The last time Oscar smiled on Willem Dafoe was 1987, when the Wisconsin-born thespian got a Best Supporting Actor nod for his performance as the saintly, star-crossed Sergeant Elias in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. This time, it’s his portrayal of a far less benevolent character that has drawn the Academy’s attention. In Shadow of the Vampire — loosely (we hope) based on events surrounding the making of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 horror classic, Nosferatu — he plays Max Schreck, a vampire who’s pretending to be an actor. Dafoe, who is rendered all but unrecognizable by a magnificently creepy makeup job, fairly oozes warped malevolence. Hunchbacked and shuffling, with pointed ears, gnarled nine-inch nails, and a quintessentially unclean gleam in his eyes, Dafoe’s Schreck makes Bela Lugosi seem like a kindly grandfather figure. It’s a star turn that keeps your eyes riveted on the actor, whose eerie presence throughout is as mesmerizing to audiences as a pallid maiden’s silken throat is to a real vampire. Yet there’s a subtle undercurrent of humor that emerges from the pathos of his performance. ”It’s both [drama and comedy],” Dafoe has said of the film. ”That’s one of the things that attracted me. It has both those elements and it kind of switches between the two.”
Small wonder that Dafoe wanted to sink his teeth into the role: It was written expressly for him. Shadow screenwriter Steven Katz has said: ”He just had this quality — a mixture of the frightening and threatening with an erotic charge, too — that I thought was perfect for the part.” Dafoe’s bravura performance recently snagged him a Golden Globe nod, as well as a Best Supporting Actor award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. We’ve got a feeling it wasn’t too tough a decision for Oscar to stick its neck out for this vampire.