[15 May 2007]
One of film’s all-time-greatest supporting performances reached the screen in 1994. The actor was Martin Landau, outshining his previous great achievements (North by Northwest, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Crimes and Misdemeanors) with a pitch-perfect portrayal of Bela Lugosi, the ill-fated acteur maudit of classical horror cinema. The movie was Ed Wood, the bittersweet biopic by Tim Burton that accords half-forgotten figures like director Edward D. Wood Jr., movie entrepreneur George Weiss, and actors Tor Johnson and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi the simple human dignity they’ve rarely been granted in their own medium.
Of all the inspired moments in Landau’s performance, two remain especially fresh in memory. One is the aging Lugosi speaking to reporters from the edge of a bed in the hospital where alcoholism and drug abuse have landed him; the other is his gratitude at being filmed by Wood for a few casual moments outside Tor Johnson’s house, where Lugosi stops to smell the flowers and stay in camera range a tiny bit longer.
If these moments have the ring of truth in Burton’s film, it’s because they really happened in Lugosi’s life. No page in Bela Lugosi: Dreams and Nightmares is more poignant than the one displaying an image from the actual impromptu shoot in front of Johnson’s home. The star of Dracula and White Zombie and Glen or Glenda looks pale, frail, and a little bewildered, gazing perplexedly into the distance as if searching for the last lingering traces of his vanished fame. The ending of his life was as tragic as that of any film he ever made, and this aptly titled book, written by scholar-fan Gary D. Rhodes with help from friend-fan Richard Sheffield, tells why.
Lugosi often remarked that Dracula, the 1931 classic directed by horror specialist Tod Browning for Universal Pictures, was both his blessing and his curse. It was a blessing because it made the Hungarian-born actor an international star; it was a curse because that stardom was linked so ineluctably to a single character in a single film.
During his salad days in Hungarian and German movies, Lugosi was versatile enough to play the colonel in The Colonel, a sheik in The Caravan of Death, and even Chingachgook in Leatherstocking, a stretch if ever there was one. Even after Dracula he dodged the typecasting bullet skillfully enough to play a general in International House, an Apache in Gift of Gab, and a commissar in Ninotchka, among other diverse roles.
But those were exceptions. For the master narrative, just peruse the horror-drenched titles that dominate his post-Dracula years: White Zombie, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Island of Lost Souls, The Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, The Raven, Black Friday, The Devil Bat, The Black Cat again, The Wolf Man, The Corpse Vanishes, Night Monster, The Return of the Vampire, The Body Snatcher, and more. Lugosi famously turned down the Monster role in James Whale’s brilliant Frankenstein, apparently because he didn’t like wearing a ton of makeup, especially for a part that wouldn’t show off his mellifluous voice. Yet the exigencies of an increasingly wobbly career eventually forced him into the likes of Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as a late-career bonus. How ironic and how sad.
Not all of these were bad movies: The moody White Zombie is very imaginative, for instance, and the production of The Black Cat directed by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1934 is a flat-out masterpiece. But it’s clear that soon after Dracula the once-proud Lugosi found himself as unable to secure wide-ranging roles as, say, stage actor James O’Neill after The Count of Monte Cristo and movie actor George Reeves after the Superman television series.
Like those others, Lugosi never came to terms with his drastically diminished status. He sought relief in morphine, Demerol, whole cases of scotch, and no fewer than five marriages. His second wife described their period of wedlock as “two months of boredom,” although their breakup was anything but—still smitten, Lugosi stalked her, sent emissaries disguised as reporters, and kidnapped her dog as a hostage. He was still a handful when he married his last wife, a fan who wrote him admiring letters during his stay in the detox hospital. She tried to limit his boozing but he simply guzzled on the sly, hiding bottles around their apartment like Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. His secret came out, alas, whenever he became too drunk to walk or talk. That happened a lot in Lugosi’s later years, scuttling his chances for even a minor-league comeback.
While typecasting and personal problems account for many of Lugosi’s troubles, he was also the victim of larger cultural forces, including the sharp drop in horror-movie production that began in 1946. According to one theory, articulated at the time by screenwriter-director Curt Siodmak, the terrors of World War II had fueled a horror boom (“like sickness being fought with toxins of the same virus”) that America’s postwar emotional climate had no reason to sustain. Be this as it may, Lugosi declined even as American optimism rose.
Bela Lugosi: Dreams and Nightmares has a touch of geekiness about it. Readers not obsessed with Lugosi don’t really need a very long footnote correcting the previously accepted count of his performances in Dracula on Broadway in 1927-28, or a very very long calculation of all his Dracula appearances—about a thousand, it turns out, including summer stock, touring companies, vaudeville, and so on.
At times this material can be charming, though. The entire fifth chapter focuses on Lugosi’s friendship with coauthor Sheffield, which began when the adolescent fan talked a friend into phoning the actor, who promptly invited them to visit. Much of the account is trivial, but eventually it provides some of the book’s most disarming details. Inviting his teenage acquaintances to lunch, the lonely Lugosi dons a suit and tie before serving them a feast of room-temperature coffee and stale toast; on a later such occasion he offers them a “gelatinous mess” of day-old bouillabaisse; on another day he takes them to a store where he can buy new socks on sale. If these incidents don’t humanize the erstwhile vampire for you, nothing will.
Other parts of the book are substantial and surprising, as when Rhodes gives a thorough report on the communist politics that Lugosi espoused as a young man in Hungary and lived to rue when they returned to haunt him in America during the McCarthy era. He appears to have escaped the Hollywood blacklist, thanks to his long-term policy of obscuring the past with evasions, doubletalk, and outright lies; but given the steadily downward trajectory of his overall career, the blacklist could hardly have made things worse.
All told, Rhodes and Sheffield present a painstakingly researched, richly sympathetic, reasonably well-written account of an ultimately tragic life. Whether you remember Lugosi as the darksome star of Dracula or the desolate whatsit of Wood’s uproariously incoherent Plan 9 From Outer Space, this generously illustrated volume will make you feel you’ve met the forlorn man behind the movie fangs. Not even Landau could better resurrect his memory.