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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Frank Langella slays 'em at Oscar round table

January 28, 2009 |  6:37 pm

Ah, actors. As a weary filmmaker once told me, having barely survived a lengthy shoot with two especially loopy movie stars, "All actors are crazy. The only difference is whether they're crazy on the outside or on the inside." On the other hand, when they're on their best behavior, as they usually are during Oscar season, no one is more entertaining and enchanting -- as is evident in Newsweek's wonderful round-table interview with a scrum of this year's Oscar nominees. Although Newsweek's David Ansen and Ramin Setoodeh ostensibly conducted the discussion, it quickly becomes apparent that the round table's real driving force is "Frost/Nixon" star Frank Langella, who not only puts on a dazzling show himself but inspires his peers to loosen up and have fun, even the normally glum Brad Pitt, who usually has about as much charm with the media as the L.A. Dodgers' famously dour Jeff Kent. (Asked if he'd ever Googled himself, Pitt replies: "Dear God, no. First of all, I don't really know how to operate a computer.")

Ca_1230_frostnixon_03_3 Langella is a hoot, theater actors as a rule being far more engaging and high-spirited than our generation of cautious, coddled movie stars. Apropos of very little, Langella says, "Would you like to hear my most favorite line I have said onstage, after 75 plays?" proceeding to exclaim, with great relish, a truly profane schoolyard insult -- far too profane to be repeated in our squeaky-clean blog. "I said it to Christine Baranski every night for four months, and I couldn't wait to say it," he explains. "It was such a great line."

Langella asks his own questions -- "Did everybody know since 5 or 6 or 7 that they wanted to be an actor?" -- admits that he never had a publicist and says the best advice he could ever give a young actor would be to learn how to get out of his or her own way. Although he says he was fearless on stage, he acknowledges that "I was like an old Italian lady in my first couple of movies. I thought my soul was being taken by the camera. So I had to find a way to be utterly open and free."

Speaking in such a bizarre hipster patois that he makes Mickey Rourke sound like an Oxford don, Robert Downey Jr. tells an interminable story about getting food poisoning doing publicity for "Iron Man" in Japan, explaining that he was "doubled over for Yoo-hoo status for the next two days." Puzzled, Langella says "I don't know what that means." Downey says: "I got a parasite and I was Yoo-hoo. I was Brown Betty for two days." Clearly amused, Langella responds: "See, he has his own language."

Inspired by Langella's candor, the other actors begin to open up. After Langella exhorts his peers to stay away from the celebrity machine, Anne Hathaway, conscience-stricken, blurts out a confession: "OK, I lied before when you asked if I Googled myself. I do. I'm so embarrassed." Downey calls making an indie film "50 monkeys [having sex with] a football." Even Pitt gets off a good line, saying that he played such a geek in "Burn After Reading" that when Angelina Jolie visited the set, "I was in gym gear and hair and she said, 'This is the first time I can honestly say I'm not sexually attracted to you.' "

The whole story is a great read, so check it out for yourself. Even better, take time one night and stage your own Langella Film Festival. In his 40-year career, Langella has had far more triumphs on stage, but every once in a while he's landed a juicy TV or film part, having played everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Count Dracula. I'm open to hearing suggestions of everyone's favorite Langella moments. But here's a trio of Langella roles I loved: The president's amoral chief of staff in "Dave," the insidious Clare Quilty in Adrian Lyne's "Lolita" and the imposing William Paley in "Good Night, and Good Luck." He's a delight in all three films, as he is in the Newsweek round table, which ends with Langella getting the last laugh, saying, "I'd like to say, for the record, I'm the oldest male at the table and the only one who didn't get up to go to the bathroom."

Photo of Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon" by Ralph Nelson / Universal Pictures