Title: Ed Wood (1994)
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie
I appreciate Ed Wood's films because as I mentioned in my review for Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), I think his films had as much heart to them as they had bloopers. Plan 9 From Outer Space might seem silly to some (and they'd be right) but at at the same time, at its core it had a pacifist message, criticizing mans own tendency to self destruct. The aliens in that movie seem to think eventually we’ll end up destroying not only ourselves, but the rest of the universe! Even though Ed Wood is considered “the worst director in history” Plan 9 from Outer Space is a film that will go on forever, but why? Why has the film endured for so long? Well, there’s the fact that the film is incredibly funny, even when it’s not trying to be. The dialog alone, which seems to have been written in days, and probably was, is something to relish if you’re in the mood for some cheese. But who was the man behind these goofy movies? What kind of struggles did he endure in order to make these timeless sci-fi, b-movie classics? These are the questions that Tim Burton’s Ed Wood attempts to answer, albeit from an extremely positive and lighthearted angle.
In Burton’s film we meet Edward Wood Jr. a man struggling to get his films made. He starts very small by first organizing small plays in community theaters. Though not a whole lot of people go to see them and he gets terrible reviews, he remains optimistic, always seeing the positive side of things. But when he is in his bed, sleeping next to his wife, pondering where his life is going he is suddenly a man afraid that where he is in life is “as good as it’s ever going to get”. Fortunately, he doesn’t let negativity bring him down so he calls small movie studios to see if they’ll produce his movies. Luckily enough he convinces a studio to make a film called Glen or Glenda (1953) which was supposed to be a film about a guy who gets a sex change, but ends up being about a guy who confesses to his wife that he enjoys “dressing up in woman’s clothing”. Later, a chance encounter brings Wood to meet Bela Lugosi, the famous actor behind Dracula (1931). They develop a great friendship and Lugosi ends up acting in many of Wood’s films. But struggles continue to emerge: Lugosi is a heroin addict, Wood’s wife wants to leave him because she thinks he’s a freak and to top things off, he has no money to finish his movies! Will Wood ever get to make the one that he’ll be remembered by?
The impression you get after watching Ed Wood is that Wood was a man with lots of creativity and imagination; he had that drive to work in films, a medium that can, if you don’t have what it takes, literally wipe you out. I know, because I’ve made a few films myself, and boy, organizing that small army of people isn’t an easy task! Selling your idea to a possible investor ain’t no easy task. Getting the actors…shooting the thing, getting the permits to shoot in a given location…finishing that script…editing, music, so many things to do, so many chores to delegate. This is the reason why cinema is such a collaborative effort; you have to work well with others. And that’s what I love about this film; it shows you the whole creative process behind making a movie, it is one of those films that is about film. You get to see Wood beging investors for completion funds to his movie. You get to see Wood beg producers to let him direct. You get to see Wood filming without a permit! You get to see Wood finally see his finished film with an audience. If you love the process of making films, then you will love Ed Wood.
Director Tim Burton has always had great admiration for Ed Wood’s films. He recognizes their b-level quality and the fact that they are not what one would call “great films” but Burton also sees past that and appreciates the love that Wood put into his films, the sincerity. The tone of this film itself is one of sympathy and admiration for Wood and those who worked with him on his films. Burton stated that he didn’t want to ridicule the filmmakers because they’d probably already had enough ridicule throughout their whole life for working on these films. This is probably why Wood and his crew are portrayed in such an optimistic way; the whole film plays out like a lighthearted comedy. Burton stated in an interview that he recognized that Wood could be redundant in some of his scripts but that they had a sincerity to them that made them heartfelt. I have to say I totally agree. In order to pay even more homage to Wood’s films Burton decided to shoot the whole film in Black and White. Burton really fought for this and I have to say it was the best choice he could have made. Most of Wood’s films were made in Black and White, so it makes perfect sense that a film about him was also shot that way. To be honest, the Black and White adds to the whole spooky /weird vibe that Wood infused his movies with. I love how Burton opens the film with a black and white, spooky grave yard, with lighting flashing, and people coming out of coffins telling us about how we’re about to witness the “shocking facts of the true story of Edward Wood Jr.” Burton really set the perfect tone in which to tell the story of this offbeat filmmaker.
Burton, behind the camera on the set of Ed Wood (1994)
The icing on the cake is the spectacular cast that Burton gathered for this film. Depp as Wood was a genius choice, true, Depp is one of Burton’s favorite actors to work with (I’ve lost count on just how many films they’ve made together) but I doubt there was a better actor to portray that enthusiasm, zaniness and energy that Ed Wood was known for. Hell, if you look at a picture of Ed Wood, you’ll see that Depp even looked the part. Then we have Martin Landau as an aging Bela Lugosi on his last days on this earth. Landau’s performance is both touching and hilarious. Lugosi was an actor who gave his life to Hollywood, but as Lugosi puts it in the film, Hollywood “chews you up and then spits you out”. The film also takes its time to analyze the life of an aging actor, how sometimes they struggle after their fame has faded, apparently, Lugosi had it really rough during his last days. The film is also incredibly honest when it comes to Lugosi’s heroin addiction, it doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly bits, like when Lugosi hits rock bottom, almost commits suicide and ends up committing himself to a rehab clinic. The relationship that Bela and Wood develop is one of the most touching things about the film; they truly end up becoming great friends. It should be noted that Landau actually won an Oscar for his performance here. The loves in Wood’s life are played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Dolores Fuller a woman who backs Wood in many of his crazy filmmaking ideas until she can’t stand the freakiness no more and dumps Ed and Patricia Arquette as Kathy O’Hara, a more understanding and loving soul. Rounding things off is Bill Murray as one of Wood’s gay friends. Murray plays a small role here, yet whenever he is on, he is truly funny. Jeffrey Jones plays Criswell, a television persona who was also one of Wood’s staunch supporters. We also get Burton’s then wife Lisa Marie playing ‘Vampira’, yet another television personality who backed Wood’s films. As you can see, this is an amazing cast, which just makes this film all the richer, everyone here brought their a-game as they say.
Interesting thing about this project is that it was not originally a Tim Burton project, this film was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; two college buddies who at the time had only written two films the highly successful Problem Child (1990) and Problem Child 2 (1991). But they didn’t want to be known only for writing family films, so they wrote Ed Wood together, to try and break with that stigma. They originally wanted the director behind Heathers (1988), Michael Lehmann to direct, but he was committed to directing Airheads (1994) and so Burton, who was originally only going to serve as producer on the project ended up directing the film. To be honest, no other director could have done a better job than Burton; this film just fit his profile so perfectly. Burton has always loved science fiction and horror, some of his films are as goofy and offbeat as something that Wood might have directed. This is why say that It makes perfect sense that Burton ended up directing Mars Attacks! (1996) after he made Ed Wood. It almost feels as if after directing a film about Ed Wood, Ed Wood’s spirit possessed Burton for a spell there… because Mars Attacks! feels like a film that Wood might have directed had he all the millions that Burton had at his disposal. To me, Mars Attacks! was simply Burton making a film to pay his respects to Wood, to make the film that Wood never could. So to bring this review to an end I say if you are interested in the in and outs of filmmaking, and how fun, exciting and exhausting it can be, then give Ed Wood a spin. The whole experience of watching Ed Wood is enhanced when you have seen some of Wood’s films. I recommend you treat yourself to a triple feature. See Plan 9 from Outer Space, then follow that one with Ed Wood and end the whole shebang with Mars Attacks! (1996), trust me, it it’ll all make sense in the end.
Rating: 5 out of 5