Friday, January 04, 2008

In praise of Frank Langella

Throughout nearly four decades of estimable work in film and theater, Frank Langella has remained highly visible at a level somewhere between superstar and journeyman. Early in his film career – specifically, in 1970, when he gave back-to-back, attention-grabbing performances in Frank Perry’s Diary of Mad Housewife and Mel Brooks’ The Twelve Chairs – he appeared poised to break out as a hot-hunk leading man. (After seeing the latter film for the first time, a gay college classmate confided to me: "I'd sure like to see that sailor naked!" So I recommended that he see Housewife. He did. Several times.) Later in the ‘70s, Langella evidenced similarly sexy potential when he starred in a popular Broadway revival of Dracula, then repeated his smoldering portrayal of the bloodthirsty count in an indifferently received film version. For one reason or another, however, the magic didn’t happen, and movie stardom eluded him.

But never mind: Langella has continued to earn awards and dazzle audiences in a remarkably diverse variety of stage roles – I was impressed by his turn as Henry Higgins in a Houston Grand Opera revival of My Fair Lady a few years back – while occasionally making his presence felt (and appreciated) as a supporting player in indie and mainstream movies. His may not be a household name, but it’s nonetheless a name that carries weight with those who have admired his work.

Which is why, as I've written in my Houston Chronicle review of Starting Out in the Evening, when Lauren Ambrose's ambitious grad student first approaches Leonard Schiller (Langella), a literary lion in winter, with equal measures of giddy excitement and respectful deference, it’s easy to image the actor playing Leonard generating the same response in a fan who recalls, say, Langella’s 1975 Tony Award-winning performance -- his Broadway debut! -- in Edward Albee’s Seascape, and who has followed the actor’s career ever since.

An objective observer – like the cynical magazine editor in Starting Out in the Evening, who dismisses Langella's character as a forgotten relic from another era -- might question why anyone would get so excited about encountering a figure so far removed from the A-list. But, as Louis Armstrong once quipped, “There are some people that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.”

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