Hopeless Romantic: Langella & Dracula

Incurable romantics walk the earth, a wellspring from which forms poetry, idealistic sensationalism, and the re-interpretation of literary and symbolic themes. Frank Langella is one such actor, who approaches each role with natural sensuality and emotional nuance. From his flirtatious, emotional Diego de la Vega, to the tortured anti-hero of Sphinx, to his Sherlock Holmes (who winds up emotionally compromised at the end of the play), Langella’s natural pursuit of emotional dynamics lends depth to superficial roles.

Never is this more plain than in Dracula, a 1979 adaptation of the same Broadway production that made Langella famous. The movie does not age well, and is pure camp, but has a cult following for one reason: Langella’s performance. This Dracula is as much a tragic anti-hero as a monster, the audience left to interpret his actions.

If you take a cynical view, and ignore Langella’s seduction of the audience,  Dracula is a sinister figure preying on lesser minds. He victimizes Mina, preying on her weak constitution because he “despises women with no blood in them… no life.” Dracula manipulates and controls Renfield, takes keen pleasure in tormenting Jonathan Harker, and enchants Lucy to his will. He uses a similar force on Mina (“When I tell you to do a thing, it shall be done”).

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A level of deeper animosity and chilling implications linger beneath the romantic veneer. The spirited, feminist icon Lucy objects to this mesmerizing of Mina (Dracula performs the trick in public, concealing evil intentions behind parlor games—proving a belief he is a superior race, a god among men). “[Mina will have] no will of her own, either,” Lucy hints, unearthing Dracula’s intentions.

Every Dracula is a symbol of chauvinism and force; his removal of will and suppression of female minds hints toward a controlling masculine figure and suggests the susceptibility of women to external (and sexual) influences. The original author, Bram Stoker, used the book’s themes to condemn and promote feminism. In all incarnations, Mina and Lucy become more sexual beings around Dracula, implying that sensuality is only liberated through subjection to a darker, more powerful force that twists and maligns beauty while displaying it.

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Here, Lucy is a liberated feminist icon from the offset—a liberal mind who sees no impropriety in dining alone with a man, or in spending the night with Jonathan Harker. Only when Dracula enters the picture does Lucy become more sexually feminine. Is it a regression she uses female wiles and seduction to destroy Jonathan’s barriers, or has Dracula stripped away false liberation to show her true power, in rediscovering her female instincts? Is it an act of feminism, or the lack of it?

Dracula strips Lucy of all modern ideals and thoughts, introducing her to an older, more traditional way of life. The honky-tonk dance with Jonathan does little for her romantic nature; a waltz with Dracula is powerful. Jonathan scaring her in the middle of the night is nothing compared to Dracula appearing in a mist. Lucy intends to become a lawyer and join a London firm at the start (“Oh, Lucy,” Mina gushes, “you’re so brave to take on all those men like that!”). By the end, Dracula’s design for her includes “making more of our kind”—returning Lucy to “motherhood,” over a career. Dracula is a chauvinist… but the film leaves it unclear, whether Lucy chooses this life out of genuine want, or is under his “thrall.”

Add this to the other sinister events in the film, and Dracula emerges as one of the most seductive, compelling monsters of the age: a callous, selfish, wrathful, violent, controlling monster, which Van Helsing has every right to destroy.

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Yet… Langella’s romanticism runs throughout, which offers the audience a far different interpretation. His Dracula is a romantic anti-hero, a tortured soul alone in the world. At hearing wolves howl, Dracula laments, “The children of the night… what sad music they make.” Immortality is his plight, to face eternal solitude. Only in Lucy does Dracula find a soul mate and perfect match (“She is not like other women, is she?”). Did he take Mina’s life to spare her pain in this one? Or did Van Helsing’s pollution of the grave with garlic prevent his returning for her? Did he envision Mina and Lucy’s friendship transcending death into eternity, at his side?

Seen through this lens, Dracula’s actions take on new meaning: a romantic, tragic, forlorn figure, in love with Lucy and empathetic toward Mina, who is acting in self-defense. He liberates Mina from endless illness, offering her a new life where she is far more powerful. He unleashes Lucy’s sensuality and intends to make her a Queen. Jonathan, Dr. Seward, and Van Helsing stand in the way, and attack him. To protect himself and Lucy, Dracula must stop them.

Langella sells this version with so much quiet confidence it’s impossible to resist. He sees Dracula as less a monster, and more as misunderstood… and that is why, though the film deviates from the source material, it resonates with audiences.

langellacelebrationCheck out other posts celebrating Langella on the blog-a-thon.

20 Replies to “Hopeless Romantic: Langella & Dracula”

  1. Alas, I have not yet seen this version of the film, but it is on my list! Your remarks about Langella’s “seductive” Dracula however, make me think of descriptions I’ve seen, calling the original novel a “tragic love story”. When I always thought that while Dracula’s desire for Mina and Lucy is partly sexual, he comes off more like a stalker than a remotely romantic or sympathetic figure.

