“He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” —
— Marlene Dietrich as “Tanya” in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.”
I met Dr. Donald A. Reed probably a decade and half before director Dustin Lance Black, but I didn’t know him as well. Not by a long shot.
Let me explain. Donald Reed was the founder and permanent president of the Count Dracula Society, later coming to greater prominence as the leader of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, best known for its Saturn Awards. As far as I could see in those days, the raison d’etre of both organizations was the hosting of banquets, the acquisition of free screenings, and the giving of awards.
What irked me more than anything was that the awards seemed to be based mostly on Reed’s preferences — and Reed’s preferences seemed to be based largely on who he thought might actually show up. Still, I found less substantial reasons to make fun of Reed.
Short and round of build, with a highly imitable, high-pitched voice and with an untoward predilection for bow ties, it was almost impossible not to think about Mickey Mouse when you first met Dr. Reed. The affect was even more exaggerated if you happened to run across him next to his improbable would-be Minnie, the statuesque Gayna Shireen — a woman Reed was fond of introducing as “Miss Science Fiction” or, in a more intimate frame of mind, “my girlfriend.” The latter title seemed even less credible than the former. Not that this was anyone’s business, of course. But if you’re a teenage boy with a few self-doubts of your own…well, we all know an easy target when we see one.
How did I know Reed? Being a big fat geek was a help…In my early to mid teens, I joined and eventually became president of something called the Junior Count Dracula Society, a sort of rebel offshoot founded by a Pacific Palisades area teacher who, for a time, was Dr. Reed’s right hand. Reed also provided me with my first ever regular paying job (at sub-sub-sub minimum wage) when he tried to reduce his giant collection of books by opening the world’s least successful used bookstore — opened just one day a week and located in the single most secluded spot on what is now the Santa Monica Promenade.
Still, I never really got to know the guy. I heard him vilified on several occasions and, while I never thought he was evil, I saw him as something of a dictator of a realm no one else cared to rule. All in all, an easy guy at which to point and laugh. I never thought I would encounter an alternative version of Donald Reed, until I stumbled across Dustin Lance Black’s terrific new documentary, My Life with Count Dracula.
Screening this September at the ManiaFest in Santa Monica and the Calgary International Film Festival, and featuring appearances by such genre heavyweights as Dean Devlin, Bryan Singer, and James Cameron, it’s an honest, occasionally excruciating, poignant and very funny document that is also a lively meditation on mortality. The Donald Reed it portrays may at times be almost as ridiculously pompous as the man I remember, yet it also portrays his sincerity, his surprising political awareness and spirituality, and the very real affection of his many close friends, famous and not.
Naturally, the film does include the obligatory moments of high camp, like William Shatner’s now legendary performance of “Rocket Man” at the first televised Saturn Awards (I was there, folks, and it was even more stunning in person) along with fascinating clips from Reed’s appearance on “To Tell the Truth” and a later cable access show.
And then there are sides of Reed that I had completely forgotten. The serious scholar and lifelong Catholic and liberal Democrat whose life was changed by an encounter with Dorothy Day — a literal candidate for sainthood and founder of the left-leaning Catholic Worker movement.
We also see Reed the sexually ambiguous character whose preferences were a source of speculation to practically everyone he met. But, then there’s Reed the devout romantic who, it turns out, was genuinely in love with Gayna Shireen, “girlfriend” or not. And Reed the overly generous friend who suggests a marriage between Shireen and best pal Habib Mahdavi — a handsome longtime foreign exchange student. The marriage was to be strictly for immigration purposes, but any movie buff should have been able to predict the messy outcome. (Sadly, Shireen later succumbed to cancer.)
And, finally we see Reed the ailing, but still indomitable character bordering on caricature. When filming began, his diabetes was worsening, due largely to his inability to control his eating habits — documented by interviews with Reed’s long-suffering doctor and clandestine shots of the Reed refrigerator. The fact that Reed died unexpectedly during the filming only reinforces Reed ‘s stated reason for his fascination with vampires: whatever their bad habits, these suave bloodsuckers had managed to overcome death.
Bob talks to filmmaker Dustin Lance Black in part two of MY LIFE WITH DON REED>>>
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