Monday, June 20, 2016

Birthday Take: Martin Landau in "Ed Wood" (1994)

Martin Landau in Ed Wood
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Martin Landau
Born: June 20, 1928 (88 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actor - Ed Wood (nominated) as Bela Lugosi

The Take

While many would likely consider Tim Burton to be a better director than Ed Wood, there's no denying that there's likely some autobiographical elements in his production. It's the story of a filmmaker who befriends a legend and makes the type of movies that he wants to make. Burton just happened to make the kitsch hip and able to gross millions upon millions. Still, there's nothing quite like breaking tone to pay tribute to someone who died a weirdo and without nearly as much acclaim. It also is among the first significant collaborations that he did with Johnny Depp, and the first to likely embody what specifically made him such a compelling actor to work with. He was willing to be weird, but he had a charisma that couldn't be faked. It is likely why their partnership would last, at very least, another decade.

If Depp is Burton, then it's easy to see Martin Landau as his hero. It's not suggested that the director loved the actor's work, but more that it tied into his twisted story. In his early years, Burton worked with horror icon Vincent Price on a short aptly called Vincent. Price would later work with him again, but the forging of generations showed how much Burton was invested in the old style of horror, even if it was schlocky and cheap. It's what resonates with his best work, and it's hard to not see working with Price as a symbolic torch passing. In that regards, Ed Wood working with Bela Lugosi is almost a plagiarized mirror of his own life. While specific details have been fudged to make for a more compelling story, the enthusiasm regarding working with your idol remains.

Much like Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney Jr., Lugosi was nowhere near an Oscar statue during their career. It is likely because horror was still seen as less charismatic of a genre for acting. However, the best work can transcend and simply be good. All three of these names were at some point better than anyone else at the game. There's likely a bitterness that comes from them not getting their due within their lifespans. However, Lugosi has the one unfortunate advantage of ending his career on a proverbial low note. While only cinephiles can tell you Karloff and Chaney's last film, it doesn't take much effort to tell you what Lugosi did. He did Plan 9 From Outer Space (of which Ed Wood is partially about), which has gone on record as being one of the worst movies ever made. Considering that Lugosi died fairly early into production, it only makes his legacy more baffling and tragic.

What's most impressive about the film is that it almost doesn't matter. Wood is a passionate man who gets accused of making terrible movies. Still, he is fascinated by Lugosi's bitterness that rivals Norma Desmond. Even as he gets bad dialogue and embarrassing scenes to work through, he gives it his all. There's plenty of comedy to be pulled from these moments. Of course, there's also tragedy of a talent spending his final years making terrible movies. Still, what Ed Wood embodies better than most is the feeling that art isn't about quality, it's about the experience and joy making something that matters to yourself. Maybe Lugosi wasn't the happiest person, but the enthusiasm in Wood's life compensated nicely. It isn't clear how devastated Wood would be if he found how poorly his films were received. What is known is that he did what he loved, much like Burton with Price.

It may be difficult to call Burton an auteur based solely on his modern films. However, one can easily see Ed Wood and understand why the work was personal to him. One can even look at Big Eyes and see how his personal view of art has evolved. It's not just about passion anymore. It's about questioning the value of art, and if doing bland imitations and manufacturing a product really is satisfying. It does have plenty of the Burton eeriness, but some of the passion has faded in time. Instead, we're left with the tarnished image of what made Burton great. Is he a bad artist? Maybe he's become the Lugosi to the equation and is more idol worship than auteur. However, he still can do some impressive work with the right crew, and Ed Wood was definitely one of them.

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