For Lugosi, no life after Dracula


August 16, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A Hollywood legend died on Aug. 16, and it wasn't Elvis. But it was somebody who remains almost as recognizable as Elvis, if not nearly as famous.

Bela Lugosi, the Romanian-born actor who played Dracula in the 1931 film version and continues to embody the world's most famous bloodsucker even seven decades later, died on Aug. 16, 1956, at age 73. His best years long past, his health eaten away by a drug dependency he had only recently shaken, the impoverished actor died of a heart attack in his Los Angeles home. As per his wishes, he was buried in his Dracula cape.

It would be hard to make a case for Lugosi as a true Hollywood superstar; a tendency to ham it up kept him from being regarded as a great actor (although he was far better than many cinephiles give him credit for). He never moved beyond Dracula in the public's eye (unlike his greatest rival, Boris Karloff, who played a host of roles besides the Frankenstein monster) and by the end, his career had devolved into a series of absurd performances in some truly awful pictures directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. (a cult figure now, but in his day, a director for whom Grade-Z films would have been an accomplishment).

But Lugosi, who had been a superstar of the European theater before emigrating to this country in 1921, had the good fortune to be cast as Dracula, first in 1927 on Broadway, where his vampire was all the rage, and then in director Todd Browning's 1931 film, which if anything made him even more popular.

Lugosi's Dracula, if you can get past all the by-now-cliched mannerisms and the oft-parodied accent, is a marvel, a piece of perfect casting that would - unfortunately - prove Lugosi's curse. His vampire is mysterious and lascivious, deadly and disarming. (If there were any justice, the movie would be on TV tonight; it isn't, but that shouldn't prevent anyone from going out and renting it).

If anything, Lugosi's mistake was in thinking he had it made after Dracula; to his eternal regret, he soon turned down the part in James Whales' Frankenstein that would make Boris Karloff famous, preferring instead to hold out for more prestigious parts. They never came.

Soon realizing his mistake, he overcompensated, accepting parts in any film that would have him. He was best when teamed with Karloff in such classic horror films as The Black Cat (1934) and, especially, Robert Wise's 1945 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher. He even had a supporting role alongside Greta Garbo in 1939's Ninotchka, and was delightful.

But many of his films were simply bad, assembly-line horror films where his name was the only drawing card, or Dracula retreads in which he gamely went through the motions. By the 1950s, he was a drug-addled wreck, and his only acting was in films made by his friend Wood, who realized that attaching Lugosi's name to his films gave them what little credibility they had. Thus, poor Bela was reduced to wrestling rubber octopuses and narrating films about Angora sweater-wearing transvestites.

Not long before his death, Lugosi bravely went public with his drug addiction and sought treatment. Reportedly he cleaned himself up, but the damage to both his health and his career was done. His hopes for a comeback were never realized.

Not even death, though, could keep Lugosi from starring in one last Edward D. Wood film. The actor had agreed to star in Plan 9 From Outer Space, and had even filmed some test footage in his Dracula cape, but died before filming could begin. That didn't stop Wood, however, who kept Lugosi's name on the picture, used the test footage, and hired a guy to fill out the remainder of the role holding his cape in front of his face.

Great `Mockingbird'

One of the greatest films of the early 1960s, Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird, is the scheduled feature at this weekend's Saturday matinee at the Charles Theatre.

The 1962 screen adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer-winning novel of racial injustice, centering on a young girl's memories of her father and how he refused to let a man's skin color dictate how the law would treat him, is one of the most perfect book-to-film transfers ever. And Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus Finch, who somehow manages to be as good a father as he is an incorruptible lawyer, is one for the ages.

True, it may have been more a matter of perfect casting than great acting, but Peck fit Atticus Finch like a glove; an entire generation of fathers struggled to be just like him. Peck won the year's best actor Oscar, besting even Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (1962 was one of those years where, if there were any justice, the best actor race would have ended in a tie).

To Kill a Mockingbird plays at noon tomorrow. Admission is $5. Information: 410-727-FILM.

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