It’s no wonder that Texans are irresistible to playwrights. Many of our most famous characters are, indeed, larger than life—slyer, shrewder, and, in their deeds and words, a lot funnier and more outlandish than the average American. These attributes are certainly what drew Larry L. King and Peter Masterson to make a musical out of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Kathleen Turner to try to play Molly Ivins, and Holland Taylor to make Ann Richards’s life her own. It’s also a golden opportunity for writers (and actors and producers) to perpetuate the Texas stereotype accidentally or on purpose: think of Oliver Stone’s W, Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in the movie version of BLWT, and The Simpsons’ Rich O’Hara, known as Colonel Tex O’Hara, who is really from Connecticut but carries two six-shooters and wears cowboy boots and shouts “Yeehaw!” a lot.
And now Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Robert Schenkkan is dipping into the Texas well with his Broadway hit All the Way, a drama about the first full year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. It stars Bryan Cranston, who became a household name after masterfully portraying the moral deterioration of Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth czar, on AMC’s original series Breaking Bad.
All the Way opened on September 13 to mixed reviews. The New York Times’s theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote that the play “works just fine as a Power Point lesson in political history, but it ultimately accrues minimal dramatic momentum,” a pointed criticism of Schenkkan’s attempt to shoehorn everything from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the crisis in the Gulf of Tonkin into one evening of drama. But Isherwood had nothing but praise for Cranston, who, he noted, “cuts a vigorous, imposing figure as LBJ, employing a drawl as wide as the Rio Grande as the new president backslaps and backstabs his way through the rough waters of . . . Washington.” Isherwood calls Schenkkan’s portrait “sharply outlined” and says that his LBJ “spouts down-home truths, Southern-fried parables and the occasional blue tale like a geyser gushing oil in his native Texas. Mr. Cranston delivers them all with the jovial ease of a man spinning yarns to his buddies on the front porch. (Still, after the umpteenth such serving of corn pone, I began to wonder how Johnson ever found time to do any actual politicking).”
It is that very parenthetical that should have been a clue that something was amiss. I went to see All the Way a few weeks ago with great hopes, only to have them dashed within a few minutes of the opening scene. What struck me most was how persistent and pernicious the Texas stereotype is, even when historical evidence exists to the contrary.
The tip-off came early on, when Schenkkan dramatized an anecdote that may be familiar to many: Johnson getting his pants altered by Joe Haggar, one activity of many secretly recorded for posterity by LBJ himself and a conversation that became instantly famous when it was released to the public in 1997. “Now, another thing, the crotch, down where your nuts hang, it’s always a little too tight,” the president told the pants maker. “So when you make them up, give me an inch where I can let it out there, because they cut me. They’re just like riding a wire fence.” It made perfect sense to me that the story would be included in the play—I wasn’t expecting a hagiography, and it was a convenient way to show Johnson’s vanity and his vulgarity. But Cranston, who is admittedly a wonderful actor, didn’t project the physical imposition LBJ was infamous for. Cranston’s average stature certainly hampered his ability to fully embody the imposing six-foot-four build of LBJ, but it was a challenge he could have overcome had he more accurately mimicked the way Johnson used his height—his whole body, in fact—as a way to wield power. All the Way manages to do what I thought was impossible, which is to make Johnson smaller than life.
Cranston’s imitation of Johnson’s Texas accent was off too. Along with his height and his protean grip, LBJ used his voice to get his way. This is clear to anyone who has heard the secret recordings the pants-altering scene is based on. News accounts report that Cranston visited the LBJ library and listened to those very conversations, but obviously, he heard something different from the voice Jan Jarboe Russell described in Slate back in 1997. The man she described as “the last of the really big hicks” had an accent for sure, one as thick and oppressive as a Hill Country fog. When I went back to listen again after seeing the play, I heard what Russell heard: someone who spoke slowly and deliberately, who was thinking through all possible moves on his mental chessboard as he spoke. I longed for some semblance of this on the stage of All The Way. Cranston does play the president with some kind of country accent—the closest I can get to describing it is Walter Brennan crossed with Jim Hightower, all snippy and snappy and heeheehee—but it sure wasn’t the drawl I remembered, the one that, fast or slow, whether giving orders or voicing regret, often contained more than a hint of menace and melancholy.
