Friday, October 31, 2014

What Bela Lugosi can teach every artist

Bela Lugosi was destined for immortality from the moment he donned the Dracula cape and arched his eyebrows for Tod Browning's camera. But thanks in large part to Tim Burton, the last two decades have seen Bela achieving a second everlasting life as the pitiable and desiccated muse of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Casual fans could be forgiven for believing that Martin Landau's portrayal of Lugosi writhing in a wading pool with a rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster was an accurate depiction of Bela hitting bottom, but truth be told, Bela's career had dipped lower than that any number of times. 

I've watched a lot of Bela Lugosi movies over the years. The Ed Wood movies are certainly in the lower tier, but at least they're made by a director with a distinct personal style and, more importantly, a genuine appreciation for Lugosi's talents and place in cinema history. 

Compare that to, say, William Beaudine, an insanely prolific, zero-budget hired gun who cranked out endless, soulless genre pictures. Beaudine directed what I would classify as the true low point of Bela's career, 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Lugosi's star was long since descended by '52, but this movie has so little going for it that I don't question the producer's decision to slap the star's name in the title and cash in on what little bankability he had left.

Actually, Bela isn't even the star of the movie that borrowed his name. He has fairly limited screen time as the mad scientist who torments co-leads Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, a real-life comedy duo whose entire shtick was doing a passable impression of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Mitchell and Petrillo's subsequent lives and film careers are fascinating in their own right, but they're beyond excruciating in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, playing a nightclub act stranded on a remote tropical island populated by friendly, grotesquely stereotyped natives and one rogue geneticist who's determined to transform Mitchell into an ape.

It's an icky, unfunny wallow in undistinguished, undignified filmmaking, but you'd never know it to watch Bela's performance. Bela gives it his all, playing the role with all the sly intensity and creepy charm that marked the best work of his younger days. Obviously he had to know he wasn't involved with any kind of masterpiece - this was a star vehicle for a professional Jerry Lewis impersonator, for heaven's sake - but it just wasn't in Bela's nature to half-ass it for a paycheck.

I've seen Bela waist-deep in all manner of dreck, be it playing fifth or sixth fiddle to the sub-vaudevillian antics of the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla, toddling behind Basil Rathbone as a mute manservant in The Black Sleep or lurching around the city stealing spinal fluid in a ludicrous hairy mask in Beaudine's The Ape Man. (Side note: Bela Lugosi appeared in an inordinate number of simian-themed movies.) He got handed scripts possessed of not an ounce of imagination: he was repeatedly asked to rehash Dracula with diminishing returns and made at least four movies wherein he played a scientist driven mad by the death of his wife. It's safe to say that the vast majority of Bela's résumé was irredeemable garbage.

Despite all of that, I could not point you to a weak Bela Lugosi performance. Even in the direst of cinematic circumstances, Bela threw his heart into every vaguely drawn part. He played to the rafters, exuding menace and charisma as he glowered over long-forgotten actors many degrees his inferior. By all accounts he resented the hell out of his typecasting as a horror movie heavy, but he never let that distaste leak through to the screen. He did his damnedest to make sure people left the theater muttering, "That was an awful Bela Lugosi movie" and not "Bela Lugosi was awful in that movie."

Compare that ethic to any number of Lugosi's b-movie counterparts over the ages. Bela was far from the only trained, talented actor forced to slum it in terrible genre films. Lon Chaney, Jr's late-career performances (Spider-Baby excepted) range from bored to embarrassed. John Carradine never failed to deliver the bombast, but many of his low-budget roles were scarcely more than disdainful paycheck cameos. Vincent Price was dependable but prone to slipping onto hammy autopilot. Donald Pleasance occasionally roused himself for a sketchy role, as in Raw Meat, but more often than not just looked irritated to be wasting his talents on such trash. Of all the great names of bad horror, only Peter Cushing comes close to Bela in his dedication to craft in the face of adversity. But even there, Cushing's screen persona was far more mannerly, his menace much quieter. Even in the depths of dreck like The Blood Beast Terror, which found him wrestling a bloodthirsty humanoid moth-monster, Cushing was allowed his dignity. He was certainly never left to stumble around a papier-mache jungle while being outsmarted by Sammy frigging Petrillo and Steve Calvert in a gorilla suit.

But Bela was, and he squeezed every drop of lemonade out of every bag of lemons Hollywood handed him. Granted, he had a notorious opiate addiction driving him to take work wherever it was available, but he could have easily phoned in his performances in those low-grade cheapies and no one on set would have said a word about it. But he never did, and that's remarkable.

That's why I count Bela Lugosi as one of my greatest inspirations. I've been writing for money and pleasure for my entire adult life. In that time I've been asked to write all manner of things that do not interest me in the least, and plenty more things I might initially have dismissed as "beneath me." I'm the first to admit that I've made some unadvisable choices in my writing career, but I can't come up with many examples of me not putting my best effort into a project. Whether it's a feature for a national publication, a concert blurb for a local magazine or even a casual tweet on a Wednesday night, I try my hardest to make sure it's the best piece of writing I can muster.

Some of that is probably because I still believe - perhaps foolishly - that I'm a writer on the rise and every piece of work I put out to the world is a potential audition. I'll be interested to see whether I can sustain this attitude if and when I find myself irredeemably over the hill and past my peak, as Bela surely realized he was by the time he was paired up with Petrillo and Mitchell, or when he was "rescued" by Ed Wood.  It's one thing to give it your all when there's a promise of greater things shimmering on the horizon and quite another when all is lost and the art is truly just for the art's sake. Should I ever come to such a turn, I can only hope that I manage to do it as gracefully as Bela Lugosi.

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