In describing his approach to acting, Martin Landau once employed a story about a drunk and a sculptor. In Landau’s recounting, the sculptor is putting the finishing touches on a statue of elephant. In order to get the drunk to stop pestering him in the middle of his intricate work, the sculptor agrees to share the secret of crafting such a piece of art. The artist explains the process: get a large, square chunk of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.
“I chip away everything that doesn’t look like the character,” concluded Landau.
When I started reviewing movies, at the very beginning of the nineteen-nineties, Landau was on quite a roll. Only a decade earlier, he was getting by on acting jobs in the likes of the TV movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. A committed working actor in his sixties — and without movie star cachet — he wasn’t totally free from wince-inducing projects, but he also had a couple recent Oscar nominations in his pocket. It was an impressive late-career resurgence for an actor who’d been around long enough that his first major film role came in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Tall and stately, he was called upon to play serious men: doctors and judges and gravely worried fathers. Underneath that simmering seriousness, there was one deeper, truer unifying quality to his myriad of performances, one clear piece of Landau’s self that was there for those who looked closely enough. He clearly loved what he was doing, and acting sparked with his contained but constant invention.
And he could transform a whole narrative with his relentless quest for emotional truth in his performances. Notably, he met Woody Allen’s offer to play Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misdemeanors by explaining to the revered writer-director that his conception of the character was off. Landau felt the character was written as a hard-nosed villain and that Judah should instead be sympathetic, so that the audience could understand why he committed his morally bereft acts even as they found the infractions appalling. Allen hired Landau that day.
Landau explained how the collaboration shifted from there:
And about two weeks into the shooting, he came up to me and said, “You know when I wrote it, I didn’t quite see him as sympathetically or as sensitively played as you’re doing it. But I think it’s better, and I want to thank you.”
Crimes and Misdemeanors is a completely different film absent Landau’s adjustment to the central character. That performance delivered him his second Academy Award nomination.
It was the performance that nabbed Landau’s third Oscar nomination that most vividly exhibited the joy in the craft I mentioned above. As Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Landau takes a part that could easily be played as little more than a flinty stunt — and still be an effective and enjoyable performance — and infuses it with depths of feeling, giving a funny, mildly spoof-spun film a welcome vein of pathos. For his efforts, Landau finally claimed an Oscar statuette, one of the most deserving acting wins of the past twenty-five years.
Although I betrayed a disdainful view of some of the projects Landau had to sign up for over the years, one of the things I respected about him was the way he didn’t really seem to adopt the same harsh judgment of material that was, by many reasonable measures, inferior. Every part was an opportunity, a gift, an avenue to potential wonderment. He plied his trade at a time when an increasing range of entertainment options — especially on television — could allow him to play an actor bringing varied strategies to a theater audition, twin brothers mixed up in a murder case (in an episode of Columbo that includes a cooking demo that stretches to several minutes), and a starship commander.
No matter the role, Landau approached it with respect, which lent a dignity to practically everything he did. He believed in what he was doing, which helped the audience shift into agreement with that outlook, no matter the built-in shortcomings of the role or the piece that held it. Landau did the work to make that happen. He chipped away.