There are other ways Cranston’s LBJ misses the mark. He depicts a Johnson in constant motion—hitching up his pants, bouncing on his heels, giggling girlishly, or flailing his fingers as if he might literally fling them into the crowd. He’s a Nervous Nellie of a president, someone who, indeed, might never have found the time to politick, much less politick as successfully as Johnson did, using the force of his body along with the force of his intellect and personality to get what he wanted. When Cranston declared that “everybody wants power . . . nothing comes free, especially good,” the line should have had the emotional vigor of a Shakespearean soliloquy; it might have been useful as a reminder to those in the audience just how much of himself and his country Johnson sacrificed in his attempt to do good. Instead, Cranston snapped the line like a branch of a tree, and it was gone so quickly there wasn’t a second to feel the magnitude of the loss his character was grappling with.
I happened to grouse to a friend about the play, who in turn put me in touch with Peggy Noonan, who, it turned out, had her own beef with the show—and who, as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, couldn’t be branded as another liberal apologist for Johnson. Indeed, Noonan emailed me that the portrayal of LBJ was “too broad and cartoonish, too much the caricature.” Johnson, she continued, “was sophisticated, could be a master of subtlety, understood the political lay of the ground as few others ever did as president—normally presidents employ men with LBJ’s skills, they aren’t themselves men with LBJ’s skills. LBJ was also a subtle understander of the particular needs and imperatives of the men he was trying to persuade. (JFK did not have this touch, or the same level of deep respect, for it does take a certain amount of respect to bother to fully see another human being and ponder his realities. JFK could get nothing done legislatively; LBJ got everything done).”
Maybe the fault is not with Cranston but with the writer, Schenkkan, who won a Pultizer Prize in 1992 for his play The Kentucky Cycle (and, by the way, played Lieutenant Commander Dexter Remmick in Star Trek: The Next Generation). Born in 1953, Schenkkan grew up in Austin, where his father was a professor at the University of Texas and where he would have been able to observe Johnson’s rise to power throughout most of his formative years. Maybe it was all the time he spent subsequently in New York and Los Angeles that somehow tainted or diluted his memory.
Far more egregious than his portrait of Johnson is his depiction of Lady Bird, played by Obie winner Betsy Aidem. Would that the two had studied Jan Jarboe Russell’s biography of the first lady to understand the steeliness that came wrapped in so many East Texas ruffles; as played, this Lady Bird is little more than a wraith, a spineless airhead. Yes, Lady Bird’s devotion to her husband was unquestioned, but she knew who he was, and she wasn’t just along for the ride. This is a woman who built a media empire and a fortune for herself; who was politically savvy (she was the first first lady to hire her own press secretary and one of the first to be actively involved in enacting legislation); who throughout her marriage and widowhood always maintained a graciousness and humility that has been the archetype for Texas women ever since. (Not that you have to stick with a boor, but you do have to handle disappointment and difficulty with grace and good cheer.) People laughed at Lady Bird, and spit on her, and ignored her—and she only got stronger and kinder and smarter. In the play, Aidem plods around the stage, and when she declares, “You make do with what you got, and you don’t quit,” the line sounds like an apology, which, of course, it never was.
Weeks after seeing All the Way, I’m still disheartened by that night at the theater. Noonan had some interesting opinions as to why Cranston played Johnson so broadly: “It can be argued he made the right artistic choice—Johnson’s vulgarity and cartoonishness made the play lively and that would have been of theatrical value in a play that is at its heart about the passage of legislation. . . . But I suspect there might have been two other things at play. One is [that All The Way] carries an obvious critique of the current president—he doesn’t get into the messiness of policy and bill-passing, he stands too aloof. . . . Maybe the playwright/director/actor thought they underscored their point by having their LBJ be in every way Obama’s opposite. But I also think Cranston’s LBJ reflects something that’s been true of liberals and progressives for half a century: they’re ambivalent about LBJ. He won them legislation they wanted but he had the wrong style, came from the wrong place, had the wrong accent, wasn’t dashing and didn’t love poetry or seem cerebral. They were—are—snobs about him, they can’t help it. He will always be Jubilation T. Cornpone to them.”
And for Northeasterners in general and New Yorkers in particular, I thought, as the sell-out crowd stood up to give Cranston a rousing standing ovation. I thought it again when I read that Cranston is considered the frontrunner for a Tony Award on June 8.
No matter what happens in Texas—devise the technology to send a man to the moon, engineer process after process that keeps the world awash in oil, etc.—there is still a tendency for others to see and portray us in a marginal light. Our current governor and legislature certainly haven’t helped. Still, I like to hope that our enduring portrayal as yahoos can be attributed to nothing more than carelessness or laziness these days; the Friday Night Lights television series, for one, certainly proved that showing us as we are could be artistically and commercially successful. Of course, that program was focused on smaller lives and smaller achievements. All the Way proves we’re still waiting for our most legendary Texans to be drawn to scale.