The Rip Post


GRAVE MATTERS

by Rip Rense

(Originally published in The Los Angeles Times.)

I took a little afternoon snooze on the grave of Bela Lugosi the other day. I folded my arms across my chest and dozed off for a few minutes. It seemed an appropriate pose.

Lugosi was at rest in the "Grotto---Our Lady of Lourdes" section of Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, near the crest of a sunny hilltop framed by languid eucalyptus trees and flitting mockingbirds. His gray- and-black marker bore his name, the dates of his life (1882-1956) and the simple sentiment, "Beloved Father." I positioned a shock of lyrical, yellow day-lilies at the foot of the grave, along with a note. It read:

"Dear Mr. Lugosi---Somebody made a movie about you. They took some liberties, but it's mostly a nice tribute. ---Your friend, Rip Rense."

I went to visit, it occured to me, out of obligation. Lugosi has been a presence in my life---possibly a shaping force in my personality (I do work mostly at night)---since I first saw 'Dracula' on KTLA's 'Shock Theater' back around 1958. I was about five, watching the movie with my older brothers against orders from our mom, a waitress on the late shift. I think I was more thrilled than shocked or scared by this quiet, eerie film. It was then that I took to honing a Lugosi impression, centering on the eyes (the trick is raising the lower lids.) In my early teens, a giant poster of Lugosi---with leer and beckoning cape---was stuck to the wall above my bed. As though the Count was poised to make a withdrawal from my jugular.

Over the years, I've seen Lugosi's 'Dracula' more times than I care to admit; it has an undying (no joke intended), painterly quality that never wears out. I've seen most of his other movies, both good and rotten, including his wacky (but nonetheless spellbinding) monologues in Edward D. Wood Jr.'s transvestite primer, 'Glen Or Glenda,' and his lone foray into comedy, in 'International House,' (where---mind-boggling as it seems---he played a jealous husband at odds with W. C. Fields.) I hold the minority opinion that his greatest role was not Dracula---but Ygor, the maniac with the broken neck, in the 1939 feature, 'Son of Frankenstein' (great complexity; menacing but loveable). About the only Lugosi work I haven't seen is his stage version of 'Hamlet,' the role that first brought him acclaim in Hungary in the early '20s. For my money (not a terribly potent boast, I admit), no actor ever had a more irresistable presence. It was indeed a tragedy that horror-film typecasting deprived moviegoers of the full range of his talent.

I lolled there, on the grassy sepulcher, musing about these things, and how Lugosi has recently returned to the world of the living--- as much as any of us can---via the deathless thing that is film. I refer, of course, to 'Ed Wood,' the Tim Burton movie about the crackpot filmmaker who befriended and employed Lugosi in his torturous final years, when the actor was bedeviled by the cumulative effects of 20 years' worth of legally prescribed morphine (for excruciating sciatic pain.) Predictably, old Lugosi film clips are suddenly ubiquitous on the tube, 'Glen or Glenda' is playing midnight movies in West L.A., and new generations are discovering the beauty of Dracula intoning the words, "I. . . dislike. . .mirrors."

It struck me that I might address some of my thoughts directly to the late actor. People speak to the dear departed all the time, after all, even if it is unclear that the dear departed hear them. So I spoke. Caretakers in the vicinity didn't bat an eye (so to speak).

"Mr. Lugosi," I said, "you won't believe it, but somebody made a movie about Ed Wood---you remember, your pal who really liked Angora. His cheesey work has become a celebrated monument to cinematic banal- ity. Effectively, the movie is a biography of you ---or at least, your final years. Martin Landau has given what is probably the performance of his life, as you, and is being talked up for Best Supporting Actor. Frankly, I think he's so good that he ought to be nominated outright for Best Actor. And he probably ought to win. There's a little bad news, though---"

I explained how 'Ed Wood' writers had tampered with history, toying with Lugosi's personality for the sake of easy---some would say cheap---laughs. I cited the scene where an insanely embittered Lugosi spits a torrent of profanity at the mention of his horror film rival, Boris Karloff. Lugosi's mediocre English, alone, makes that scene impossible.

"I realize," I said, "that like Karloff, you were a gentle and kind man, and that you and Boris had a respectful, if competetive, association. I know you were, by all accounts, eternally---no joke intended---gracious, and given to humor, and that hot-tempered profanity was not your style. A lot of people seeing this movie will get the wrong impression of you, and that's too bad. But I must say that the scene where you blow up is sort of poetic. You get a chance to spout off---on the big screen---about the injustices of your life and career. Well, maybe you wouldn't find it so poetic. . ."

I watched a backhoe claw out a fresh grave not far away, thought it was indecently expedient. Found myself reading a little brochure I had discovered stuck underneath a pay-phone by the Holy Cross Cemetery office. It turned out to be a Jehovah's Witness religious flyer, with a title that acquired amusing new significance in my current surroundings: "Life in a Peaceful New World." Between the backhoe and the chatter of the groundskeepers, the hiss of the not-so-distant 405 freeway, the occasional jumbo jet landing at LAX, and a flatbed truck trundling by with six bone-white coffins, things weren't so peaceful there in Holy Cross.

I resumed my one-way conversation, telling Lugosi I had phoned his old friend, Forrest Ackerman---the founder and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. Ackerman, or 'Ackermonster,' as he calls himself, helped care for Bela during the last three years of his life, and knew Wood well. I related how Ackerman told me that the film had invented its version of the premiere of 'Bride of the Monster,' showing Lugosi, Wood, et. al., being chased and pelted by an angry mob (the actual premiere was a very orderly fund-raiser at the El Capitan Theater for Bela, who was hospitalized in an effort to kick his drug habit).

"You should know, however," I said, "that the scene in the movie is funny. You might have liked it. And it might mean something to you to know that your friend Ackerman said he was 'horrified' at your character's occasional profanity, but he loved the movie, and Landau."

I brought up the problem that would certainly have most upset Lugosi---'Ed Wood's' handling of the morphine issue. "It was clear that you were ravaged by the drug," I said, eyeing an ant climbing up a blade of grass, "but unfortunately, it doesn't explain that you became addicted because it was given to you as treatment for pain following surgery. It does, however, show that you had the nerve to commit yourself to a hospital (for about a year) and regain some health."

Finally, I touched on a few lesser problems in the characteriza- tion: how, for example, 'Ed Wood' shows Lugosi wretched and alone, when in fact he was married in the last year of his life; how Ackerman doubts there were any scenes of suicidal despair with a handgun; and how the movie depicts Lugosi's funeral as a poignant little event attended only by Wood and his crowd, while Ackerman remembers being the 101st out of 103 people to pass the coffin, and bid a final adieu.

Then I fell quiet, and thought some more---about how 'Dracula' was both the triumph, and the bane (no pun intended) of Lugosi's acting life. About an article I once read in which a woman recounted a childhood memory of bumping into Bela in the Fairfax district, when he was an old man tottering to the market. He had smiled, and it had scared her out of her socks. About how the actor was buried in his 'Dracula' finery, at his own request (the man understood irony.) About a cemetery employee who told me that people leave flowers---and sometimes top hats and capes--- on his grave every Halloween.

"Tell you what, Mr. Lugosi," I said at last, "I'll try to write an article to clear some of this stuff up---so maybe people won't get the wrong idea about you. Least I can do. For now, though, I just want to let you know that you're very much remembered. The closing credits of 'Ed Wood,' in fact, suggest that your presence as an actor has actually surpassed that of the great Karloff. A fact that you would, no doubt, be too gentlemanly to acknowledge."

With that, I rose from the grave. To tell the truth, the afternoon sun was really getting to me.

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