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.

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.

"It's weird," 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 Bela).' That's how he came to me. I was shocked. He said, 'You popped into my head and I couldn't get you out.' "

Landau, in fact, had appeared in the monumentally mediocre "Cleopatra"--sort of what Ed Wood would have made had he had money to play with--and that never-ending shoot scotched his chance to appear in Federico Fellini's "8 1/2," though his co-star, Richard Burton, offered to take ill for a week so he could show up in the processional at the end of that film. And Landau has 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," Landau says. "They use piss and glue and saliva to put a movie together. That guy was pitiful.

"Always in lower-budget films, the second take"--Landau rolls his eyes--"they're very concerned with how much film they're using. I've worked on films where they've actually used ends (unused portions at the end of a canister of film). You're in the middle of a huge emotional scene, they say, 'Hold it! We've got to reload the camera.' I'd say, 'You just reloaded the camera!' They'd say, 'Yeah, but we didn't have much film in the camera. Just pick it up from where you left off.'

"The more you try to bring to characters in those types of movies, the worse off you are," Landau says with a laugh, noting the sort of low-rent motivation that goes into those characters: "A guy wakes up--'I think today I will do something terrible! I'm an awful person!' "

That kind of role became a thing of the past after Landau's two Oscar nominations. But he admits 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. Even when I was on 'Mission: Impossible,' I played that guy playing different characters, and I loved that. I'm not a type-caster's dream. I've lost roles where a director absolutely refuses to see me: He says, no, he's not funny. I say to myself, 'I don't want to be in your movie, schmuck.'

"So who hires me?" Landau asks, then answers his own question. "It takes a director with a certain kind of vision and appreciation for what I do--they know they're going to get something from me that's gonna have a lot of colors."

To portray Lugosi, 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, Landau is able during his interview to do the same thing credibly 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. (Landau squints a la Lugosi.) You see a lot of teeth when I smile; you see no teeth when he does. (Landau 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.)

Rather than just playing Lugosi's overacting for easy laughs, both Landau and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script offer a context for it. What plays as nutty scenery-munching in Wood's own movies makes a bizarre sort of emotional sense in Burton's.

"I was very aware of that," Landau says. "The 'Glen or Glenda' moment where (the name of Lugosi's nemesis, Boris) Karloff is brought up and he goes howling right into his next scene. Coming to work and the kind of dignity he has, then losing it at the mention of Karloff. The thought of Karloff was sickening to him, because Karloff did eclipse him."

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," Landau says. "With Abe, it was a complete resurrection, in the sense that he was someone who never had a family and suddenly got the family he never would have had. They are two unlikely partners. A man who literally hadn't touched certain feelings in a long time, and that rebirth--they're clearly different characters, but that dramatic element was similar, and the arc was similar."

In the meantime, Landau's own roller coaster is back at a peak, and he's looking for another project. He says 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 biopic about James Dean, who was a friend of Landau when he was just starting out as an actor. There are two competing scripts in the market, one approved by Dean's family, which Landau calls "benign and bland," the other of which 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. I have no problem with it."

Which means Landau would be appearing in a film in which another actor is portraying him. "Well, it's a lot of years later," Landau says. "Jimmy's sort of frozen in time. He was 24. I go to Budapest and there's a T-shirt shop and there's a life-size cutout of James Dean. His T-shirts are everywhere. It's very strange to go through an entire life running into Jimmy eternally young."

So, getting back to that fortune cookie.

Landau was considered the front-runner for the trophy for both previous nominations, only to go home empty-handed. 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 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."

* 'WOOD' PILE: Five documentaries on Ed Wood? Truth is stranger than fiction. Page 27.

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