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Mission Probable: Oscar for Landau

The biggest upset at the Academy Awards tonight will come if Martin Landau does not win the Oscar for best supporting actor. It's this year's sure thing. Although the movie he's been nominated for, Tim Burton's "Ed Wood," didn't set records at the box office, Landau's performance as the broken-down horror star Bela Lugosi was widely admired: He got the look right, and then added whole dimensions of pathos and dignity.

"I told Tim, 'Let's start with the makeup,' " Landau recalled, discussing his work after winning the supporting actor award from the Chicago Film Critics a few weeks ago. "If it doesn't work, I don't want to do it - I don't want to look like Martin Landau with a Halloween mask. When I was growing up, every impressionist did terrible Bela Lugosi imitations - 'I want to drink your blood' - and I realized this was like a field with tiger traps throughout, and I had to walk carefully."

Landau, a former acting teacher with students such as Jack Nicholson, talks with enthusiasm about his craft. While many actors claim they don't know how they achieve their effects, he discusses his work with great precision.

"I pretty much knew what to avoid. I wanted him to be European and dignified and talented, pathetic and funny. I almost thought of him as a character out of Chekhov. There was this nobility and yet this odd, ludicrous aspect to this moment late in his life."

Landau studied all the available filmed interviews with Lugosi, whose Hollywood career spanned from Tod Browning's "Dracula" in 1931 to Ed Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space" in 1959 - the first film is one of the best horror films of all time; the last was voted the worst movie ever made.

"In one interview at the beginning of his career in Hollywood, in his backyard, somewhat staged, he was wearing tennis whites, looking very elegant and talking about the Hungarian theater where he did 'Hamlet,' " Landau said. "Now juxtapose that interview with his being released from the sanitarium at the end of his life. He's 72; his wife has left him; he talks about his morphine habit; he talks about starting a film with Eddie Wood, and there's something really tragic and sad. He's weak and decrepit. And then all these nurses and orderlies line up, and he shakes their hands and bows to each of them, and there's something so pathetic about it."

Landau said he noticed things about Lugosi's body language: "I open my eyes wide, he shuts his down. I have a lot of teeth; you never see his teeth, they're almost like a black hole. The energy that goes into my fingertips is different; he has much softer hands. He uses his hands differently; he's much more straight up and down. I had to virtually learn a new set of physical geography and get it out of the way so I could then act. Literally learning muscularity so that when I laughed, different things happened, and when I became agitated, other things happened. He had that European nobility that American actors don't really have. Orson Welles had it, and a handful of actors, but they were kind of special.

"I tried to learn all these new body rules. When I started, I could have juggled or tap-danced. Tim could have thrown anything at me and I was OK with it - as Lugosi."

When he worked with Ed Wood (starting with "Glen or Glenda?" in 1953), Lugosi was in the deep final valley of his career. Landau talked about his own valleys: Early success on the stage and in television and movies, then unemployment and work as an acting coach, then TV stardom on "Mission Impossible," then another period when he was out of work, then a major comeback in his 50s and 60s, with Academy Award nominations for Francis Coppola's  "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and now "Ed Wood."

"I'm an odd actor," he said, "in the sense that my outline is never quite clear. If you hire a Joe Pesci or Danny Aiello or Harrison Ford, there's a clarity to their shape. I'm not a typecasting director's dream; you never quite know what I'm going to do exactly."

How does he feel going into the Oscars as a front-runner?

"From your mouth to the ears of God. It feels nice, but I'd rather be the underdog. I just take one step at a time."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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