    What just hit me, is that you can view the (male) vampire and his (female) victim (in this scenario) as coming together in a union that is the opposite of marriage. In a typical Victorian marriage, the man bestows on a lady a new status, a slightly higher one, in which she may become more visible in society than before. Together, they set up a new household and (ideally) beget new life. The vampire confers a new status on his lady, but it is one which will cause her to shrink from the daylight, and once she has fully joined him, they will both flee from the eyes of the world, their union can only bring death to others.

    Interestingly, while Stoker described Dracula as outwardly respectable, clearly of old money, the character is fairly unattractive, but plenty of other “romantic” vampires, like Lord Ruthven preceded and succeeded Dracula.

    1. It’s been awhile since I read “Dracula,” but I’ve always thought the modern perception of the original book as a tragic love story was… odd. He was a creepy predator whose vampire wives ate BABIES. The scene where he crawls in a window, and forces Mina to drink his blood has rape overtones. The entire book is saturated in sexual imagery (bodily fluids, penetration, staking vampires, seduction, removal of will, even the eating of the infant has Motherhood / anti-feminist, anti-abortion overtones)… which is probably why it has lasted these long years, because the book can be very dry at certain points. It’s less the book itself, I think, that people remember than the sinister overtones and the romantic, dangerous Gothic world it invokes.

      Ooh, I like your second paragraph. It’s an unholy union, an inversion of religious symbolism (which a lot of vampire lore is)… instead of being united in a divine union reflective of Christ and the Church, these two drag others into a living death, cannot endure sunlight or other religious, pure symbols, and must feed on blood to survive. (Yes, it’s all the symbolism that interests me in vampires. 😉

      Stoker’s creepy, somewhat hideous, charming but frightening Dracula (complete with hairy palms!) has certainly been tossed under the funeral wagon in favor of the eternal sex god image of more modern culture. Look at the vampires of the Victorian era (frightening) in comparison to now (poor, lonely, emo souls!)… or even the silent movie vampires (creepy!) in comparison to what we see every week on TVD. It’s a re-interpretation of evil; it is no longer evil-evil, but tormented, puppy dog peeing on the rug evil. That is to say, not evil at all. Just tormented.

  2. See, and this is why I love Langella’s interpretation of roles so very much. His emotional investment in the role, his determination to take it and make it his own, always results in such incredible performances. Perhaps different from the norm, but always stunning.

    And you’re right. Dracula has hardly aged well, but there is still reason enough to love it if only for Langella’s sake.

    From what I understand of Langella in general, he is a very sensual being. Which makes sense judging by the roles he takes the types of performances he gives. I’m curious about his story, but not enough to actually his read book published a few years ago. I don’t know if I could stomach a tale of his sexual exploits.

    Thanks for your awesome article! I’ve added it to the link-up list. 🙂

    1. Langella has the misfortune of being a magnificent actor often stuck in lesser films. “Frost Nixon” proved he can hold his own in an all-star ensemble and got him an Oscar nomination to boot. He is indeed a man of tremendous intensity, much of it through sheer physical presence. His choice of parts, and his characterization of them (his focus on sensuality and emotion), tells you his personality type, if you pay attention. ESFP. 😉

      Stay away from his book. It put me off him for months.

      1. Your warning about his book is duly noted. I’m happy to stay naively fond of him. Some of his quotes were enough to make me go “ehhhhhhhhh . . . ”

        ESFP. Why am I not surprised? That explains what little I know of his personal life too.

  3. I told Jem if he set fire to the Radley house I was going to tell Atticus on him.

    (Sorry . . . that was random. I’m in the middle of reading TKAM for the first time.)

    I’ve never seen this movie, or read “Dracula,” so I can’t really comment . . . but I don’t think I’ll watch it because I’m not into vampires.

      1. Hmmmmmmm. Do you mean the character of Dracula in particular, or any fictional character in general?

        As far as Dracula goes, I do see that the actor’s portrayal of the character definitely alters the audience’s perception of him–that is, making him seem more (or less) sympathetic, more (or less) evil, etc, depending on the way he’s played. I’m not sure how much the actor’s portrayal can alter the character ITSELF, unless by actually altering his actions so that the story becomes a different one altogether . . .

        I guess what I’m saying really comes down to motivation v. actual deeds. That is, an actor can easily alter our perception of the character’s motivations (ie, making us wonder if Dracula might really have good intentions); but motivations can only count for so much. At the end of the day, if the character’s actions are still evil, and if he has the moral understanding to know they’re evil, then good intentions/motivations can’t really redeem him.

        It’s sort of like the evil stepmother in the new “Cinderella” movie. Unlike in most retellings of “Cinderella,” the stepmother in the new film is not a figure of pure and unexplained evil. Her motivations for her evil actions are clearly defined, and they are motivations which the audience CAN partly sympathize with. And yet, even though the stepmother had some legitimate reason for resentment, the ways in which she acts on that resentment are still evil–and she KNOWS they are evil. Cate Blanchett’s portrayal made her somewhat more sympathetic, but it didn’t change her from a villain to a heroine. She’s still clearly the villain.

