Disco Dracula

Highly recommended — Frank Langella’s Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women as I knew Them, A Memoir.

Langella writes elegantly, and emerges as a pleasingly mysterious figure, since each chapter is about a famous, generally deceased person he’s encountered during his career, so that the author himself is on the sidelines throughout.

Many of these encounters date from FL’s Disco Dracula period, when he was a smash as Bram Stoker’s Count on Broadway, then played the role in a somewhat kitschy 1979 rubber bat movie helmed by John Badham. A partial cast list of the book: Elsa Lanchester (explaining how Laughton would have seduced Langella: “Charles could be very persuasive”); Montgomery Clift; Noel Coward; James Mason; Richard Burton; Laurence Olivier; Robert Mitchum; Roddy McDowall; Oliver Reed; George C Scott; Roger Vadim; John Frankenheimer; Tony Curtis…

Not all of the encounters are professional: Marilyn Monroe is merely glimpsed emerging from a car. Relations with Bette Davis (“not quite phone sex”), Raul Julia and Elizabeth Taylor border on the romantic. A full-fledged affair with Rita Hayworth is detailed with melancholic tenderness. Langella can be heartbreakingly gentle.

When dealing with those who did not favourably impress him, he’s impressively curt. On Lee Strasberg ~

“The last time I was in his presence he sucked the air out of the elevator we were riding in and when we hit the ground floor he put out his hand in a “stand back, I’m departing” gesture that caused me to laugh out loud. He stopped, looked at me with pure hatred and exited in a low-hanging cloud of fury. It remains one of my fondest sense memories.”

He also twists a knife in pilfering agent turned studio boss David Begelman, talented shit Elia Kazan, and egomaniac Anthony Quinn. It’s rather splendid. In cases where there is serious talent to admire, however, he does find something nice to say (Kazan gets some praise), and while reporting the unkindness of Rex Harrison, he can’t quite bring himself to dish the full character assassination.

We also get his subjects’ impressions of other celebrities they’ve encountered, hence Coral Browne’s take on Donald Pleasence ~

“Oh, God. He’s a handkerchief actor. He’ll take out his bloody handkerchief and blow his nose whenever he gets a chance or worse eat a bag of Sweeties during your best scene. Whatever you do, don’t get in a two-shot with him.”

I think the first time I realized I loved Frank Langella was in THE NINTH GATE, where, as wealthy Satanist Boris Balkan, he punches in the three-digit entry code to his library of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore: 6…6…(pause)…6.

Polanski himself didn’t expect that to get such a huge laugh when the film was screened. My favourite moment in the movie.

USA: Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them

UK: Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them


17 Responses to “Disco Dracula”

  1. Langella is indeed superb in The Ninth Gate. I fully intend to read the book — though I’m sure his view of others is refracted through the pocket mirror he’s invariably staring into. Last time i saw him in town it was at a reception for one of Clooney’s many movies and he was smooching the grievously neglected Dennis Christopher.

  2. Langella pretty much declares himself bisexual in the book, without quite coming out with it. His man-crush on Raul Julia was apparently unconsummated, apart from some heavy snogging with Jill Clayburgh in the middle…

    He tells a few stories against himself, blaming youthful arrogance for some bad behaviour, but he’s certainly able to appreciate kindness and professionalism in others.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    I always figured that his somewhat problematic sexuality was the main reason Langella never had more of a film career?

    That and the fact that his ‘big star vehicle’ Dracula was a critical and boxoffice flop. Like so many of his romances, he remains one of the great ‘might have beens’ of the movies.

  4. The reason he didn’t have more of a film career was that he’s problematic personally. His sexuality is just one part of it. He’s the opposite of “warm and fuzzy”

  5. If you’re ‘warm and fuzzy’ you don’t usually get to play Dracula!

  6. I re-watched Dracula recently, for the first time since its release. I thought it came out very well, granting the stylistic tropes of its time. Langella owns the room as Dracula the predator in a way that no other Dracula has, and there are several powerful moments that are unique to the film — the opening scene is a powerhouse of economy and dread, and the concept of the catacombs being under the earth was very spooky indeed.
    The love scene is nutty and it was kind of amusing how Drac is introduced with walking boots — just like Travolta in ‘Fever — but otherwise I think it holds its own in the Dracula canon.

  7. The rubber bats are bad, though.

    Interesting how they resolved that in Blacula by matting out the rubber bat so it becomes a sort of black outline cartoon. Doesn’t look REAL at all, but doesn’t look horribly naff either.

    Incidentally, William Marshall seems warm and fuzzy as Blacula — at times. He can get out the cold steeliness when required.

    I still have to sit down to Diary of a Mad Housewife to enjoy truly Early Frank. I’m expecting great things.

    Langella’s book suggests he has empathic depths he otherwise keeps hidden, but then, one can never tell from a memoir: Shatner’s two volumes strive to suggest he’s humble!

  8. I remember being very excited about going to see Dracula when it came out in the theaters. I had seen Raul Julia, who had taken over for Langella in the play, when it came through DC, and actually paid to see it a second time (standing room this time, because I was a highschooler with no money) I liked it so much. The Gorey sets and costumes, the lovely arch delivery of the comedy, and it even managed to scare me a few times! Wonderful.

    But I had seen Langella in a few films by then, Zorro springs to mind, and I had quite a crush on him. I was so sorry that I hadn’t been able to see him in that wonderfully stylish play, so I was cruelly disappointed when I saw Badham’s film…I felt it was a standard gore-fest with moments of humor left over from the stage script. Yes, Langella was still sexy, he still was wryly amusing “No, thank you, I don’t drink…wine,” but it was no longer stylish or hilarious! Where was my Renwick? Oh, I was in mourning for what might have been, for years. I think I saw it later and found more good points in it (Kate Nelligan!) but still wish someone had filmed the stage version for me.

    Might have to go check out the book…and it would be a plus to hear it read aloud by the author. I may have to break down and buy an MP3 player.

  9. Frank at his warm and fuzziest

  10. What a charmer.

    Oh, yes, Frank reading his own smooth prose would be added value and then some!

  11. Langella was interviewed recently on NPR’s Fresh Air, got to hear the whole thing when it was broadcast. Especially touching is his memory of the aged, “over-the-hill” Cameron Mitchell. Over half an hour, but definitely worth a listen. http://www.npr.org/2012/08/16/158928812/aging

  12. Yes, he talks about Mitchell in his book with great compassion. There but for the grace of God go all of us, basically. And we should hope we can go with such good grace.

  13. If you buy the audio download version you can hear Frank reading his own smooth prose!

    In my view he was the second sexiest Dracula, first place going to Louis Jordan in the TV version.

  14. Doh! Louis JOURDAN.

  15. Jourdan had the best Renfield, Jack Shepherd. And Renfield is always good in movies. A bit like Goebbels., You can’t have a bad Renfield or a bad Goebbels.

  16. I’ve always loved Coral Browne’s ‘handkerchief actor’ take on Donald Pleasence, because he really does seem to spend most of his time in Dracula blowing his nose and eating sweets.

  17. He has a bad cold in Death Line and The Black Windmill too — he’s got one of those nasal decongestant devices you shove up your nostril, and he uses it liberally.

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