Ed Wood (1994)

Bella Lugosi (Martin Landau) and Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) plan their art.

Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski; based on the book “Nightmare of Ecstasy” by Rudolph Grey. Produced by Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi. Music by Howard Shore. Photographed by Stefan Czapsky. Edited by Chris Lebenzon. Production designed by Tom Duffield. Starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, G.D. Spradlin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bill Murray, Mike Starr, Max Casella, Brent Hinkley, Lisa Marie.

In all of Hollywood history, there was never a director quite like Edward D. Wood, Jr. That is meant as a compliment. Sure, Wood was voted posthumously as the “worst director of all time” by those who make such decisions, and his body of work (Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda, etc.) lacks a certain…polish, let’s say. But what they do feature is a sort of perverse charm, and that’s a testament to the fact that the man who made them may not have had talent, but he had a vision.  You could list the hacks all day, but what made Wood special was that he was impassioned, a perfectionist, an auteur: the Kubrick of Z-grade schlock. He may not have ever directed a competent shot, but he was so in love with filmmaking that trying to tell him that his babies were ugly was a useless gesture. To this day, his crowning achievements are heaped with scorn, and perhaps they deserve it, but they were made with such zeal that what, in the end, are we really complaining about?

Tim Burton’s Ed Wood gets this about its subject, and that’s what makes it work. It’s not a sneering hit piece on a no-talent. Nor does it inflate the achievements of a man with questionable taste. It looks him straight in the eye. There’s no pity, no smugness, and also no grandiose mythmaking, except perhaps a few moments that are sympathetic to the way we are all living legends, in our own eyes. Burton, who can often be an arch, distanced storyteller, finds the appropriate tone with which to tell the tale of Ed Wood: not condescension or biopic pretentiousness, but a touching, sweet earnestness. It plays fair.

When critics discuss Burton, they tend to focus on his fondness for the gothic, the grotesque, and the bizarre. And he is frequently lauded for his visuals, collaborating with production designers and cinematographers to create twisted, haunted landscapes. And, it must be charged, he frequently populates these places with characters that seem like afterthoughts. But Burton’s hidden strength has been a unique ability for identifying (to uneven degrees of success, certainly) with pale, uncomfortable loners (see Batman, Edward Scissorhands). This is why he is probably the only person who could have made Ed Wood, because as framed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay, it demands sympathy for a creature most filmmakers would simply wish to mock. Burton will not mock Ed, cannot mock Ed. He loves Ed. And that goodwill radiates throughout the whole picture.

Ed is played here by Johnny Depp, in what can only be called a fearless performance. It is fearless precisely because it is devoid of the usual defensive mechanisms an actor will employ when embracing uncertain material: irony, camp, a desire to be in on the joke (if there is one). The movie is funny in the way that Ed’s life must have been funny, but it doesn’t try to be funny, you understand. When Ed Wood storms onto the set of Plan 9 From Outer Space wearing high heels and a fluffy angora sweater, Depp knows that the situation is not humorous because it’s ridiculous—it’s because Ed Wood is taking it very seriously indeed, and everyone else thinks it’s ridiculous. We sympathize with both viewpoints, and we laugh in recognition, not contempt.

The movie is basically the tale of a young man on the rise, only with pointedly not much of a rise. Wood, who is a studio gopher by day and a cut-rate theater director at night, desperately wants and needs to be a big name in the movie business, but the odds seem stacked against him. In bed one night with his girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker), he tosses and turns and rails against himself: “What if I just don’t got it? Orson Welles made Citizen Kane when he was 26, and I’m 30.” (Welles is a hero to Ed.) In desperation he interviews for a directing job for a hole-in-the-wall production company (lorded over by pitch-perfect character actor Mike Starr). The film is a barely-on-the-cusp-of-legal sex change exploitation picture. Ed leans in close, and whispers (with no shame) that he is the perfect choice to direct this movie, because he is…a transvestite.

Remember that this is Hollywood, a land where meetings just as bizarre as this happen three times a day. In a way, the moment where Ed reveals the truth about himself to get a job will underpin every scene in Ed Wood, because this is a movie about scrappers on the outside of the most magical place on Earth, who are kicking and screaming at the door, trying to get in with every weapon in their peculiar arsenals. The movie understands that desperation, and the guerrilla tactics that one must use daily in order to survive such a universe. (When filming a street scene, a cop car comes around the corner, leading Ed to scream: “We don’t have a permit! Run!”) Los Angeles is a city that feasts on uncertainty, which is why there are so many cults and therapists: in order to succeed, many turn inward to try to finally figure themselves out and attain superhuman confidence. You can understand the pride with which Ed reveals his secret to Dolores, standing in the middle of their living room in a full woman’s outfit. Dolores is chagrined, and you can understand that too. She’s just a little too sane.

The key relationship in the movie is between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), legendary star of Dracula and numerous other horror pictures, now a washed-up heroin addict who curses the name of Boris Karloff and hides his despair and loneliness under angry outbursts. He falls into Ed’s orbit the way most anyone else does: Ed just kinda collects people with his cheerfulness and talk of big plans, despite their dubious merits. It is probably true that if you simply tell 100 people in Los Angeles that you are a director, by the end of the day, you will have 10 resumes. Lugosi is as eager to star in films again as Ed is eager to make them, and the two form an unlikely bond. One Halloween night, the two watch scary movies and when Bela goes to the kitchen to take a hit, the camera stays on Ed’s face as he comes comes agonizingly close to actually noticing what’s happening, but doesn’t. This encapsulates the Ed Wood philosophy: only dreams matter; the details aren’t important.

