Friday, January 25, 2008

GTAAM #1: Langella's Skeletor

Just because I feel like it, I'm creating a new feature here at the oft-not-read Bite Me Fanblog. So, with little pomp and unimpressive circumstance, I offer the first installment of:

Great Things About Awful Movies

Today, we look at Frank Langella's performance as Skeletor in the 1987 Golan/Globus production of Masters of the Universe. As I was a 7-year-old kid, this was to have been the biggest moment of my life since He-Man: Live at Radio City Music Hall. That was, of course, until I saw the damn thing in theaters. I remember it well (sadly); and yes, I own the DVD, thinking, naively, that perhaps repeated viewings every year or two will alter the film itself.

Alas, no such revision occurs. Dolph Lundgren never gets interesting. Billy Barty's ill-conceived role as Gwildor never eclipses the disappointment of not seeing Orko (if ever there was a part for a little person from the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon, that was it). Courteney Cox never gets less annoying (her fault? or the fact that the whole "trip to earth" is such a bad idea?). There is one saving grace, however...

Langella's Skeletor -- while a far cry from the blue, muscly, nasal-toned baddie in the show -- is a joy to watch. Once a fan gets over the film's almost total lack of resemblance to the cartoon, Langella stands out as exceptional. He makes something out of nothing. The most pat, cliché lines come across as genuinely sinister and dangerous, rather than as the sort of one-dimensional villainy that the square-jawed hero will have no trouble flicking into defeat. Langella (who said he took the role only because of his children's wishes) knows that the only way to sell such absurdity is to play it absurdly (not insincerely, per se, but with just enough oomph to create a heightened reality).

It's a very broad performance. Langella's technique is utterly theatrical. He belts nearly every line. He treats the camera frame as a proscenium, using every angle and gesture to change perspective to his advantage (watch how he uses the edges of his hood). I'm giving performer, rather than camera, the credit here. A good actor knows what he/she is doing... knows how to manipulate image just as much as filmmaker. Actors can be filmmakers in their own right. Look at Dietrich, who was said to have known as much about cinematography as Von Sternberg did, and even had mirrors set up so she could watch her own lighting during takes. Stanley Kramer said that even though he saw Milton Berle leave frame in every frantic group shot on the set of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the dailies always came back with Berle running back on camera, squeezing in an extra moment of scene-stealing slapstick at every turn. Langella may or may not have had an inkling of the bigger picture's quality here, but he certainly is in control of his own, very nuanced performance.

And creating nuance with strokes that big is hard. He's the Van Gogh of 1980's bad guys (does that make Predator the Bosch?). The performance puts me in mind of Olivier's Richard III. Indeed, Skeletor's own dialogue paraphrases a line from the Bard: "I am not in a giving vein this day." Why do I have a feeling this was Langella's idea? Frank writhes upon, hops about, and fondles his throne with Olivier's almost comedic gusto. He manipulates the rhythm and meter of his dialogue erratically, and to great effect (Langella finds iambs and caesura in some of the least poetic dialogue imaginable). He is a time bomb. His outbursts come without warning, but always seem dramatically "earned." He speaks every thought as a decree, and everything he says sounds like it's the most important thing he's ever said. It is a commanding, maniacal, unpredictable screen presence.
Most impressive of all, perhaps, is what Langella can do from behind that rubbery, unforgiving makeup. It's a nearly-unmoving shell, a mask rather than a face. But what Langella does with eyes, voice, angle, and gesture overcomes the shortcomings of his ridiculous latex-and-facepaint husk. It's as sinister as anything David Prowse and James Earl Jones created as Darth Vader (granted, Langella has his eyes to use). On that note, it's amazing that Langella creates something unique, given how uncannily Vaderesque the design of his costume is (and the helmets of Skeletor's guards are downright visual plagiarism).
Indeed, Masters steals unrelentingly from Star Wars. The design of the Death Star and Williams' score are all over this turkey, and it may be this thievery that is accidentally responsible for one of the only things the film gets right from the show. This world exhibits a beautiful mix of technology and magic. He-Man has always seemed a bit Conan-like to me, but as much as these muscle men trust in steel and voodoo, they ride jet gliders and fire lasers. That's as true in the film as it is in the show. It's a difficult balance to achieve, and no one does it better than Langella. Skeletor may use guns and microchips to help him seize power, but it's the magic that really makes him powerful. He's a wizard who can use a computer. Come to think of it, Star Wars walks a similar line with the force. But Langella doesn't mystify Skeletor's mysticism. He wears it on his sleeve, whereas Vader and the Jedi keep it in their elite club.

Vader it's not. Nor is it the cartoon's Skeletor (amazingly voiced by Alan Oppenheimer, by the way). Langella's Skeletor is something that stands alone, frightening in its own right, in the midst of what is otherwise a cinematic catastrophe. Props to Frank. This performance lingers in my mind with the best of them, and I nominate it for one of the great overlooked villains in movie history. God only knows what we'll see if the new rumored live-action He-Man is a go.


Yeagers said...

I read this oft.

I believe you and I saw Frank Langella's penis for the first time together. Aww.

PotSmokinAlien said...

Yeah, i look at this pretty often myself too. It's an elite club here at the biteme fan blog.

Also, Paul Smaldino had an audio clip from the cartoon on his computer in college where skeletor calls king randor a "royal boob" over a walkie talkie.

Ann Horwitz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Horwitz said...

Love the post, but I must take issue with your wholesale dismissal of the film beyond Langella's performance.

Billy Barty going to town on that bucket of ribs is a dramatic moment rife with poignant social commentary (and not a little sexual symbolism).

Watch the scene and imagine the ribs as society's oppression of little people. Then get back to me.

Rob said...

I completely agree. Langella was great as Skeletor. I can only hope they bring him back for the next movie, if there is one. Even if they just use his voice. He delivered those lines so majestically and yet so terrifying at the same.

Anonymous said...

They really need to hire him to be the voice of Skeletor for the new movie. His star is rising... they would be smart to hire him.

Crusader37 said...

yes hello.. i do agree that frank langella really does the best acting in the hem an movie.
infact i was wondering to if they was ever going to make another one.
at the end of the credits of the first one skeletor pops out of the ooze or what ever it was he fell into and says " i'll be back ".
i was figuring that mean they was or might be back with a nother movie. i know it was 20 yrs ago but it could still be done