From Landau, a love letter to Bela Lugosi

October 12, 1994|By David Kronke | David Kronke,Special to The Sun

Los Angeles -- Forget the buzz and speculation about Martin Landau's amazing portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's eccentric film "Ed Wood." Here's the inside skinny -- Mr. Landau will win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

How do we know? After a lunch of Chinese garlic shrimp, Mr. Landau opens a fortune cookie to behold this promise: "You will receive some high praise or award." "This is hilarious -- I've never gotten one like this before," he says with a laugh -- then he carefully tucks the fortune into his wallet.

Winning an Oscar for a movie about a guy who would've committed blasphemy just thinking he might win an Oscar would be sweet irony. "Ed Wood" relates the saga of Edward D. Wood Jr., a guy who was making cheesy, awful movies long before whoever does those Ernest movies came along.

Working with the average filmmaker's pocket change, he created throughout the '50s such jaw-dropping duds as "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Night of the Ghouls," "Glen or Glenda" and "Bride of the Monster." Each featured turgid dramaturgy, howlingly bad dialogue and dime-store visuals (paper plates spray-painted silver for UFOs in "Plan 9").

One reason Wood enjoyed the relative level of, well, "success" that he did was his relationship with Lugosi. Lugosi, who immortalized himself in cinema with his portrayal of "Dracula" in the '30s, was by the '50s a virtually forgotten and unemployable morphine addict who many thought was already dead. Wood exploited what small cachet Lugosi's name had at the time, and Lugosi was revitalized by the chance to work again.

"The pain the man suffered at that time in his life was amazing," Mr. Landau offers. "He started taking the morphine because he did have leg injuries due to World War I. Whether that was an excuse, I don't know, but that was the original reason for the morphine use. He was also an alcoholic."

Although Bela Lugosi Jr. has decried the film's portrayal of his father, Mr. Landau says: "I don't ridicule him. If anything, it's almost a love letter to him. I never talked to his son, and from what I hear, he did not approve of some of the language. But that's not the point. I don't think I demean him at all. I salute him."

Mr. Landau is no stranger to shooting B-grade movies. He's best known for his role as Rollin Hand, master of disguises, on the TV series "Mission: Impossible" and his two Oscar-nominated turns -- Abe Karatz, the hustler of "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," and Judah Rosenthal, a doctor who watches his indiscretions spiral out of his control in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

But many paychecks have come from cheap, direct-to-video movies and overseas TV. That was one reason director Tim Burton wanted him to play Lugosi.

"It's weird," Mr. Landau says. "Tim called me out of the blue. He said, 'You've worked with everybody, you've done very good movies with major directors; you've done tacky, rotten movies with awful directors. You have a presence, and there are a lot of things that coincide [with Lugosi].' That's how he came to me. I was shocked. He said, 'You popped into my head, and I couldn't get you out.' "

Mr. Landau also appeared on the monumentally mediocre "Cleopatra" -- sort of what Ed Wood would have made if he'd had that kind of money. He played a very Woodian character himself, a desperate, down-on-his-luck film producer who conjures up a million excuses for taking meetings in a seedy diner in "Mistress."

"I've known that guy," Mr. Landau says. "They use . . . glue and saliva to put a movie together. That guy was pitiful."

That kind of role became a thing of the past after Mr. Landau's Oscar nominations. But he still has trouble finding good parts. "The interesting thing is, I haven't got a clear stand," he says. If you look at Joe Pesci or Danny Aiello, you know pretty much what you're getting there [in terms of a performance]. I'm never quite the same in anything, and as a result, that's been a problem."

To portray Lugosi, Mr. Landau learned that, despite the veteran vampire's propensity for histrionics in Wood's movies, less was still more. Though hours of makeup were applied daily to turn him into a chillingly convincing Lugosi, Mr. Landau does the same thing credibly during his interview with a few contortions of his face.

"My face is very alive, and he had a certain limitation to his face," he says. "I had to learn his face. When I put the makeup on, I would learn to subordinate certain muscles in my face."

"I open my eyes wide. He rarely does. [He squints a la Lugosi.] You see a lot of teeth when I smile, you see no teeth when he does. [He twists his mouth into Lugosi's devilish smile.] He held his head at certain angles, he had a certain walk which is different from the way I walk." He hunches down, minimizing his tall frame, becoming small and frail like Lugosi.

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