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MOVIES : A Bela and His Chihuahuas : The mission facing Martin Landau in 'Ed Wood' was to play Bela Lugosi when he worked in schlocky '50s horror flicks at the end of his career. Impersonate him? Landau became Lugosi.

October 02, 1994|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Forget the buzz and speculation heralding Martin Landau's amazing portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's eccentric biopic, "Ed Wood." Here's the inside skinny--Landau will win the best support ing actor Oscar. No, the guys at accounting-firm-to-the-stars Price-Waterhouse haven't opened their eternally buttoned lips and, no, this isn't some prophecy from Criswell Predicts, the cheesehead soothsayer and Wood's buddy and sometime actor.

No, this comes from a fairly unimpeachable, if unbelievably coincidental, source. After a recent lunch of Chinese garlic shrimp, Landau opens his fortune cookie to behold the following promise: "You will receive some high prize or award."

"This is hilarious--I've never gotten one like this before," Landau laughs--then carefully tucks the fortune into his wallet.

Winning an Oscar for a role in a movie about a guy who would have committed blasphemy just thinking he might win an Oscar would be sweet irony indeed. "Ed Wood" relates the saga of one Edward D. Wood Jr., a fellow who was making cheesy, awful movies long before whoever it is who makes all the Ernest movies.

Working with the average filmmaker's pocket change, Wood created throughout the 1950s such jaw-dropping duds as "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Night of the Ghouls," "Glen or Glenda" and "Bride of the Monster," each boasting turgid dramaturgy, howlingly bad dialogue, acting stiffer than a corpse and dime-store visuals--in one notorious case, Wood used wobble-prone cardboard tombstones and paper plates spray-painted silver for UFOs in "Plan 9." Wood also had a fondness for wearing women's clothing that didn't prevent him from getting money from Southern Baptists to make "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 the world of cinema with his portrayal of Dracula in the 1930s, was by the '50s a virtually forgotten and unemployable morphine addict whom many thought was already dead. Wood exploited what small cachet Lugosi's name had left and Lugosi was revivified by the chance to work again.

"The pain the man suffered at that time in his life was amazing," Landau offers. "He started taking the morphine because he did have leg injuries from 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."

Despite the fact that Bela Lugosi Jr. has decried the film's portrayal of his father, 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."

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Indeed, where most actors are happy to master a thick accent and turn their character into a caricature, Landau, 63, plays Lugosi as a colorful, feisty old man crippled by a profound sadness. Denise Di Novi, who produced the film with Burton, said she realized how good Landau's performance was going to be "in the first screen test, the makeup test. He gave a look to the camera, said a line of dialogue, and I was ecstatic. It gave me shivers. From that first makeup test, he was Bela. He found a niche that made him sympathetic, complex, funny, tragic--he brought it so many colors."

Di Novi also marveled at Landau's dedication, when he agreed to do one of his most difficult scenes with no notice.

"There's a scene where Bela tries to kick drugs cold turkey. He had to scream and moan and cry; it was very rough. It was a scene scheduled for another time, but we were at that location and we finished early one day. It would have helped the schedule to do that scene that day. I thought, I can't ask him to do this, but as producer I had to give it a shot. I said, 'Martin, I feel so bad,' but he just said, 'Oh, sure.'

"He had a half-hour to prepare for this scene, which was the most extreme situation he had in the film and he did it brilliantly," Di Novi says. "I was awe-struck by that. He was so ready--I've had actors who would never have done that, and would have been offended if you even asked, and he didn't even quibble."

And why should he? Landau is no stranger to shooting on the run. Though he's best known for his role as Rollin Hand, master of disguises, on "Mission: Impossible" and his two Oscar-nominated turns--Abe Karatz, the hustler of "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," and Judah Rosenthal, the doctor who has his mistress murdered and gets away with it in "Crimes and Misdemeanors"--many of Landau's paychecks have come from cheap, direct-to-video movies and overseas TV. Which, coincidentally, was one of the reasons why Burton wanted him to play Lugosi.

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