Bryan Cranston won the Tony for his portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way, and he's up for two Emmys this weekend for the televised version of the same role. So, when news broke that Woody Harrelson would also play LBJ in a Rob Reiner film about his life from 1960 to 1964, even Woody thought he would be overshadowed by Bryan. He told Deadline:
“I thought, ‘Oh my God. Bryan is like the Brando of our time and I’m also playing LBJ?’ I was a bit terrified of that because it’s Bryan Cranston. I thought, ‘What the hell are we doing LBJ for when he’s playing LBJ?’"
But, it turns out that Bryan played more of a mentor than a rival to Woody, and lent him his rolodex of LBJ experts, noting it was an "embarrassment of riches." Woody continued:
“I just can’t tell you how helpful Bryan was – he didn’t look at us in competition at all. ... “I mean, what a mensch. I can’t say I would do that. No way I am helping this guy. I hope he fails miserably. I just hope it’s a disaster,” Harrelson laughed. ... “But instead, this guy was amazing. I can’t say enough about him. And it wasn’t just one or two times, but throughout the whole process he was really, really helpful."
It makes sense, then, that Bryan and Woody's LBJs share some of his trademark ticks. On-screen, they both show him as somebody who asks for a longer crotch from his tailor because of his endowment, and highlight his predilection for holding meetings while on the john. Yet Woody's LBJ flexes a lot more humour than Bryan, and both interpretations of LBJ's life show him as a reluctant civil rights crusader.
LBJ is much more sympathetic to Johnson than All the Way though. The film starts with LBJ's reluctant acceptance of JFK (Jeffrey Donovan) as the Democratic nominee for President. While watching him on TV, Johnson says to his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh), "I've never seen a politician look that handsome on TV. I've never seen a movie star look that handsome on TV!"
He knows he's not JFK, but since "Kennedy can't speak Southern," he takes on the role of interpreter and mediator between the two political worlds. And according to Lady Bird, the reason why he had never intended to run for President (in 1960) was because he's "afraid of being loved."
Woody's LBJ is brassy, quippy and a red-blooded Texan. Every meeting sets him up to deliver an epic punchline, and when he becomes President after JFK's assassination, this sassy side of his personality goes into overdrive. He'll reference Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to his staffers, yet, he'll quote Brutus. But he's hardly a Brutus. Reiner shows LBJ as surprisingly capable, and that he has just as much political vision as JFK, with a lot less flash. The film (repeatedly) notes that Kennedy was elected with a close margin of error, and that his rampant popularity only spread to one side of the country. There was still a lot of work to be done, and LBJ became the reluctant president to embrace that role and not only carry on the Kennedy legacy, but help usher it into the mainstream. Meanwhile, conversations with Sen. Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins) are used to show how LBJ came to embrace his role as a civil eights champion.
LBJ has all of the building blocks to be a successful, conventional biopic. Woody's prosthetics are comical, but his performance is just as nuanced or interesting as Bryan's is in any incarnation of All the Way. This particular acting mentorship worked... if only the film was more inventive.
Reiner's no stranger to the Oval Office either, having previously directed The American President. Plus, it's hard not to read into the "margin of error" political talk as a cautionary tale going into the 2016 election. LBJ is an average political dramedy that only plays it straight when it needs to, and while it barely gives Jennifer Jason Leigh anything to do aside from a few quiet scenes (and it steers clear of any Vietnam war drama), it's a great performance piece for Woody. Ultimately, the film's schmaltzy Mr. Holland's Opus-esque music and overly sentimental "A-ha!" monologues detract from its effectiveness, but Woody's cheeky interpretation of LBJ is worth the price of admission.