Actors love to take on the role of a complex personality and they also love to sink their teeth into an actual biographical personage. Actors have to wait until fairly late in their careers to get the chance to play a President and when they do, there seem to be only a handful of Chief Executives that are particularly enticing. Abraham Lincoln provides the opportunity to try your hand at playing a hero while playing JFK means shooting being around beautiful actresses before getting to that tragic day in Dallas. But when it comes to real tragedy and the meatiest of Presidential roles, nothing beats Nixon.
Anthony Hopkins: “Nixon”
The movie that took the man’s name as its title features a particularly challenging choice in the role. Anthony Hopkins looks nothing like Richard Nixon and his performance is severely lacking in the most obvious gestures and vocal mechanics most closely associated with the man. Hopkins tries his best and achieves a sort of success as something aside from a recreation of the historical Nixon, but it’s clearly that director Oliver Stone was going for a Hannibal Lecter connection that just didn’t pan out.
Lane Smith: “The Final Days”
“The Final Days” was a TV movie based on the follow-up to “All the President’s Men” by Woodward and Bernstein. Lane Smith wins the title here of the best portrayal of Richard Nixon on the small screen. The movie covers, as you might expect, the end of the Nixon Presidency when the man was beaten down and at his lowest. Lane captures the pathos of Nixon at that stage of the game as well as the fighter within. Lane gives a tour de force in “The Final Days” that isn’t matched by anyone else in the cast.
Jason Robards: “Washington: Behind Closed Doors”
Technically, Robards plays a character named Pres. Richard Monckton. But make no mistake: he’s playing the former boss of the man who wrote the novel upon which this TV miniseries was very loosely based, John Ehrlichman. “Washington: Behind Closed Doors” takes Ehrlichman’s novel as a starting point that fleshes out broadly to retell the story of Watergate in a fictionalized manner. Robards is terrific as Nixon, but Nicholas Pryor in the role of a fictionalized Ron Ziegler is even better.
Frank Langella: “Frost/Nixon”
Too bad that Langella had to appear as Richard Nixon the same year that Sean Penn appeared as Harvey Milk. What a year: the two best performances in the roles of two politicians who could not be more opposite from each other. Penn certainly deserved his Oscar, but Frank Langella would equally have been deserving. His performance as Richard Nixon in ‘Frost/Nixon” is absolutely mesmerizing. Langella captures all the stereotypical facets of Nixon, but makes them unique and absolutely human.