Whenever Martin Landau, who died on Sunday, showed up in a movie or on a television show, you could count on him to add a spark — of tension, of mordant play — to the proceedings. His face, even in repose, spoke volumes, and what a face it was! In “North by Northwest,” with his sloped eyebrows and Roman-statue lips and leer of menace, he played a spy’s henchman who gleamed with officious danger. Landau kept himself still, so that you had to keep reading that face, scanning the malevolence behind it. He added another layer too: Landau, with Hitchcock’s approval, chose to play the henchman as gay, with a hidden crush on his boss (James Mason). Though the characterization fit the then-timely stereotype of homosexual villainy (this was 1959, after all), if you watch it now, it’s the subtext that humanizes the character. Landau’s eyes burn with a quality that only he would have had the audacity to bring to the role.
He came out of the Actors Studio and did his share of theater and golden-age television, but it was as Rollin Hand, an original member of the “Mission: Impossible” team, from 1966 to 1969, that Landau found an anchor in the popular imagination. As a kid, before I could even follow the plots, I would stare, fascinated, at Landau because he had so much more going on than the other “M:I” actors, even though he said so much less.
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For decades, Landau was such a sly, versatile and hardworking actor that it sounds borderline absurd to call him a late bloomer. Yet he was the ultimate late bloomer. What might have been a minor comeback role in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” won Landau critical plaudits and an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. He was 60, and it added up to a gold-watch moment. What no one guessed is that his career — his real career, as an actor of lacerating greatness — was just taking off.
A year later, he took the lead in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” playing an ophthalmologist named Judah Rosenthal who seemed a typical Allen paragon of New York Jewish prestige. Except this was no comedy of Manhattan manners. Judah’s mistress, played with volcanic distress by Anjelica Huston, is threatening to capsize his life. Is he going to keep a grip on everything he holds dear — and if so, how will he get rid of his problem? The answer turns out to be: by getting rid of her.
It’s the plot of a thousand sordid soap operas, but Landau took you on a journey into a wormy, guilty yet self-justifying soul. The most memorable moment comes when he hangs up the phone after arranging the murder. He is silent and woeful yet weirdly calm. He can’t believe the obscene line he’s just crossed — yet he also can’t believe how simple it was. The banality of evil has never looked so banal, or so devastatingly convincing.
Then, of course, there’s Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” It won Landau the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance as the aging, decrepit Bela Lugosi — a morphine addict and shambling Hollywood has-been who is clinging, by his broken fingernails, to the tattered remnants of his legend. It’s one of my favorite films, and Landau gives what I believe to be one of the greatest screen performances of all time.
There’s a juicy comedic shock to the way he inhabits every detail of the Lugosi persona: the eyes that burn with a mesmerist’s intensity, the grin that’s like a frown turned upside down. The friendship Bela forms with Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp) is a bond between losers who need each other. It’s a sordid arrangement, yet the key to the film is the transfixing fusion of frailty and egomania in Landau’s performance. When Bela performs the big speech from “Bride of the Monster,” Landau delivers it as a nonsensical but somehow eloquent confession (“Home. I have no home. Hunted. Despised. …”). To watch Martin Landau in “Ed Wood” is to witness something moving and miraculous: a ghost of Old Hollywood who still walks, a figment of broken dreams that refuse to die.