Surely we all know of Ed Wood, known by many as one of the world’s absolute worst filmmakers, but how many of us know that he was not a lazy man, but in fact a man who worked truly hard and fought for his films? Not all of us, I imagine, but Tim Burton‘s great 1994 bio-pic Ed Wood fills us in.
It took me long but I finally saw it and as a young man who is hoping to one day make movies of his own, it was a fascinating experience, since, after all, it follows the life of an aspiring film director and the struggles he went through to finish his motion pictures. Ed Wood is famous for his bad films, but this great one shows that he was at least trying… somewhat.
Johnny Depp, great as ever, portrays Edward D. Wood Jr. who is struggling hard to join the film industry in 1952. He begins to lose hope, but is comforted at night by his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker). After a while, though, he is finally hired by a studio, that seems to deliberately produce awful films, to direct a film about a sex change. This is where we’re informed that much of the terribleness of Wood’s films was not entirely his fault, but also the studio’s.
Wood is delighted that he gets to make a film mostly by himself, just like Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane in 1941, and he even gets hold of a big star, the aging Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) who is a perverted, grumpy drug addict who feels constant envy to the more popular Boris Karloff, the man who played the monster in Frankenstein. He and Wood become good friends. Using random stock footage and what cheap props and sets he could afford, Wood at last finishes the sex change-flick, Glen or Glenda, whilst also revealing that he’s always loved to wear women’s clothing. Interesting chap.
As Wood begins to produce more films, he gets some more help to complete them, from TV psychic The Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), TV star Vampira (Lisa Marie Smith) and Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele). They all support Wood and his movies, but Dolores seems to be alone in knowing how terrible his movies turn out. A subplot involves Ed Wood’s homosexual friend Bunny Breckinridge (played by none other than Bill Murray) trying and failing to get a sex change. You might know Breckinridge as The Ruler in Ed Wood’s classic B-movie Plan 9 From Outer Space, which is often considered the worst film of all time. I’ve seen worse. Thanks, Seltzer & Friedberg!
Patricia Arquette is also featured as Wood’s girlfriend Kathy, whom he meets after a furious Dolores breaks up with him. And Mike Starr is George Weiss, Max Casella and Brent Hinkley are Paul Marco and Conrad Brooks respectively and Vincent D’Onofrio cameos as Orson Welles, the voice of whom is done by Maurice LaMarche, who has nicely impersonated Welles’ voice on many other occasions.
Ed Wood is a smashing, lovable film with much humour revolving around Wood’s endless struggles and bad luck as well as his wonderfully eccentric personality, but also much heart revolving around touching scenes between Wood and Lugosi. Some of the sadder scenes with Lugosi are set to music from Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which was the theme tune for Lugosi’s breakout film, Tod Browning’s 1931 horror-classic Dracula. The original music by Howard Shore is even more magnificent.
Johnny Depp, as per always, disappears into his role and becomes Edward D. Wood Jr.; I felt as if I was beholding the real Mr. Wood, throughout the film. Martin Landau is also marvelous as Lugosi, as is Parker as Dolores, Jones as Criswell, “The Animal” as Tor and just about everyone else. A perfectly chosen cast, I should say. The Oscar which Landau received for his portrayal of Lugosi was a well-earned one. Much like films of the 50’s this film is shot in monochrome and scenes from Ed Wood’s movies are brilliantly re-created. There is something I’ve always found beautiful about grey movies.
Ed Wood has now become one of my favourite Tim Burton-films. The man has made no secret of his love towards classic gothic horror and sci-fi films that would always star the likes of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and yes, Bela Lugosi; this is why I think this is the film Burton was meant to make. I don’t really know how historically accurate the film is, nor do I truly care. Much like Amadeus, another great film about an eccentric artist but of the music-kind, the accuracy shouldn’t be though too hard about. I liked Amadeus too, but film is a more beloved area to me than music, hence why I loved Ed Wood more.
Watching it is a tad bittersweet, particularly towards the end. Wood seems so delighted and proud that he has finally finished Plan 9 From Outer Space, dedicated to Bela Lugosi, without letting the studio screw around with his art any more. He finally attends a premiere with friends and colleagues, certain that he has created his masterpiece at last. A triumphant scene to those who don’t know how the film turned out; a bittersweet one to us who do. It is also a bit sad that Tim Burton doesn’t make films this great anymore. You know what I’m talking about.
“Visions are worth fighting for.” – Orson Welles.