From Landau, a love letter to Bela Lugosi


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.

Mr. Landau adds: "He's much more minimal than I am. He had great intensity and a great presence -- a lot of stuff to think about. I didn't want to be conscious of any of this stuff, I wanted to be able to be him, do him, so that it became unconscious."

Rather than playing Lugosi's overacting for easy laughs, both Mr. Landau's performance and the script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski offer a context for it. Nutty scenes in Wood's movies makes a bizarre sort of emotional sense in Mr. Burton's.

"I was very aware of that," Mr. Landau says. "The 'Glen or #F Glenda?' moment where [Lugosi's nemesis Boris] Karloff is brought up and he goes howling right into his next scene. . . . The thought of Karloff was sickening to Lugosi, because Karloff did eclipse him.

"And the 'Home? I have no home!' speech in "Bride of the Monster' -- he was feeling very displaced, he felt he couldn't return to his home in Hungary. Here was a man who was unable to remember what day it was, and he could remember that long monologue very quickly."

In a way, the character of Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood" is much like Abe in "Tucker" -- both deal poignantly with outsiders being accepted into another family and subsequently thriving.

"It resurrects his life," Mr. Landau says. "Because Edward gave Bela new life, and in Tucker, Abe found stuff he never would have experienced had he never met Tucker. I was very aware of that, and yet I didn't want to be imitative. The loops are different; the roller-coaster aspect of this is different."

In the meantime, Mr. Landau's own roller coaster is back at a peak, and he's looking for another project. He's turned down a handful of high-profile projects because the writing wasn't there, and dismisses the projected "Mission: Impossible" movie with a wave of his hand and the comment: "Commit suicide on film? Not interested."

One possibility is a movie about James Dean, who was a friend of Mr. Landau's when he was just starting out as an actor. There are two competing scripts in the market, one approved by Dean's family, which Mr. Landau calls "benign and bland." But the other intrigues him.

"There is a very good part of Jack Warner in it," he says. "Love the role. I'm also a character in it. They've caught me pretty good as a young fella. It's actually not bad."

So, getting back to that fortune cookie. Mr. Landau was considered the front-runner for the trophy both previous nominations. Has this cookie signaled a change in, well, fortunes?

"Hey, I'm just one step at a time," he says. "The best reviews I ever got were for 'Mistress,' and no one saw that. It's nice that at this stage in my career that I'm getting calls from good directors and good scripts. That's the most important thing. That's gold. That's why you raise your hand to be an actor in the first place."

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