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A Graveside Discourse With a Fellow Admirer of the Night

November 04, 1994|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I took a little afternoon snooze on the grave of Bela Lugosi the other day. I folded my arms across my chest and dozed off for a few minutes. It seemed an appropriate pose.

Lugosi is at rest in the "Grotto--Our Lady of Lourdes" section of Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, near the crest of a sunny hilltop framed by languid eucalyptus trees and flitting mockingbirds. His gray-and-black marker bears his name, the dates of his life (1862-1956) and the simple sentiment, "Beloved Father."

I positioned a shock of lyrical, yellow day-lilies at the foot of the grave, along with a note. It read:

*

Dear Mr. Lugosi, Somebody made a movie about you. They took some liberties, but it's mostly a nice tribute--Your friend, Rip Rense.

*

I went to visit, it occurred to me, out of obligation. Lugosi has been a presence in my life--possibly a shaping force in my personality (I do work mostly at night)--since I first saw "Dracula" on KTLA's "Shock Theater" back around 1958.

I was about 5, watching the movie with my older brothers against orders from Mom, a waitress on the late shift.

I think I was more thrilled than shocked or scared by this quiet, eerie film. It was then that I took to honing a Lugosi impression, centering on the eyes (the trick is raising the lower lids). In my early teens, a giant poster of Lugosi--with lurid leer and beckoning cape--hung above my bed. As if the count were poised to make a withdrawal from my jugular.

Over the years, I've seen Lugosi's "Dracula" more times than I care to admit; it has an undying, painterly quality that never wears on me. I've seen most of his other movies, both good and rotten, including his wacky (but nonetheless spellbinding) monologues in Edward D. Wood Jr.'s transvestite primer, "Glen or Glenda," and his lone foray into comedy, in "International House" (where--mind-boggling as it seems--he played a jealous husband at odds with W.C. Fields).

I am of the minority opinion that his greatest role was not Dracula, but Ygor, the maniac with the broken neck in the 1939 feature "Son of Frankenstein." (Great complexity; menacing but lovable.) About the only Lugosi work I haven't seen is his stage version of "Hamlet," the role that first brought him acclaim in Hungary in the early '20s. For my money (not a terribly potent boast, I admit), no actor had a more irresistible presence. It was indeed a tragedy that horror-film typecasting prevented him from exploiting his talent.

I lolled there, on the grassy sepulcher, musing about these things, and how Lugosi has recently returned to the world of the living--as much as any of us can--via the deathless thing that is film. I refer, of course, to "Ed Wood," the Tim Burton movie about the crackpot filmmaker who befriended and employed Lugosi in his tortuous final years, when the actor was bedeviled by the cumulative effects of 20 years' worth of legally prescribed morphine (for excruciating sciatic pain). Predictably, old Lugosi film clips are suddenly ubiquitous on the tube, "Glen or Glenda" is playing midnight movies in West L.A., and new generations are discovering the beauty of Dracula intoning the words, "I . . . dislike . . . mirrors."

It struck me that I might address some of my thoughts directly to the late actor. People speak to the dear departed all the time, after all, even if it is unclear that the dear departed hear them. So I spoke. Caretakers in the vicinity didn't bat an eye (so to speak).

"Mr. Lugosi," I said, "you won't believe it, but somebody made a movie about Ed Wood--you remember, your pal who really liked Angora. His cheesy work has become a celebrated monument to cinematic banality. Effectively, the movie is a biography of you --or at least, your final years. Martin Landau has given what is probably the performance of his life, as you , and is being talked up for best supporting actor. Frankly, I think he ought to be nominated outright for best actor. And he probably ought to win. There's a little bad news, though."

I explained how "Ed Wood" writers had tampered with history, toying with Lugosi's personality for the sake of easy--some would say cheap--laughs. I cited the scene where an insanely embittered Lugosi spits a torrent of profanity at the mention of his horror film rival, Boris Karloff. Lugosi's mediocre English, alone, makes that scene impossible.

"I realize," I said, "that, like Karloff, you were a gentle and kind man, and that you and Boris had a respectful, if competitive, association. I know you were, by all accounts, eternally--no joke intended--gracious, and given to humor, and that hot-tempered profanity was not your style. A lot of people seeing this movie will get the wrong impression, and that's too bad. But I must say that the scene where you blow up is sort of poetic. You get a chance to spout off--on the big screen--about the injustices of your life and career. Well, maybe you wouldn't find it so poetic. . . ."

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