Monday 17 July 2017
Martin Landau was the handsome, intelligent, reflective actor who was respected for first-class work in the theatre, and for his consistency and professionalism in films and TV in the 60s and 70s. But he gloriously came into his own in movies in his later years. Landau grew into his gravitas, and also into bittersweet human comedy and tragedy, in ways that were unavailable to him as a younger man. Landau was destined to be the career-opposite to his friend and contemporary from the early, hungry days in New York – James Dean. Maybe he would have ended his days regarded as hardly more than a safe pair of acting hands, were it not for three directors who saw in him that extraordinary inner power and maturity: Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Burton and Woody Allen.
Landau made his first real impression in his early 30s as James Mason’s unsmiling heavy in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. His good looks were uningratiating: saturnine and severe. But it was in television that he was first to make his mark. He was Rollin Hand in TV’s Mission: Impossible, a charismatic and slightly enigmatic member of the team. And later he became a much-loved presence in Lew Grade’s cult sci-fi TV drama of the 1970s, with its now quaint millennial title – Space: 1999. Landau was Commander John Koenig, and just as in Mission: Impossible, he starred with his wife, Barbara Bain. As ever, the key to his performance was the absolute seriousness he brought to it – particularly in that piercing, commanding gaze.
Coppola inaugurated the Martin Landau golden age in the late 80s by casting him in a widely admired film that underperformed at the box office: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), the story of Preston Tucker, the automobile design visionary, played by Jeff Bridges, who was squeezed out by corporate sharp practice. Landau plays Abe Karatz, the financial backer who fears his own shady past will destroy both Tucker and Karatz himself. It’s a small role that earned Landau his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Landau is agonised, self-questioning and vulnerable, at once a kind of damaged father figure to Tucker and yet also perhaps someone who lets him down, like an errant son.
Landau actually landed his Oscar for his glorious performance on the third nomination as the washed-up horror icon Béla Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), playing opposite the unearthly young beauty of Johnny Depp as the notorious B-movie director Wood, the fanboy who was the only person willing to employ the eccentric, cantankerous old star. Landau was utterly superb, perhaps drawing on his own experience of knuckling down to the silliness that was Space: 1999 – affectionately as that show is still remembered, along with Landau in it.
Martin Landau utterly nailed the Lugosi voice, the uncompromising central European growl, although his rendering was far fruitier and raspier than the real thing. His lightly made up and prosthetised face really did resemble a vampire’s in daylight, and his sudden explosions of rage and amour-propre were an absolute joy. Comedy had never been Landau’s strong suit, but this was a masterly comic performance. And that piercing gaze was deployed to wonderful effect in Ed Wood, like a steampunk laser gun.
But it was his second Oscar nomination, for his deadly serious performance in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989, that was his moment of real greatness. Landau plays a successful ophthalmologist, Judah Rosenthal, who has been having a longstanding affair with a blowsy flight attendant, Dolores Paley, played by Anjelica Huston – an affair that is going sour. Dolores threatens to destroy his marriage and his career and Judah contemplates a desperate, murderous act. For me, Judah’s criminal plunge, and Martin Landau’s performance, are the more unforgettable because they do not appear in a conventional thriller or noir, but because they are in a Woody Allen movie, in a story overtly juxtaposed with the more absurdly comic tale that occupies the film’s other half – a film-maker forced to earn a living by celebrating someone he loathes.
Landau’s cold-sweat despair at what he has done, his gaze into the abyss, his Dostoyevskian agony: it is all compelling. I will never forget my own real horror in seeing this film when it first came out – having naturally expected nothing more than laughs, and despite having sat through hundreds of fictional murders in genre pictures. Landau’s performance made it chillingly real.
Landau was a great actor who boosted the IQ and the substance of every movie he appeared in. Watching Ed Wood and Crimes and Misdemeanors again is a great way to remember him.