It seems to me, and perhaps this is a gross exaggeration, that Tim Burton’s best films are the ones in which he genuinely cares about the protagonist. As a filmmaker, Burton’s eye tends to wander towards the edges of the frame, literally and metaphorically, when he isn’t engaged with the central action, or is ambivalent about the central character. This is the case, for example, in his 1989 Batman, which should really have been titled “The Joker”, given how little he seems to care about the title character and how much he’s infatuated with the villain. Similarly, in Planet of the Apes from 2001, the audience went right along with Burton’s interest and rooted for Tim Roth’s dynamic villain rather than Mark Wahlberg’s boring and disengaged central character. But when Burton actually cares about the protagonist of a story, it brings his formidable talents into sharp focus, and he can be a playful, sentimental and original filmmaker. This is the case, I believe, with 1994’s Ed Wood.
The real Edward D. Wood, Jr. had what on paper should have been a storied but ultimately sad life. A midwestern upbringing, followed by service with the US Marines in World War II, puts him squarely in the mainstream of American experience, mid-century. But all along the way, Wood nursed an enthusiasm for his own peculiar form of storytelling, influenced by melodrama he heard on the radio growing up and weaned on serials from the 1930s and 1940s. He found ways to express his storytelling voice through print and on the stage before turning to film, potentially Wood’s favourite medium because it allowed him to be spectacular. Wood was also a notorious drunk, a womanizer and a closet transvestite, all of which he saw as being completely normal.
Wood’s films, particularly Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), seem to come from an artist with a million dollar imagination and a ten cent talent. His dialogue has been described as sounding like a “badly translated set of VCR instructions,” his scenes meander and usually just give up on themselves, his story structure is non-existant and his camerawork flat and badly lit. The actors he chose ranged in skill from barely competent to painfully inept. His sets were so cheap they themselves have become as famous as any Wood story or character. Wood had a childish (or childlike, if you’re feeling charitable) sense of filmmaking and storytelling. He simply spoke until he ran out of things to say and then changed the subject. Rarely writing second drafts, one gets the sense that he was either in love with every word or simply impatiently filling the pages.
Ed Wood’s career reached a highlight when he got to work with Bela Lugosi, during the final years of the distinguished actor’s life. Lugosi was not in terribly good health when he first crossed paths with Wood, but the director carried him through three films, Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955) and the afore-mentioned Plan 9, in which Lugosi only appears in stock footage. In fact, Lugosi only gave Wood one fully-realized performance, in Bride of the Monster, where even his still-good acting skills can’t salvage the campy, horrible mess.
What finally saves any Wood film is enthusiasm. He was a filmmaker who yelled “It’s perfect!” after every take, even when calling for a second. He clearly loved being able to create art, no matter how bad it was. He did in fact have a twinkle in his eye that endured. I’ve seen documentary footage of him on the set of a low-budget XXX film he was directing in the 1960s, when he was seriously alcoholic and clearly heading towards death, and he still has the look in his eye of a kid who’s been given a great train set for Christmas. I think Tim Burton saw the same thing in him. It’s what redeems what could have been considered a failed and sad life.
Wood and Burton do actually share some qualities as a filmmaker, namely enthusiasm, relentless creativity and a tendency to either be seduced or bored by material. But Burton clearly saw something tremendously admirable in the character of Ed Wood, because his biopic about him has not one cynical or mean minute. It’s a film of pure good-natured heart, which is probably one of the reasons I adore it so much.
In Burton’s Ed Wood, Johnny Depp plays the title character, with a host of great character actors filling in the space around him, notable Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood’s girlfriend, the great Bill Murray has a throwaway role that he spins into an unforgettable turn and even George “The Animal” Steele makes a memorable impression as frequent Wood leading man Tor Johnson. The film tells Wood’s story from roughly 1952-1959, which could be considered his breakthrough years as a filmmaker. We first see Wood and company slogging through a badly produced play, then Wood, who has a day job on the studio lot, runs into Bela Lugosi, inspecting coffins. They develop a friendship, and Wood uses Lugosi’s name and his own charms to get the job writing and directing a story about a transsexual, which he re-writes to be about a transvestite. (This, of course, “outs” him to certain people, which alienates him from his girlfriend for a start.) Wood makes Glen or Glenda, then scrabbles to fundraise for his next masterpiece, Bride of the Monster. Following that experience, Lugosi dies, but Wood is undeterred, attracting funding from the Baptist Church of all places to create Plan 9 From Outer Space, during which time he also meets the woman with whom he would spend the rest of his life.
