Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Frank Langella: Starting Out The Evening

I watched a little indie flick from last year, Starting Out The Evening, which I really enjoyed. It’s a simple setup that we’ve seen before and it never surprises, a grad-student (Lauren Ambrose) writes a paper on a washed up writer (Frank Langella) confronting his own immortality and personal ghosts. 

Though there’s a hoohum subplot about his lame daughter (Lili Taylor) and her dullard boyfriend (Adrian Lester). It has enough stuff to dig... 

I love hoity-toity scripts about writers who talk all fancy like ‘smarty-pants people’ and for some strange reason I really like the idea of a young collage girl wanting a sexual relationship with an older stiff. 

(Man, if only some coed would write her thesis on my brilliant still-unpublished epic novel, The Sensual Saga Of The Shepherd's Two Virgin Daughters)

But what made the film most watchable was the performance of  Frank Langella, as the sickly snob. It’s a character that could of come off dialogue-wise as one-note. But just through his expressions and body language Langella makes the character (and the film) feel a little more complex then it probably deserves. 

It’s a career making performance for an actor’s actor who has had a fascinating career.

Thinking of Langella, I wonder when did that disco dance floor looking dude of the then-popular 1978 version of Dracula (first playing the fanged one on stage in Edward Gorey’s revival) become the character actor of more recent years. 

The guy is a ultra acclaimed stage actor, winner of  three Tony Awards, most recently  for his performance as Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon a role he’s replaying for the upcoming film version  (unfortunately directed by Ron Howard).

He was perfectly cast as Perry White in Superman Returns (2006), as William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and as Clare Quilty in Adrian Lyne’s perfume commercial looking version of Lolita (1997). But best of all, as a cruel lascivious acting teacher, he completely dominated the Clooney/Soderbergh/HBO reality-fiction series Unscripted (2005).

Much of the interesting, younger, pre & post Dracula, Langella canon is not available on DVD (U.S. Region One DVD) and/or is out of print on VHS.

His first flick, the dark social satire Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) has gained a cult following and if it’s ever released on DVD we’ll see if it deserves it’s acclaimed Z-Channel reputation. Offbeat director Frank Perry (The Swimmer) these days is known for the number of his flicks that haven’t seen the DVD light-of-day, including Last Summer (1969), Truman Capote's Trilogy (1969), Play It As It Lays (1972), Man On A Swing (1974), Compromising Positions (1985) and mind-blowingly terrible Monsignor (1982).

Mel Brooks in-between his two now classic, The Producers (1968) and Blazing Saddles (1974) made a movie version of his stale stage bit The Twelve Chairs (1970), needless to say, as to the casting of Langella in a slapstick comedy, he ain’t Gene Wilder.

That forgettable mess is on DVD but his next two interesting flicks are not, nor on VHS. They’re also his only two big screen appearances until Dracula helped to keep him in the movies more consistently.

First he costarred with Faye Dunaway in French director René Clément (Purple Noon) much maligned Hitchcockian thriller The Deadly Trap (1971). Worth a look if nothing else to see Faye in her best-looking period, that is if it was available here in any format.

Much more fun, Langella plays the heavy in the Western The Wrath of God (1972). This little gem stars an aged but still cool Robert Mitchum in another fake Priest/ Con-man role, though now teaming up with.... Victor Buono to take down Langella’s Central American Dictator. The flick may be best known as Rita Hayworth’s last movie. 

But What I'll never forget is the ending (SPOILER). Facing an army of henchmen Mitchum tells Langella “you can never underestimate the power of the Lord” and then kills him with a switchblade cross!

Man, I’d like to see that movie again.

After the success of Dracula, he did another movie I dug when I saw it on TV years ago, but again it's not available on DVD

In Those Lips, Those Eyes (1980). Tom Hulce in-between Animal House and Amadeus and obscurity, limply stars as a young actor doing Cleveland summer stock and like all would-be artists, just trying to get laid. Langella carries the picture as a washed up ham actor with dreams of Broadway. The film was destroyed by critics when it came out, but like the British film An Awfully Big Adventure (1995) where Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are competing letches in small-town theater, it perfectly captures the backstage madness and the dreamy hopes of youth and the cruel lust of the fading older generation (I’ve lived all sides).

In the eighties Langella moved between stage, TV and some forgettable flicks. Playing Skeletor in The Masters of the Universe (1987) didn’t take his career to the next-level, nor did appearing in Roger Vadim’s pointless remake of his own And God Created Woman (1988). Finally in the nineties he starred popping up in supporting roles in mainstream fare like the trilogy of one-named blah titles Dave (1993), Junior (1994) and the awful Eddie (1996) where he hooked up with his unlikely real life main-squeeze of five years Whoopi Goldberg.

Lastly, two more flicks of his that have never made it to DVD...

Peter Medak director of the cult flick The Ruling Class (1972) helped to send a fascinating cast of actors down a peg or so in the eighties with The Men's Club (1986) . An ultra sleazy sounding story about a group of middle aged creeps (Roy Scheider, Harvey Keitel, Treat Williams, Richard Jordan, Craig Wasson and Langella) who get together for a night of  sex talk, hooker hunting and other assorted fun nihilism.

Six years later Langella joined another ansamble of scenery chewers, inclueding hams thespians Armand Assante and Sigourney Weaver in Ridley Scott’s Christopher Columbus epic 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). It was a major commercial bomb upon release but I would think is perfect for the DVD/Blu-Ray deluxe treatment.

Maybe, later this year if the hype machine gets rolling for Langella’s Nixon, some of his lost films will get a chance at rediscovery.


1 comment:

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