Monday, November 14, 2011

Frank Langella at the Cornell Club


Your correspondent had the great pleasure of listening to a question and answer session with legendary actor Frank Langella last Friday at New York’s Cornell Club.  The luncheon event, presented under the auspices of the Hudson Union Society, presented Langella in a discussion about his latest star turn in Terrance Rattigan’s (1911-1977) Man and Boy, and then opened the floor to questions.
Langella is one the Americans actors who has carved-out both formidable film and stage careers.  For over 30 years he has morphed from a handsome leading man to a distinguished character player; Broadway roles have included Noel’s Coward’s Gary Essidine (Present Laughter), Sir Thomas More (A Man For All Seasons), actor Junius Booth (the interesting and overlooked Booth by Austin Pendleton), and, of course, Dracula in the Edward Gorey production of Dracula.  (He played a vampire of another type recently in Frost/Nixon, rightly portraying the former president as a slightly rancid revenant.)
Langella’s film career has been more spotty.  Studios worked to make him a mainstream leading man (playing Dracula as a romantic idol, for instance, or in the wonderful Those Lips, Those Eyes), but Langella was never wholly successful as a traditional lead.  Langella’s persona is too epic, too dangerous, and too larger than life for conventional leads.  By temperament and by technique, he is ideally suited for such figures as Sherlock Holmes and Leonardo da Vinci, Prospero and Cyrano.
Langella has had a formidable handicap to his classical theater ambitions – he is an Italian-American born in New Jersey.  (I well recall one waggish New York Times reporter calling him, “Bayonne’s gift to classical theater,” which is both snobbish and stupid.)  Langella, born in 1938, joins a small, select group of North Americans – Christopher Plummer and Kevin Kline come to mind -- with capabilities at classical parts to rival their European counterparts. 
If you have the opportunity to see Langella in Man and Boy, do not miss it.  Rattigan’s 1963 drama about a monstrous captain of industry, and how he ruins the lives of both investors and his own son, could not be timelier as the temperature drops around our Occupy Wall Street heroes. 
Last Friday, Langella was an amusing interview.  He graciously answered questions about his turn as Dracula – though it’s quite clear that he is more than tired of it.  (“It took the industry 10 years to forget that I played Dracula; it took me 10 minutes.”)  He also revealed that he is a dedicated craftsman as well was a great artist – he believes in being on and delivering for audiences.  If you can’t ‘turn it on’ or ‘turn it off,’ you should not be an actor.  He also told of an actor who had played Hamlet and three months after the run, could still not let go of the role.  “Then you did it wrong,” Langella said.
Happily, he spoke at length about Cyrano, who has played three times on stage, and he is preparing to direct a production next year.  It’s Langella’s belief that there is more than a little Cyrano in every man.  “We are all blocked by something – we think we’re too fat or think we’re too ugly, or that our nose is too big – and because of that, we’re unworthy of the love of a beautiful woman,” he said.  “But what Cyrano missed is that he was loved for his soul, and if a person has a beautiful soul, he is always worthy of love.”
Langella spoke with a mix of nostalgia and amusement about his upbringing in a noisy Italian-American home.  (“If pots weren’t flying, I thought something was wrong.”)  He also spoke at length about his preference for stage work, and how proud his is that his has mainly been a theatrical career.
It is always alarming to see a great actor at his ease.  I had the impression that I was with an indulgent uncle rather Dracula, Cyrano and Prospero.  But that is Langella’s point – there is something grand and elemental in even the most quiet people.

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