Culture shock: From meth to mettle, Bryan Cranston stands tall as LBJ
We know from the brilliant knockabout of ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ and the rawness of ‘Breaking Bad’ that Cranston can act with his body, but doing it on stage is much more of a high-wire act
We know from the brilliant knockabout of Malcolm in the Middle and the rawness of Breaking Bad that Cranston can act with his body, but doing it on stage is much more of a high-wire act. The writing and the production make much of LBJ’s bodily presence. The way he physically addresses those he needs to seduce or bully is as important as what he says: now lover, now thug, now buttoned-up leader, now clown. LBJ deploys his body as he deploys everything else: as an instrument of power. Cranston infuses his own movements with that mesmerism and menace.
The other great challenge is the sheer complexity of the character. Schenkkan, following Robert Caro’s monumental biography, sees LBJ as a protagonist of almost Shakespearian ambiguity. Johnson is indeed unfathomable: a man who was often personally obnoxious, especially in his relations with women (his sexual behaviour makes the Kennedys look like Sting), he was responsible for more radically progressive legislation than any other 20th-century president apart from Franklin Roosevelt. He was the political creature of Big Oil and the Dixiecrats, but he truly hated poverty and dismantled Jim Crow. He was deeply vulgar and genuinely idealistic. He was a supremely gifted politicial tactician yet marched ever deeper into the swamp of Vietnam.
Again we know from Walter White’s seamless transitions from good to evil and back again that Cranston can do complexity. It is one thing to do it in the wide spaces of a long TV serial; it is quite another to compress it into three hours on a stage. And not just to compress it but at the same time to leave it open, to avoid the temptation to resolve the contradictions. It would be very easy to let the vulgarity destroy the idealism or to allow the idealism to sentimentalise the ruthlessness. Cranston never does either. As well as using his body and brain, he uses his nerve, holding it all the way through by withholding any easy suggestion of where the “real” LBJ lies. It makes for a performance of rare power. It also has the makings of a great TV series: the second part of Schenkkan’s LBJ cycle, The Great Society , opens in Oregon in July.
If it goes on like this, 1960s politics could be the new crystal meth.
All the Way is at the Neil Simon Theatre, New York, until June 29th