There’s a passage in Tom O’Neil and Michael Musto‘s just-posted Gold Derby discussion of the upcoming June 8th Tony Awards that caught my attention. Musto predicts that Byran Cranston will win Best Actor for his ball-of-fire portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in All The Way (which I saw earlier this month), but his caveat about Cranston not really playing the “laconic” Johnson Musto remembers is beside the point. (Here’s the mp3.) He’s correct in observing that in public appearances Johnson was no firecracker and did, as Musto notes, sound a little bit “like Huckleberry Hound.” But even though he doesn’t attempt to mimic Johnson’s laid-back South Texas drawl, Cranston is playing the real, behind-the-scenes, wheeler-dealing LBJ — the man behind the curtain.
Narrator David McCullough says in the opening moments that Johnson “was hard for the country to know. He seemed so stiff and colorless on television, not at all himself. The real Lyndon Johnson was a mover, a driver, a charmer, a bully — six feet four inches tall with a size 7-3/8 Stetson hat. He loved food — chili and tapioca pudding. He loved attractive women. He was a good dancer, a brilliant mimic. He was funny, often hilarious. They all say that.”
At the conclusion LBJ biographer Ronnie Dugger says the following: “He was just interesting as hell. I mean, you know, compared to most people who kind of go through life vainly, making their dreadful moral points of condemning this or hoping for that or scratching the back of their head, Lyndon really moved. He was moving all the time. The few times I was with him, it was — he was just fun to be around. And you liked him. You liked him. I liked him when I was with him…more than I did when I was thinking about him.”
My reaction to the play: “In Robert Schenkkan’s stirring but somewhat limiting All The Way, Bryan Cranston captures the cagey manipulation and animal spirit of Lyndon Baines Johnson without really sounding like him or even adopting the drawly laid-back accent that the 36th President used. But he’s a locomotive, all right — a ball of spit, piss, gravel and fire. All my life I’ve thought of Johnson’s five-year presidency as tragic — the big man who had it all and then lost it all. The play ignores all that in order to focus on LBJ’s more-or-less triumphant phase from November ’63 to November ’64 when he calmed the nation in the wake of JFK’s murder, managed to push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and then was elected President by a landslide. Honestly? I felt engaged but not enthralled. Respect and interest start to finish, and delight and amusement from time to time. But I wasn’t emotionally engulfed. And yet it’s an expertly written ensemble piece and a crackling political drama. Good enough, money well spent, not worth going after.”