These convergences — of actors, projected personae, moments in time — have happened before: Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. Maria Falconetti’s Saint Joan. Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. If politics is stagecraft — “show business for ugly people,” as campaign starmaker Paul Begala famously said — then it stands to reason that politicians are capable of bottling that particular lightning as well.
Abraham Lincoln understood this, channeling his love for theater while refining his own declamatory style; Winston Churchill’s greatest creation might have been the beloved and respected World War II leader known as Winston Churchill. At least in part, audiences are flocking to Cuomo’s daily PowerPoint presentations not just for raw data, but for his convincing, emotionally transparent portrayal of an authority figure we gravitate toward, for reasons we can’t quite articulate.
In many ways, he’s been cast against type. Cuomo, a Democrat who served as U.S. secretary of housing and urban development during the Clinton administration, has been called a bully, a fang-bearer in a milieu that still cherishes at least the illusion of comity. Compared to other governors — Washington’s Jay Inslee (D), California’s Gavin Newsom (D), Ohio’s Mike DeWine (R) — his response to the most pressing health and economic crisis of his generation hasn’t necessarily been the fastest, boldest or most effective.
And yet it’s Cuomo who has emerged as an unlikely, maybe even undeserving star, with his daily appearances in Albany’s magisterial state Capitol serving as vectors for numbers and statistics — diagnoses, hospitalizations, fatalities — and badly needed check-ins for the worried well. Usually dressed in an impeccable blue suit (polo shirts on weekends), Cuomo has projected competence, reassurance and outrage as needed, such as his ire on Monday after New Yorkers took advantage of the season’s first warm days to defy his stay-at-home order and get out of the house.
“Look, people are dying,” he barked with the blunt-force drama of an Aaron Sorkin character, before announcing that he would double the fine for disobeying his social-distancing protocol. “You don’t have the right to risk someone else’s life. . . . You just don’t have the right.”
Monday’s briefing was commanding and compulsively watchable, like most of Cuomo’s appearances; his combination of grandeur and naturalism have coalesced into a performance for the ages, with man and material meeting their moment to create something bigger than the component parts.
One reason for his instinctive appeal might be that Cuomo cuts such a familiar iconographic figure. With vocal cadences that recall his Italian American roots in Queens, Cuomo could be a character immortalized by Martin Scorsese — a guy who slices garlic thin with a razor, so it liquefies in the pan with just a little oil, but who also happens to know his way around ventilators and personal protection equipment. Although the public hasn’t been privy to Cuomo’s private conversations with federal authorities, we can extrapolate from his don’t-mess-with-me inflections that he takes a similarly muscular approach with anyone he deems insufficiently attentive to New York’s needs as the location of the United States’ worst outbreak. (“You want a pat on the back for sending 400 ventilators?” Madonn’!)
Of course, glib comparisons to “Goodfellas” and its Cosa Nostra archetypes are lazily, unforgivably offensive. That makes it all the more exhilarating to watch Cuomo turn those cliches on their heads, much as his father, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, did at his most scholarly and statesmanlike. Once accused of trying too hard to imitate his father’s Jesuitical style, now Andrew has comfortably settled into his own: His voice, infused with Empire State swagger and a faint dis-and-dat patois, may evoke strong-arming in smoke-filled rooms, but he’s as likely to use it to talk about the Headspace meditation app as “flattening the curve.” (Just try listening to him precisely enunciate the word “mentality” and not immediately hear Frank Sinatra crooning “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”)
As many observers have noted, Cuomo’s chops as national protagonist are all the more impressive when they’re compared to the cult of personality swirling around President Trump, who honed his presentational craft in the repertory vineyards of reality TV, and who clearly aspires to Cuomo’s star status (his staff reportedly watches the governor’s briefings with avid, and most likely envious, interest). But what Trump fails to understand is that the most gifted actors are capable of grasping text and subtext; even though they’re “performing,” they calibrate every detail of vocal, facial and physical expression to tell the truth. Trump, on the other hand, is delivering a workshop-worthy exercise in acting as lying, all too often in substance, but also in his affect of pretense, narcissistic bluster and insincerity.
(For a demonstration, look no further than the president’s artless comment about “a lot of deaths” at a news conference over the weekend. Compare and contrast that to Cuomo’s somber acknowledgment on Monday, not just of death, but also of powerlessness and pain: “That can’t be controlled,” he said of losing vulnerable patients. “That can’t be fixed. Why? That’s Mother Nature. That’s a question God can only answer.”)
The acting teacher Carole Zucker once wrote that all great performers — singers, dancers and actors — “have an element of danger about them. It is a dangerous business, standing in front of several hundred of your fellow human beings and saying, ‘I am interesting enough to watch.’ ”
It’s precisely that kind of charisma that Cuomo has evinced over the course of a pandemic that has become both center stage and battlefield. His father was once dubbed “Hamlet on the Hudson,” for his indecision regarding a presidential run in 1992. A generation later, Andrew has emerged as Harry the King, delivering his soliloquies to scattered reporters — “we happy few” — in the echoing expanses of the Capitol’s Red Room, as well as to millions of Americans whose Agincourt is a poignant landscape of empty streets, shuttered stores and six-foot cordons sanitaires.
We all have a role to play.
The one that Cuomo slips effortlessly into, day after day, happens to be the role of our lifetime.