Mrs CJ is away and I’m home alone, which means now is a good time to watch over-long movies about mid-20th Century US politics.
Stone’s 1995 movie is as fancifully biased as you’d expect, but (some might say unusally) he doesn’t let that unbalance it – in fact, it liberates the later scenes from any straitjacket that historical fidelity might have placed upon them, and his depiction of Nixon’s early history and where his smörgåsbord of later neuroses and paranoia might have come from is surprisingly sympathetic.
Hopkins is as magnificent as you’d expect as Nixon – as with the film itself, his portrayal doesn’t shy away from making the internal explicit, and it’s fascinating to watch an actor who is so often mesmerisingly understated pull out so many stops. Here he is in a scene with Sam Waterston as CIA director Richard Helms (which was omitted from the original cut of the film):
Hopkins’ Nixon has largely been eclipsed by Frank Langella’s portrayal in Peter Morgan’s Frost / Nixon, on stage and subsequently in Ron Howard’s 2008 movie adaptation. As an impersonation Langella’s Nixon is arguably closer – I saw the stage version in London and he wore Nixon’s physicality like a second skin, which came across even more clearly on stage than in the cinema. And inevitably in this milder dramatic context he captures more of Nixon’s mellifluous charm (which it’s easy to forget Nixon did actually possess). I wouldn’t want to pick one portrayal over the other – laid side-by-side they form two significant pieces of a uniquely complex character jigsaw. Here’s Langella’s Nixon about to succumb to the smooth interrogation of Michael Sheen’s Frost:
I started studying Nixon when I covered the role for English National Opera during their last staging of Nixon in China ten years ago. When I first picked up the score I didn’t know much about him, nor did I have any particular interest in American politics outside current events. But it’s impossible to read a single paragraph about Richard Nixon without finding yourself getting sucked into the whirlpool of intrigue in which he was constantly elbow-deep.
John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s 1987 opera takes the brave step of showing Nixon – who had by that time become synonymous with his downfall – not at his nadir but at what was almost certainly his career zenith. Like its eponymous protagonist, Nixon in China seems to defy conventional (operatic, in this instance) logic: the libretto is probably ten times as dense, verbally and conceptually, as the ideal; nothing much happens dramatically or emotionally; and at first listening the music seems to chug along minimalistically without (in marked contrast to the libretto) having much to say. And yet the results in the flesh are absolutely spellbinding. It’s a piece which, I would argue, has yet to be fully appreciated – like Le Nozze di Figaro, it’s relatively easy to churn out an entertaining version of the first acts, but it’s the final act which needs to be properly understood and realised on stage if the piece as a whole is to reveal its true inner depths. Here’s Jimmy Maddalena in Nixon’s famous opening address:
In the light of Washington National Opera’s current Ring cycle, an imaginative Tweeter drew parallels between Donald Trump and Siegfried, a thought which had been playing on my mind too. It certainly gave me an insight into why, when Wotan finally meets his heir in Act 3 Scene 2 of Siegfried, he takes an almost instant dislike to the man for whom he retains such high hopes, appalled by this blond moron who is blundering crassly through the conventions and constitutions he worked so hard to construct, and by his own flaws and misdeeds has done so much to undermine.
The same Tweeter tried to draw a parallel between John McCain and Wotan, which didn’t strike me as right at all, although he was admittedly constricted by confining himself to current political figures. (If John McCain is anyone in this metaphor then maybe it’s Siegmund, but that still doesn’t exactly strike me as luxury casting, no disrespect to Mr McCain.)
If there was a Wotan in recent US politics it was surely Nixon – a man who had fought his way to power and supremacy, sacrificing much of personal value along the way, and sowing the seeds of his own destruction in the very process. Reading the H R Haldeman diaries, which cover his tenure as Nixon’s chief of staff from 1969-1973, what’s striking is how inconsequential the Watergate affair appeared to Nixon and his team when it first appeared – a tiny grey cloud in the blue sky of his impending re-election. It’s impossible not to think of Wotan’s exchanges with Fricka at the beginning of the second scene of Das Rheingold, with the bill for Valhalla as the fly in this particular ointment. John Adams’ Nixon is even a bass-baritone, coincidentally or otherwise. And I imagine Nixon’s response to a meeting with Trump in his current vein wouldn’t have been a million miles from Wotan’s feelings upon coming face-to-face with Siegfried.
Yet even with such an almost endless wealth of material, both factual and fictional, to chew on, you only ever feel you’re scratching the surface of Nixon’s innermost thoughts and motivations. The man and what he came to stand for is a figure of towering and terrifying Shakespearean proportions. I’ll leave you with a clip of the real Richard Milhous Nixon – as much, to us now, as there could ever be such a thing.