Oscar 2007: Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening

It will take pages to relate Frank Langella's theatrical achievements over the past four decades. However, on screen, due to a small film output, Langella has not done much and is less recognized by moviegoers who don't go to the theater, or watch TV.

On screen, you may recall Langella's appearance in George Clooney's 2005 Oscar-nominated “Good Night and Good Luck,” or in “Superman Returns.” In the 1990s, he also played in the new version of “Lolita,” in the comedy “Dave,” in Polanski's “The Ninth Gate,” but those were mostly supporting roles. Langella's leading roles date back to the 1970s with such films as “Dracula,” “1492: The Conquest of Paradise,” “Those Lips-Those Eyes, “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” and “The Twelve Chairs.”

It's therefore a double joy to report that this is Langella's banner year, in which he renders a sterling, Oscar-caliber performance in the Sundance indie “Starting Out in the Evening,” and has already won a Tony Award for his Broadway play, “Frost/Nixon,” which is now being made into a Hollywood film.

This award season is marked by great, splashy turns from movie stars, including Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Brad Pitt in “Assassination of Jesse James,” George Clooney in “Michael Clayton,” Johnny Depp in the dark musical “Sweeney Todd,” and others.

Does Langella, who has never been nominated for an Oscar, stand a prayer with critics and the Academy voters at year-end's kudos “Starting Out in the Evening” has not been released yet, but I am concerned that with so many films opening between now and the end of the year, this quiet yet fascinating film and Langella's towering performance will not get the recognition they deserve.

Admittedly, “Starting in the Evening” is “small,” intimate film, a challenging, understated, sophisticated meditation on the creative process, writing, which is not exactly the most dramatic or cinematic activity. Add to it the fact that Langella plays an older and complex writer, who falls for a young woman, a grad student, one third of his age, and you truly have a marketing challenge.

First, a few observations about the conventions-defying role and Langella's rich and astute interpretation of it. Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a solitary writer totally devoted to his work. His one enduring goal is to finish the novel whose completion has eluded him for ten years. With his earlier books out of print, he has divested himself of the desire for the success he had once been close to, though he has not given up completely on the need for his work to be rediscovered.

Schiller's main contact to the world is through his daughter Ariel (sensitively played by Lili Taylor), with whom he shares an amiable relationship. Even so, he must conceal his disappointment that, pushing 40, Ariel is still looking for love and a father for a longed-for child.

Schiller's world is shaken when Heather Wolfe (“Six Feet Under” Lauren Ambrose in a wonderful performance), a smart, ambitious graduate student, who writes a thesis on his work, convinces him she can bring him back into the literary spotlight. Initially, Schiller resists her proposition, but gradually, Heather reawakens in him his long submerged need for artistic recognition and his long repressed feeling for romantic love.

When Ariel's life takes an unexpected turn upon a chance reconnection with her ex-boyfriend Casey, Schiller gets alarmed. He only sees Casey as the man who hurt his daughter years ago due to an unplanned pregnancy. But the reawakening Schiller experiences through his encounter with Heather leads to an unfamiliar path that threatens his writing, his health, and his relationship Ariel. In the end, or in the evening of his life, Schiller puts into practice the core theme of his novels–life is not designed for comfort but for struggle because struggle signals growth, both personal and professional.

Inevitable comparison may be made between Schiller and the character Peter O'Toole's played in Roger Michell's “Venus,” Maurice, an aging British actor who falls for his nurse, his best friend's grand-niece, a part that brought him his eighth Oscar nomination. But I think the parts are very different. In Andrew Wagners Starting Out in the Evening, Schiller's affair with the younger woman is invigorating and has impact on him, whereas O'Toole mostly served as a mentor to the young woman. Additionally, the romantic-erotic angle is not the main element in Wagner's film, even though Langella has an audacious scene in the nude.

Though “Starting Out in the Evening” is a chamber theatrical piece, a two-handler, as we used to say in “Variety,” Fred Parnes and Andrew Wagners screenplay features sharp dialogue for both Langella and Ambrose that illuminates the processes of aging, physical rejuvenation and intellectual reawakening in a way that Robert Benton's “Human Stain” failed to do.

Starting Out in the Evening is a subtle, character-driven film; not much happens by way of plot. But the film's main virtue is Langella, who gives an ultra-understated, toned-down performance, the kind that seldom gets recognition, hence my concern. Playing a 70-year-old novelist (which is his own age), Langella brings to life a burnt-out man, who has been forced to slow down by a heart attack and has been emotionally embittered ever since his wife had left him for another man

Back in January, Langella was unable to introduce the film at Sundance, because he was appearing at the time “Frost/Nixon” at the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End. The critically acclaimed play by Peter Morgan (scribe of “The Queen, among others) then transferred to Broadway in April 2007, where it ran for four-five months.

As noted, Langella's career, which goes back to the 1960s, is impressive in range, power and versatility. A preeminent presence in the American Theatre, he has been called “an actor's actor,” by Ben Brantley of the N.Y. Times and “one of our few great actors,” by Clive Barnes of the N.Y. Post. On stage, he has played all the classics: Fortune's Fool (Turgenev); The Father (Strindberg); Present Laughter (Coward); Amadeus (Schaffer); Hurlyburly (Rabe); Passion (Nichols); Seascape (Albee); Design For Living (Coward); Sherlock's Last Case (Marowitz); Dracula (Hamilton-Dean); A Cry of Players (Gibson); Yerma (Lorca); Match (Belber).

Off-Broadway, Langella excelled in Cyrano (Rostand); After the Fall (Miller); The Old Glory-Benito Cereno (Lowell); The White Devil (Webster); The Prince of Homborg (Von Kliest); The Immoralist (Gide); Booth (Pendleton). The Tempest (Shakespeare).

On TV, Langella was in Unscripted (HBO); Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Williams); The Seagull (Chekhov) (PBS); The Beast (ABC); The Doomsday Gun (HBO); Monkey House (Vonnegut, Showtime).

Among Langella's many honors are Induction into the 2003 Theatre Hall of Fame, Two Tony Awards (four nominations), Five Drama Desk Awards, Three Obies, Two Outer Critics Circle Awards, The Drama League, The National Board of Review, The Cable Ace Award as well as Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. And this year, it's time to add another laurel: a Best Actor Oscar nomination for “Starting Out in the Evening.”