STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING directed by Andrew Wagner, written by Wagner and Fred Parnes from Brian Morton’s novel, with Frank Langella, Lauren Ambrose, Lily Taylor and Adrian Lester. A Maple Pictures release. 111 minutes. Opens Friday (January 18) at the Cumberland. Rating: NNNN
Here’s the thing about acting. Oscars: they tend to favour big, hammy performances and ignore subtle, understated ones. That’s why, even if Frank Langella does hear his name read out as a nominee by some starlet at 5:30 am PST Tuesday for his brilliant work in Starting Out In The Evening, he won’t win and Daniel Day-Lewis will.
Not to worry. Langella will likely have another shot next year, when his turn as ex-prez Richard Nixon in the film version of his Tony Award-winning role in the stage play Frost/Nixon will be near the top of everyone’s Oscar pick list. Of course, it won’t hurt that the Academy likes to reward actors playing real people. Or that Ron Howard’s directing.
Two award-worthy performances in one year? Dare we mention the c- word “comeback”?
“No, please! I never went away,” exclaims Langella over coffee during the Toronto Film Festival. “It’s not true at all. I would have to have left for a very long time to look at it that way.”
Langella looks every inch the aging lion of the entertainment industry. With his close-cropped silver hair, tall stature and expensive but tasteful suit, he still exudes the ruddy charisma that made him a star in the 1970s. It’s no surprise that his recent big-screen roles capitalize on that elder statesman gravitas: editor Perry White in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, CBS honcho Bill Paley in George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck.
All of which makes his quiet and retiring Starting Out character, Leonard Schiller, such a revelation. Leonard’s a once-celebrated New York novelist whose heydey, like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s, came long before you could order espressos in bookstores.
“Leonard is a very typical Upper West Side Jewish man of a certain age,” says Langella. “He’s got a reserve and elegance about him. He’s very Old World, never seen without a tie. When I knew I was going to play him, I loved walking up and down the streets looking at men in their tweed jackets, their hats, eyeglasses and scarves.”
Any actor can make a physical transformation. Langella goes beyond that to inhabit the man internally. When Leonard’s at the typewriter – yes, typewriter – you really believe he’s thinking and writing. He’s so self-contained, he barely moves his mouth while talking.
“I’m Italian, not Jewish,” laughs Langella. “There’s a big difference. We’re hedonists. We talk with our hands, we’re emotional, energetic, sexual and angry. But I like Leonard. He genuinely likes his life, with his toast, jam and tea, and his daughter (Lili Taylor) joining him to see movies.”
And then comes a tempting boost to his ego in the form of Heather (Lauren Ambrose), an ambitious grad student who’s writing a thesis on Leonard’s works and has unusual ideas about how to research her subject.
“I had complete trust in the director to handle the relationship tastefully,” says Langella about the May-December theme. In fact, the film’s most shocking scene takes place not in the bedroom but in a quiet moment between the two characters that starts like a caress and ends in a slap. Langella admits that scene was one of the reasons he wanted to play the role.
“In a more clichéd script, Leonard would have had some epiphany that was larger and more theatrical,” says Langella. “Instead, he slaps her.”
One of the movie’s underlying motifs is the compromise required to both create art and live a life. It’s not something Langella relates to, particularly.
“I’m a lucky duck,” he says thoughtfully. “I stubbornly refused to run with the pack early on. I wanted a career that would be, as much as I could make it, on my own terms. Consequently, I dug holes for myself that I thought I’d never get out of. I did the wrong things, said the wrong things, refused to have a press agent when that was what you were supposed to do. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long.”
Additional Audio Clip
On whether playing Dracula was a blessing or a curse:
Lauren Ambrose and Frank Langella write the book on terrific acting.
STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING (Andrew Wagner)Rating: NNNN
Here’s one of those small, smart indie films you hope finds its audience. Leonard Schiller (Frank Langella) is an aging New York Jewish literary novelist who’s trying to finish that next big book that no one’s really waiting for when ambitious grad student Heather (Lauren Ambrose) starts stroking his ego by researching his work and life for a thesis project.
Nothing remarkable happens, but you’ll find yourself absorbed by the subtle shadings. Langella disappears into the role of a man who lives almost entirely in his mind, and Ambrose, without a trace of Six Feet Under’s neurotic Claire, plays off him beautifully. With Lili Taylor as Leonard’s free-spirited daughter and Adrian Lester as her noncommittal ex, this is quiet, character-driven drama at its best. GS