        1. Any fictional character will do.

          Actors have huge impact on characterization, in terms of how likable they make their character to the audience. The actor’s perception of that character has much to do with it – someone who does not see the character as a villain will not play him or her as one. Langella does not; he sees Dracula as a tortured anti-hero, so his Dracula BECOMES a tortured anti-hero, through the strength of his performance. You can step outside this film, and apply this scrutiny to other projects – how does Adam Driver’s assessment of Kylo Ren impact the audience’s perceptions of Ben Solo?

          It’s not an alteration of actions so much as a shifting of intent. Something as miniscule as hesitation, or a different approach to a line of dialogue (choosing to whisper it instead of yell it, in a tense moment, perhaps?), can completely shift the audience’s perceptions of that character. Delivering a line with a sardonic smile, or twitching fingers… burning intensity or defiance? These are all decisions actors make that influence audience responses. (As you point out, Blanchett didn’t see the Evil Stepmother AS evil… and her performance showed it.)

          In your opinion, does deed outrank motivation? Does being kind to someone in deed, while hating them in your heart and fostering resentment toward them, outweigh the hatred in favor of the good deed?

          1. I guess it depends on the individual audience members, too, though. I mean, everybody who watched “The Force Awakens” saw the exact same performance by Adam Driver, but they came away with widely differing opinions on Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Some almost didn’t see him as a “villain” at all, but as a misguided youngster who was more to be pitied than censured; while others came away vowing they’d hate his guts forever (and meaning it). And still others fell somewhere in the middle between those two extremes. People’s responses were all different, depending on their individual personalities (and worldviews, and life experiences, and what not).

            Does deed outrank motivation? Now, that’s an interesting one . . . Hmmmmmmmmmmm, let me think about it.

            I guess I would say, personally, that an evil deed outweighs a good motivation, but an evil motivation/disposition outweighs a good deed. If that makes sense? In other words, if you have evil intentions, I don’t believe you can excuse yourself by pleading, “well, at least I DID something good.” But by the same token, the fact that you may’ve had good intentions can’t excuse an evil action. I guess it’s about avoiding evil in deed OR in intent, because either way it’s still culpable.

          2. Very true.

            My opinion falls somewhere in the center. Everyone is responsible for their actions and chooses whether to be good or evil. But… Ben needs to find redemption, if only for his mother’s sake. Is her faith in him delusional optimism or realistic? We’ll find out, though Snoke may have trained all the latent struggle and goodness out of him by the time we reach the second film.

            So, in your version… evil wins, because it is always stronger than “good”? 😉

            I’m kidding. I do see what you mean.

            The question then becomes — can a “good” thing done with “evil” intentions BE a “good thing” at all? Or is it still evil, in its entirety, because the motivations were corrupt?

            (Not a question you have to answer, unless you so choose. Just… throwing a thought into the void.)

          3. I certainly want Ben to be redeemed, as well; but for his parents’ sake, not his own. I also am hoping/expecting him to die in the third movie; I don’t think the trilogy would be satisfactorily ended if he didn’t suffer death himself in atonement for his crimes.

            Oh, so you DO see what I mean, huh? Well, good. 😉

            No, a good action done with evil intentions is still a good action IN ITSELF; however, the individual actor/agent remains responsible for his evil motives/desires. You see, the way I look at it, actions and intentions are two separate concepts; but they both have bearing on a person’s moral culpability. But the act–the “thing” itself–can be good even if the person who performed it is to be blamed for it.

          4. Ben is a tormented soul, trying to be evil and not quite succeeding. He thought killing his father would eradicate the last bit of the “pull to the light”; it didn’t. You can see it from his expression.

            Death would bring it full circle but I rather hope not. It would be sad for the Skywalker-Solo lines to end there.

            So if a politician does a fundraiser for Chinese orphans just for good PR, but in actuality doesn’t care about said orphans, the fundraiser is still good, objectively, while the motives are impure, right?

          5. Yeah . . . but if I were Daisy Ridley, I would answer every single question reporters asked me about future SW movies with the phrase, “it’s unimportant.” Because that’s just how you Play The Game.

        2. But, if Rey turns out to be Luke’s daughter, then even if Ben dies the line won’t end–because she’s a Skywalker too.

          That’s exactly what I’d argue. The politician is still answerable for his hypocrisy, etc.; but the fundraiser itself is still morally good, as well as objectively useful.

          1. I bet she isn’t. Luke’s daughter, that is. Daisy seems to know who Rey’s parents are and thought it was “unimportant.” So they may be nobodies from nowhere.

          2. Okay, that comment didn’t end up where I wanted it to. Let me try again:

            If I were Daisy Ridley, I would answer every single question reporters asked me about SW with the phrase “it’s unimportant.” Because that’s just how you Play The Game.

          3. Absolutely. If reporters ask silly questions like “hey, Daisy, who are Rey’s parents?” they can expect to get equivocal or borderline-dishonest answers in response. It’s only fair.

            I’m 100% sure she is not a Kenobi. There’s no way. She’s either a Skywalker or nothing.

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