“Ah, Dracula land.” This was how my country was amiably located on the world map at a party in New York back in 1989, after I revealed my nationality. I was bemused but the association of Dracula with Hungarians by foreigners has haunted me ever since.
Though first my ethnic pride was slightly insulted to be linked to Vlad Tepes the Impaler, a 15th century Vlach ruler infamous for his cruelty, and on whose evil character Bram Stoker fabricated the personae of the bloodsucking Count, but I had to admit there was some ground for the link: Transylvania, where Dracula has a cult, used to be part of the Hungarian Kingdom; Hungarian names like Zoltán, the Count’s dog, is a typical Hungarian name, but most of all Béla Lugosi, the greatest and most authentic impersonator of the movie Dracula was unmistakably Hungarian with a thick Hungarian accent.
Born as Béla Blaskó in 1882 in Lugos, a small city in south-western Transylvania (now Lugoj, Romania), Lugosi came to world fame at the age of 49 when Tod Browning at Universal Studio hired him with reluctance to play the leading role in the horror movie Dracula. The choice fell to Lugosi mainly because by that time he had played the part more than 500 times on Broadway in a play with the same title. Right after the first night of the film on Valentine’s Day 1931 it became a box office hit and shot Lugosi into overnight fame. The secret for the success was not simply the thrilling theme but most of all Béla Lugosi’s authenticity and acting power through which he formed the Count’s character with a high level of professionalism and empathy.
He was not a newcomer to either stage or cinema. His strict banker father wanted the youngest of his four children to follow his trade but unruly Béla thought otherwise. After encountering a travelling troupe of actors he quickly made up his mind to join them and ran away from home at the age of 12 never to return to Lugos. Lugosi, with his characteristic blunt sense of humour mentioned once with some self-irony: “Every actor is somewhat mad, or else he`d be a plumber or a bookkeeper or a salesman.”
After learning the art of acting in various cities he ended up in Budapest and polished his talent so well that in 1912 he was hired by the prestigious National Theatre. He fought and was wounded in WW I, an experience that gave him more ammunition to develop his skills to make the drama and horror of real life perform authentically on stage.
The turning point of his life was when he became politically active in Bela Kun’s Council Republic. Little is it known that British and American cinema had been enriched by three outstanding Hungarian artists due to the crush of the short-lived communist regime in 1919, which was followed by the white terror aimed at all those who were instrumental in the ‘red’ experiment to create a workers’ state. Sir Alexander Korda aka Korda Sándor, Michael Curtiz aka Kertész Mihály and Béla Lugosi were politically active in the commissariat of education and culture, the latter organizing the actors’ trade union. All three had to leave promptly after the collapse of the regime. Lugosi ended up in the United States a year later where he became a U.S. citizen in 1931, the same year the Dracula movie was made.
Though this would be the role that would keep his name for posterity, he suffered from being stranded in one genre from which he felt he could never break out. In his own words: “It’s a living, but it’s also a curse. It’s Dracula’s curse. … I’d like to quit the supernatural roles and play just an interesting, down-to-earth person.” He never managed, although he played in more than 160 movies including Frankenstein with his partner Boris Karloff.
The major crisis in his life and career occurred after he divorced his fourth wife in 1953. As it happens to most great actors, he could not cope without work: “Without movie parts I was reduced to freak status. I just couldn’t stand it.” After a withdrawal from drugs and alcohol he recuperated and in 1955 he married a fan, bringing the number of wives to five. He also befriended filmmaker Ed Wood, reputed as the worst director in movie history, and got a part in two of his films. By this time he was not only bankrupt but also felt bitter to miss the big chance of being a versatile artist that he could have been in Hungary. Hollywood’s fame was a commercial success, or as he put it: “In Hungary acting is a profession. In America it is a decision.” He died virtually forgotten in 1956 and was buried in his Dracula cape in Culver City, California.
Nevertheless, Lugosi has become such a cult figure that no Dracula adaptation (there are more than 160) can ever match his 1931 film. Tim Burton directed a film on Ed Wood’s life in 1994 in which Johnny Depp played Ed and Lugosi was cast to Martin Landau. The irony of history is that Landau was so brilliant that it won him the Oscar Lugosi deserved but never managed to get.