It is through Bella that Ed gains upward mobility, and also some semblance of what he mistakes for respectability. Bella is a star, after all, even though he is now known primarily for being a has-been addict. Glen or Glenda, the transvestite picture, is orphaned by its fleapit studio and flops. Ed tries to seek independent backers for his next movie, Bride of the Monster, and fails, although the lovely Loretta King (Juliet Landau) delivers some upfront cash and then, while on set, tells Ed the worst two sentences a z-grade producer could ever hear: “You misunderstood me, Ed. I already gave you everything I have.” The production is shut down, with all props, cast and crew thrown out into the street. It happens. Even then, Ed is positive, because he’s most certainly living the life.

Intercut between the production schedules is the plight of Bella Lugosi, who is often involved with the movies but at curious angles to them. In one, he frames the story from a drawing room, playing the part of some sort of alien being who, as he says “Pulls ze strings!” At one point Lugosi fights an overgrown sea monster that is supposed to be mechanical, but that doesn’t work out; the sight of the prideful Hungarian actor sipping from a flask in between rows with a dummy octopus is heartbreakingly pathetic. And through it all Ed becomes a student, a friend, and practically a guardian to the dying Bella, waking in the middle of the night to pained phone calls and staying with him till the very end. So deep is their friendship that Ed is determined to use Lugosi’s last footage in his movie, Plan 9 From Outer Space. No matter that his part wasn’t completed, it can be filled in with a double in a cape. Yes.

Others drip towards (and away from) Ed’s career. There’s the Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), who makes theatrical predictions that are shockingly correct, except for the ones that aren’t. And the dry and very gay Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), who plans to go to Mexico for a sex change operation, but seems to more enjoy talking about it and explaining why he didn’t go through with it. There is Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), a behemoth who could take acting lessons from Andre the Giant. And Vampira (Lisa Marie), an apathetic TV hostess who somehow can never quite shake the magnetism of Ed Wood, and ends up in his cadre. One shot shows the bunch of them (along with Bella) on the way to a premiere, and they look like a road company version of the Addams Family. Dolores grows disenchanted with the whole lot of them eventually…but that is, significantly, only after when she is shoved out of the spotlight for financial reasons.

There is a buried theme in all of this, and that is how completely blind a person can be while on the road to fame, a phenomenon never more rampant than in Hollywood. Success is the most elusive of mistresses, and to pursue it, seemingly intelligent people will abandon all reason and sense, clinging to the slimmest of hopes. Ed has self-doubts (don’t we all?) and only by sweeping them away does he achieve…well, anything at all. A creative endeavor must sacrifice some perspective in order to take shape, and Ed throws commitment into his art so fervently that only an outsider would have the ability to perceive (perhaps correctly) that his results are terrible. One dark afternoon Ed runs into Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) at a bar, and the two men connect by seizing upon the tiniest of common principles: that when the art works, it’s worth it. What else really matters?

This material is touching in its unshakable sympathy for the Ed Woods of the world. They may have little talent, but they want to share all that they have with us, and is that so bad? There’s generosity even in such squalid surroundings, and a lovely sense of dogged community: you get the feeling that if Ed ever closed up shop and told his merry band of stars to go away, they would have nowhere to go. Hollywood is a cruel place, and people must stick together and keep their hopes alive. Even if their skills are hopeless. In fact, especially then. Or, as Bunny puts it, when Ed allies himself with a strict Baptist church for funds: “How did you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”  Ed barely answers even considers the question. The tunnel vision is kind of inspiring.

The film is made in black and white, to approximate the style of Wood’s movies, and also to do stark things with the L.A. locations—never before in a movie have low-budget filmmaking felt so pointedly low. Several scenes take place on empty streets, as if an existential film noir is being shot somewhere nearby. The result is a picture that feels lonely and desperate, as it should. The b & w photography also allows Burton to slip in some effects and tricks that are conscious nods to the Ed Wood school. And there’s a humdinger of a musical score by Howard Shore (stepping in for the oddly absent Danny Elfman). The cast is excellent, except for Lisa Marie, whose range is limited, even when playing the barely-expressive Vampira. Otherwise, even Sarah Jessica Parker shines.

Ed Wood is essentially based on fact. It cheats a bit towards the end, where a movie premiere is thrown for Plan 9 (never happened, but good drama). And it ends on a note of hope for Ed’s new life and happiness, before immediately undercutting it with title cards explaining that Ed descended into alcoholism and pornography before dying in 1978. And yet these days, Ed Wood is practically a household name, synonymous with terrible movies. He is known the world over. He will never be forgotten. Success.

All artists dream for fame. Some get it. Some get nothing. And the most life-affirming thing that Ed Wood teaches us is that sometimes instead we get infamy. Horrible, messy, ugly, wonderful infamy. It’s better than nothing. By a   whole heck of a lot.

GRADE: A-

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One thought on “Ed Wood (1994)

  1. anthonyarmstrongphotography.com December 19, 2012 / 5:06 am

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