Depp’s performance as Wood is a highlight, with Depp selling every last bit of insane, wide-eyed energy. Years later, he would bring some of the same twinkle to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but here he disappears into this midwestern transvestite bottle of positivity. His good natured turn infects the rest of the cast, softening what could have been biting satire and helps the entire film feel like a loving tribute. Of course, the real casting coup was Martin Landau, who almost steals the movie as Bela Lugosi. Many discussions of this film focus entirely on Landau, whose transformation into the dying Hungarian actor, bringing wisdom, strength, vulnerability, pathos and ultimately dignity to bear, deservedly won him an Academy Award. In the context of the film, however, the role is cleverly written, supplying the audience with a real person amongst all the madness.
The simple fact is that, in the movie as possibly in real life, Ed Wood lives in a fantasy world. Everyone in his “company”, in fact, lives in that world of unreality. Two key characters in the film see through it: Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is revolted by the whole thing and calls them all a bunch of “freaks”, and Lugosi, who watches, listens, sees how he fits into this world and then quietly accepts it. But Lugosi keeps one foot in reality at all times, which is why he worries about not being able to pay the rent (Ed is even more destitute, but isn’t bothered by that: just write another bad check!) and he finally deals with his alcoholism and drug addiction by checking into rehab. (In contrast, Wood drank himself to death.) So Lugosi quietly, to himself, sees everything Parker’s character sees with just as much clarity, but allows himself to be seduced by all its charms.
And it is charming. Ed Wood’s passion and enthusiasm for what he does carries us in the audience along as well. I have never seen a movie that made me want to make movies more than Ed Wood. It’s inspiring, especially when it presents how difficult it was to make even a low-budget film in those days. This is long before video, of course, and they were essentially using World War II-era equipment and lights, handed down from the studios, employing sound and makeup technicians, and even cheap studios had complete blackout conditions and mattresses on the walls to control sound. In other words, they were a professional, old-fashioned film crew, with all its unwieldy mass of personnel and personalities. It took a charismatic personality to marshal all those forces, which is a big part of the job for any director. By that measure, Wood was in the top ranks of film directors in the last century.
For a certain kind of nerd, the film saves its knockout punch for almost the very end: Orson Welles. Welles is mentioned several times throughout the film as Wood’s idol. They had similar backgrounds and, in Wood’s imagination, comparable talents. After all, Wood was the actor/writer/director/producer as well, a very rare breed in those days. As production on Plan 9 is hitting problems and starting to come apart, a frustrated Wood walks off the set and into the nearest bar. (Johnny Depp orders “imperial whiskey!” with such gusto that even in this supposedly “dark” and “down” moment, Wood’s essential enthusiasm shines through.) In a corner, nursing a drink, a cigar and a script, he spots none other than Orson Welles. And, in a scene that had us Welles aficionados rubbing our eyes, he sits down and has a conversation with the great man, who advises him on how to deal with producers and urges him to make sure his vision gets on the screen. It isn’t even really what he says, but the impersonation is so good that, in this day and age, one would suspect a hologram. Only, it isn’t anything so high-tech, just some old-fashioned movie making tricks that gives Welles one of his greatest cameos. Welles is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, the great character actor, in excellent makeup. D’Onofrio nails each and every one of Welles’ movements and gestures, striking just the right pose. The voice is utterly perfect because it isn’t D’Onofrio, but the famous voice actor Maurice LaMarche dubbing the role, uncredited. Futurama fans recognize LaMarche’s many voices, including Kif Kroker and, of course, Orson Welles, which he used as the inspiration for “The Brain” from Pinky and the Brain. To pay so much attention to such a small part of the film is thoroughly Tim Burton and a real tribute from him to the two directors being portrayed.
As I mentioned previously, one of the great charms of Ed Wood is its essential good nature. It can’t even be truly mean to the antagonists, such as they are, in this film. It’s a reflection of the spirit he created (or the spirit Tim Burton imagines or wishes he created) on his film sets. Everyone’s welcome, the price is only enthusiasm and optimism.
And as a Burton film, aside from all his usual auteur signposts (older male mentors, a tendency towards cartoonish, carnivalesque compositions, a foregrouding of weather as a storytelling device), this film shows what he can achieve when he has unabashed, total and authentic love for his subject material. In a lesser film he might have become infatuated with Lugosi’s character, whose arc is no doubt fascinating, or even gotten lost in an exploration of Tor Johnson. But here he sticks with Eddie himself, and in doing so creates one of the greatest love letters from one filmmaker to another in the history of cinema.