So — all right, you missed All the Way at Arena Stage and you are forced to your TV as a consolation prize. I’m here to tell you that as consolation prizes go, this is a pretty good one. In the HBO version of the play, to which they are giving non-subscribers free access for a month, you will see the genuine article, close, but not identical, to Robert Schenkkan’s play. That’s to be expected, after all: Schenkkan is not only its screenwriter but an Executive Producer, along with Steven Spielberg and director Jay Roach. But there are some differences.
The principal difference is that HBO, having resources no theater could ever dream of, is able to relieve the audience member of the chore of using his imagination. It is all laid out before us: the gilded halls of Congress; the plush rooms of the White House, the broad plains of Johnson’s Pedernales ranch.
With an immense pool of actors from which to draw, HBO could find one instantly recognizable as Hubert Humphrey (Bradley Whitford), Martin Luther King, Jr (Anthony Mackie), Lady Bird Johnson (Melissa Leo) and J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root). And not just actors but excellent actors, at the peak of their profession. Even the actors playing House Speaker John McCormick and Senate President Pro Tem Carl Hayden, both uncredited (at least by the HBO website) and glimpsed only briefly, could pass as blood relations of the real articles.
This is less the case for Bryan Cranston, who plays LBJ, but there are compensating virtues. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a massive man, nearly six-four and broadly built, and his physicality was a part of his toolbox, as much as, say, his command of the Senate rules was. If he wanted something from you, he would first get up in your space, obliterate your personal boundaries, touch you, squeeze your shoulder, draw you close enough to feel the heat from his body. (Read Robert Caro’s seminal biographies for more details). Cranston, even with the two and one-half inch lifts he uses for this production, can’t reproduce the hulk that was part of the famed LBJ treatment.
So Cranston, who appeared as LBJ in All the Way‘s wildly successful Broadway run (and, of course, was Walter White in Breaking Bad), plays it a little differently. He is intimate with his voice (he has Johnson’s accent and cadence down pat), and with his gestures. He draws people inward beseechingly, in order to persuade rather than intimidate them. But when he needs to drop the hammer to close — as he does in an excellent scene with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (Ray Wise) — he grows to full volume and seems to grow in size as well, and the unfortunate Senator from Illinois gets it full in the face from a distance of about eight inches (Dirksen delivered twenty-five Republican votes to break the filibuster).
If you haven’t seen the Arena Stage or New York production and you haven’t read my review (and really, why would you not? I’m so disappointed in you), here’s the quick and dirty. The play tells the story of how Lyndon Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act and the price he paid to do so.
It’s a painfully personal story, since Johnson rose to power from Texas and, representing that state, joined with Southern Senators to declaw civil rights efforts for over a decade. His mentor in the Senate was Georgia senator Richard Russell (Frank Langella), the man he will have to defeat to turn the Civil Rights Bill into the Civil Rights Act. (“I love you more than I loved my daddy,” Johnson says to him at one point. “But if you get in my way, I’ll crush you.”) Johnson at first tells his southern-state comrades that his stance on civil rights is only a gesture — a bone to throw at the party’s substantial liberal component — but we see as they play goes on that it’s life-and-death for the President, who grew up in poverty and taught school to Mexican immigrants.
It’s also the story of the struggles of another leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Mackie). Given LBJ’s political history, King had no reason to trust him, but eventually becomes convinced of his genuineness. (In a brief, nicely-done scene, LBJ interrupts the African-American serving man so that he can pour Dr. King’s coffee himself.) But King, like Johnson, must lead a diverse coalition, which includes the conservative Roy Wilkins (Joe Morton, now playing Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose off-Broadway) and his close friend Ralph David Abernathy (Dohn Norwood) but also young radicals like Bob Moses (Marque Richardson) and Stokely Carmichael (Mo Mcrae). Dr. King does not fully understand the President’s need to balance countervailing interests; Johnson clearly does not understand that King has the same need.
While the movie generally follows the same line of narrative as the play does, there are some differences. Two of my favorite scenes from the play — one in which the bigoted House Judiciary chair, in an effort to reduce the Civil Rights bill to an absurdity by amending it to add a prohibition against discrimination based on gender, blunders into winning civil rights for women, too, and one in which LBJ secures the cooperation of the moronic redneck James Eastland (D.-Miss.) by subtly hinting that he might pull cotton subsidies — have gone missing, in favor of additional scenes between LBJ and Lady Bird, and also between Johnson and Russell.
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This is easy to understand; if you are going to hire an actor of Langella’s quality, you might as well put him to work. Leo, too, is well-nigh perfect as Lady Bird, combining Mrs. Johnson’s mix of toughness, smarts and vulnerability with the precision of a molecular biologist. (If you were unaware of how shrewd the former First Lady was, you might want to examine the management of the Johnson estate during the considerable period between LBJ’s death and Lady Bird’s).
But the effect is to make the story less political and more personal. While we have shamefully failed to appreciate what a successful political leader LBJ was — and All the Way is an excellent antidote for that — it’s also worthwhile to acknowledge that Johnson, who came off stiff and a little dull in public, was in fact a passionate, vulnerable, compelling human being, capable of love and sadness and remorse.
For a country as rich in history as the United States, we have a surprising dearth of history plays. All the Way is one of the best, and its translation into an HBO special does not do it harm. It’s worth seeing, if for no other reason than for understanding why the fabled journalist Bill Moyers called LBJ “eleven of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.”