to transfer his Nixon to the screen.

There too, frustrations rattled his composure. Nominated for an Academy Award, that innate sense of entitlement could now be the crowning achievement of all his efforts with the role, the play, and the intensive work he had invested in both. When, on the tremulous night of the Awards ceremony, he was passed over for Sean Penn as Best Actor, I experienced a genuine twinge of heartbreak as I imagined Frank's reaction. All awards ceremonies are like "the killing fields" -- with actors, actresses, writers, and directors falling like swatted flies on every side. But knowing the intensity of his desire and the violent sense of entitlement that fed it, it was as much a heartbreak for those who understood his frustration as it was for the actor himself.

Langella is the epitome of what a serious actor must be if he is to triumph in his chosen profession. Someone who works steadfastly on details and explores nuances in order to create the full rotundity of the character he is creating. That his life is entirely devoted to acting is both his salvation and his curse. The seriousness with which he applies himself to creative tasks acts as a measuring rod for every other member of the profession. It reveals the depths to which a performer has to go in order to achieve the transformations that make him one with both the role and the play. The gravitas of his dedication to acting, beyond almost everything else in his life, is what enables him to create versions of himself which are often wonders to behold. Every member of the acting profession recognizes these gifts in him and that recognition is, in many ways, worth more than the shiny statuettes held over one's head as hurried words-of-thanks are doled out to wife, family, friends and collaborators.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/cmarow169.html
Published July 12, 2010