THE BIG PICTURE
When an image enters the popular imagination, its origins can become difficult to trace. How many people can name the silent film in which a heroine was first tied to railroad tracks by a snarling evildoer? Or the western in which a lock-jawed hero first told the bad guys to Reach for the sky!? Even familiar things become distorted in the funhouse mirror of common usage; how else can we account for the fact that, in a classic like Casablanca, the most famous piece of dialogue, Bogart saying "Play it again, Sam", is a phrase never once spoken in the film?
So it is with Maila Nurmi, whose image is known all over the world, though she has rarely been given her due as its source. Even at the height of what was worldwide fame, Nurmi's work was unseeable outside greater L. A.; but still she managed to present the world with a lasting archetype of sex, death and humor that survives to this day. An aspiring actress, chorus girl and cheesecake model (I was trying to prove something to my then-husband, she says impishly) who posed for Vargas and worked with a pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe, Nurmi's moment came in 1953 when she attended Lester Horton's annual Bal Caribe Masquerade in Hollywood dressed as the then-unnamed ghoul-woman from Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons.
I bound my bosoms, so that I was flat-chested, Nurmi says, and I got a wig, and painted my body a kind of a mauve white pancake with a little lavender powder so that I looked as though I'd been entombed. To everyone's surprise but her own, Nurmi defeated 2,000 contestants and was named best-costumed reveller at the ball. So strong was the impression she made that KABC-TV producer Hunt Stromberg Jr. spent five months tracking her down in order to offer her TV work as hostess of a late-night horror show. Unwilling simply to rip-off Addams creation (an irony, since Nurmi herself was the victim of much plagiarism in subsequent years), Nurmi decided to create her own unique persona, and the campier, sexier Vampira took to the airwaves.
An instant sensation which spawned fan clubs all over the world and led to Nurmi's being featured in a multi-page spread in LIFE Magazine, Vampira also attracted the attention of a B-Movie director named Ed Wood and his down-and-out star-performer, horror great Bela Lugosi. It was Lugosi who saw Nurmi on TV and told Wood he'd like to work with her some day. Wood, the much-maligned director of Bride of the Monster and the cross-dressing classic Glen or Glenda (which he also wrote and starred in, as a man addicted to drag), honored Lugosi's request in typically oddball fashion. Years later, when Nurmi's fame had waned thanks to what she terms a blacklisting, and after Lugosi died, leaving behind some unexploited movie footage, Wood cast Nurmi as Lugosi's undead wife in an unlikely zombies-of-the-stratosphere scenario, and the schlock-horror classic Plan 9 From Outer Space was born.
At the time, I thought it was horrible, Nurmi says of a film some have called the worst movie ever made. I knew immediately I'd be committing professional suicide, but I thought `what choice do I have?' Somehow, I seemed to be dead already. She found Ed Wood very unbright, and says she pitied him, because I always pity people who aren't very bright, unless they're just barefoot primitives who are artless. But Nurmi remembers Wood as almost shockingly handsome. I love glamour, she says, and physical beauty. I've always been fascinated by beautiful men on the screen: Tyrone Power, Robert Walkerwith soft-focus filters and velvet voices. That's what Ed Wood was like. Beautiful dreamy eyes and long, sweeping lashesjust beautiful. He didn't make a very pretty lady, but he made an awfully pretty man.
Ironically, thanks to the perishable nature of 50s TV, it is through Plan 9 From Outer Space (plus a thousand imitators, including one prominent mistress of the dark who shall remain nameless, lest we succumb to what Nurmi calls subsidizing my burglar) that Nurmi's Vampira survives todayalbeit in bowdlerized form. Appalled by her dialogue, Nurmi begged Wood to let her perform wordlessly, and the result was a sleepwalking character dressed like Vampira, but who was actually what Nurmi calls Maila in an alpha state.
Like any good, undead creature of the night, Vampira will rise again when Tim Burton chronicles the life of her Plan 9 director in the fall release Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp as Wood and super- model Lisa Marie as Nurmi. As for Nurmi (who is retired in Los Angeles, and whose painted self-portraits of Vampira are much-sought-after collector's items), she's undergone something of a conversion experience. In contrast to her former low opinion of him, she now sides with the smaller but more passionate group that defends Ed Wood as a low-budget visionary, who made up for his lack of craft with a passionate commitment to the creative act. He wasn't as dumb as I thought he was, Nurmi says wryly. I was probably the dumb one. He was an auteur; I know that now. In those days, I didn't even know what that meant.
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