Ed Wood

by Tim Burton

Tim Burton‘s grey yet colorful 1994 movie Ed Wood is a dexterous achievement in filmmaking about filmmaking. Not only does it give us a satirical, yet still accurate image of how things tend to work in Hollywood and amongst the producers, but it also pays tribute to one of the most influentially bad filmmakers in movie history: Edward D. Wood Jr.

Watching it is like constantly being in the presence of the director himself and Mr. Wood being played by Johnny Depp, the man who can play anyone, certainly doesn’t hurt. He is young and eccentric, often trying to get his movies done briskly with very few alternate takes, constant stock footage, and no adjustments made to the cheesy-looking sets and costumes. The film follows his filmmaking career all the way from Glen or Glenda to the infamously catastrophic Plan 9 From Outer Space and how he enlists the help of several celebrities to make his pictures, such as The Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), TV hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie) and of course, his all-time favourite actor and hero Bela Lugosi. Lugosi is played by Martin Landau, who puts on one hell of a performance. A transformation rather than an act.

We see Mr. Wood put up with all sorts of chaos in his attempts to make what he considers art, like Bela’s morphine addiction, his girlfriend Dolores’ (Sarah Jessica Parker) increasing reluctance to participate in her boyfriend’s madness, his low budget, his trouble with the studios, and his inability to find the right people. He failed and wasn’t competent, but he worked with such dedication and heart that it’s really hard not to root for the man. “Visions are worth fighting for”, he is told by his idol Orson Welles (played physically by Vincent D’Onofrio and vocally by Maurice LaMarche) in one of the later scenes.

Some of Wood’s friends include openly gay Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), his new girlfriend and eventual wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette), Paul Marco (Max Casella), Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) and his always trustworthy wardrobe of women’s clothing. Other enjoyable characters are producer George Weiss, played by Mike Starr, and Loretta King, as played by Martin Landau’s daughter Juliet.

Wood also becomes very good friends with Bela Lugosi and his friendship with Lugosi in the film brings to mind that between Tim Burton and Vincent Price, another respected horror icon, in real life. The man loved classic horror and he proves it by creating this film, which is why this is probably the most touching of his movies. It celebrates a genre he loves and a filmmaker he seemingly can relate to. There is so much pure love put into this movie that thinking about it is enough to move me. One wishes that Burton could create films like this more often, where the focus and effort is more on the heart than on the style (and Johnny Depp’s excessive make-up). I did tolerate his Dark Shadows but I still haven’t forgiven Alice in Wonderland.

The music by Howard Shore makes it all the better and the usage of the “Swan Lake” melody from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s similarly named ballet was especially charming, particularly if one remembers how the same music was used in the film that made Lugosi a star – Dracula. There some historical flaws in the film, of course; Lugosi never actually hated Boris Karloff (Frankenstein) and I doubt he actually swore quite so much. But everything else is so perfect that it gets a free pass.

Wood was right; he is remembered for his work. Whether or not this is the way he wanted to be remembered is arguable, but his name survives. That much is certain. Not many modern fans of Burton, who most certainly like it when he does gothic Lewis Caroll fanfiction and puts Johnny Depp in quirky get-ups, probably won’t see what a heartfelt and perfect tribute Ed Wood really is. The actors all put their best into their work, the music compliments the visuals wonderfully, the humour is as great as the drama and the scenes from Wood’s movies are so flawlessly replicated that you can swear you’re watching the actual movies. It’s just a must-see for all who truly love film.

And Mr. Wood, in spite of all the backlash he received, always maintained a flaming passion for film that was nothing less than admirable. The best way to respect that is to watch him in this movie and share the passion with him.

From left to right: Vampira, Lugosi, Criswell, Kathy, Tor and the man himself.