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January 24, 2001
Actors sink their teeth into vampire roles
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
John Malkovich would make a great vampire.
As it happens, though, Malkovich is down to portray real-life silent-film maker F.W. Murnau in the new movie, "Shadow of the Vampire," and Malkovlch's worthy co-star, Willem Dafoe, will wear the inky cloak.
In an admirable conflation of illusion, reality and everything in between, the film is about the making of "Nosferatu" (1921), a silent movie based on the Dracula story (but with characters' names changed to evade copyright problems), with Murnau directing and Max Schreck as the sepulchral title character. The twist in "Shadow" is that the Schreck character (Dafoe) really, truly is a vampire!
Dafoe will make one heck of a vampire - he's got the sunken cheeks, the hollow eyes, the pallor. The fact that he played Jesus in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" makes this casting stroke just that much more brilliant.
Casting Bela Lugosi in the 1931 classic version had its own hidden layers of nuance. Like the Count, Lugosi was of Eastern European extraction - and he really did talk like that. And while he may not have been a vampire per se, he was a morphine addict, which, some would say, comes pretty close.
Of course, not just anybody can play a vampire. Robert Redford can't. Robin Williams can't. Jimmy Stewart couldn't have.
But that's where it gets tricky. If you're talking about the Jimmy Stewart who portrayed an obsessive lover in "Vertigo" rather than the one who played the earnest legislator in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," you've got the makings of quite a vampire.
Henry Fonda? You might say no, but reserve judgment until you've seen him as the bad guy in "Once Upon a Time in the West," in which he's creepy to the max.
It's instructive to reflect that back before Ann Rice's "Interview with the Vampire” (1994) went into production, no one - least of all Rice herself - could imagine Tom Cruise following in Lugosi's footsteps.
Now, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas would have made wonderful Draculas, and Marlon Brando could be the bloodsucker's bloodsucker if he set his mind to it.
The time has passed when we're likely ever to see Count Brando slipping through the night, but we do have the next best thing - Klaus Kinskl (a kind of Teutonic Brando) in Werner Herzog's "Nosferatu the Vampyre" (1979).
One of the perks of becoming a big movie star is that you don't have to do anything you don't want to do, since you need neither the screen time nor the money. And behaving vampirically on camera isn't always tops on a megastar's list of how best to further endear himself to his worshipful public and keep those girls swooning in the aisle.
But when you're talking about talented people who probably are not independently wealthy, you don't have to worry that they'll turn up their noses at your variation on Bram Stoker's tale.
George Hamilton is a good example; he played a vampire, and a very funny one at that, in "Love at First Bite" (1979). Lance Hendrickson, later of the TV series "Millennium," and Bill Paxton played seedy white-trash vampires in Katherine Bigelow's first film, "Near Dark" (1987). And Gary Oldman went way, way over the top in “Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992).
The vampire franchise shows no signs of running out of fuel. Who knows? Maybe at a future date someone will make a movie about the making of "Shadow of the Vampire," with some gifted actor playing Dafoe playing Shreck - and all three of them will be vampires!
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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