“Really? Worst film you ever saw? Well, my next one will be better!”
Edward D. Wood Jr. was a decorated Marine who served in World War II. His career as a filmmaker was undistinguished at best, with a string of failures and bombs that devolved from Z-grade to exploitation to hardcore porn. He was a prolific pulp author, often writing on the themes of transvestism and the occult. He died a penniless alcoholic.
Of course, you don’t get any of that from Tim Burton’s biopic of the infamous director. What you get is a film that glosses over Wood’s vices and focuses on the director’s relationship with fallen star Bela Lugosi and on the filming of Wood’s most famous films. Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Ed Wood?
Ed Wood (Johnny Depp, Edward Scissorhands) is a man with big dreams: He wants to direct films. Only problem is, he’s a man of little talent. He sees his chance to break into showbiz when a low-rent studio is looking to produce a movie about Christine Jorgensen, the first man to undergo a sex-change operation. Well, the rights to make his…err…her story fall through, but that doesn’t stop the studio from wanting a flick to exploit the sexual-identity crisis angle, and Ed has the “perfect” idea. His film, Glen or Glenda?, is a story of a man with an angora fetish who is confused about his gender identity…oh, and it’s semi-autobiographical. Oh, and he talks his idol, washed-up (and drug-addicted) Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, North by Northwest) into taking a rather…odd…role as the Puppetmaster.
Glen or Glenda? is an unqualified disaster in everyone’s eyes…except for Ed. Undaunted, he proceeds to raise funding himself for his (and Bela’s) next big project, Bride of the Atom (renamed Bride of the Monster before it finally hits the screen). It’s a troubled production, at best, what with having to swipe props from other studios, film single takes of inaction in pitch dark locations, and worry if the star will be lucid enough to work.
Bride of the Monster gets made and is yet another unqualified disaster. Undaunted, Ed proceeds to raise funding for his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space. However, there’s one critical blow to the effort to bring it to the screen: Bela dies of a heart attack. That’s not enough to stop Ed from giving him top billing, though, using some framing footage of Bela with another actor whose face is covered filling in for him during the actual production.
Plan 9 from Outer Space is an unqualified disaster…but that’s not going to stop Ed Wood!
Friends, there is only one way I can approach this film: as a fan of Tim Burton. I have never seen an Ed Wood film, and quite frankly, unless someone drives a dump truck full of money up to my door, I don’t intend to. Unlike some other members of the DVD Verdict staff, I’m not a lover of bad cinema, unless it has the MST3K silhouettes over it. I am, however, a rabid fan of Mr. Tim Burton. I founded what was (and still is, though I’m no longer involved) the best and highest-trafficked fan site on the internet, The Tim Burton Collective. I’ve penned all but one of DVD Verdict’s reviews of his films. Heck, I even checked out Cabin Boy because he produced it. Wait, didn’t I say I wasn’t a lover of bad cinema? Hmm.
While it has a few elements unique in the Tim Burton canon (it’s B&W, the score’s by Howard Shore instead of Danny Elfman, it’s a biopic), Ed Wood is classic Tim Burton all the way. Thematically, it shares a common thread with all his films (except perhaps Planet of the Apes): You have the Outsider who wishes to fit in with Others, but cannot give up What They Are to do so. Consider:
* Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
Outsider: Man-child Pee-Wee
Others: Everyone he meets while searching for his bicycle
What They Are: Err, a man-child
* Edward Scissorhands
Others: The “normal” suburban folks
What They Are: A sweet, naïve child, even if he does have scissors for hands.
* Mars Attacks!
Outsider: The Martians
Others: Puny earthlings
What They Are: Gleeful murdering freaks. Okay, maybe this one was a bad example.
In this case, the titular Ed Wood is our Outsider. Ed is set apart by two defining characteristics. One, he likes to wear women’s clothing. Angora sweaters, specifically. Two, he wants to fit in with the filmmaking establishment, but his (and here’s the Defining Characteristic) complete lack of artistic ability prevents him from being successful. The Others part of the Burton equation is a bit nebulous in this film. In films like Batman (the entire city of Gotham) or Edward Scissorhands (the shiny happy people), the Others are very clearly defined and comprise the majority. In Ed Wood, there’s a few people who represent normality: a studio exec (played by “that guy” Stanley DeSantis, I Am Sam) who rejects Glen or Glenda? as the worst film he ever saw, and Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City), Ed’s short-suffering girlfriend who thinks he’s a freak and surrounded himself with weirdos. The weirdos run the show here, from the drug-addicted Bela to the flamboyant Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray in one of his best supporting roles). The Other is nebulous; it’s the hundreds of patrons at Ed’s premieres, throwing popcorn and booing the stars out of the theater. It’s the dentists and Baptists he courts for funding, who are shocked by the content of his films (not to mention the low production values). It’s the bugaboo of studio expectations — of money that’s supposed to be made, of quality that’s supposed to be delivered, of content that’s only supposed to titillate, not be an exorcism of one’s inner demons.
But beside the thematic similarities to all Tim Burton’s projects, Ed Wood fits stylistically into his oeuvre. Were you not to look at the credits, you would swear the score was by Danny Elfman. Howard Shore creates a score that’s wonderfully evocative of the 1950s, part sci-fi drive-in, part tiki lounge. The use of the theremin is eerily beautiful, or beautifully eerie, depending on your point of view. It dovetails nicely with the soundscape created by Elfman for films like Beetlejuice or Mars Attacks! (which was little more than a big-budget Ed Wood picture). The contrast of black and white has long been a visual theme in Burton’s films. The gothic, expressionistic look of films like Beetlejuice or The Nightmare Before Christmas is what most people associate with Tim Burton, so that contrast applied to an entire film serves the director’s material nicely. It’s not his first foray into B&W, anyway — few people remember his short films prior to the release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Vincent and Frankenweenie. Both were in B&W. And while Ed Wood is a serious film at times, more so than most of Burton’s films, there is still the undercurrent of humor that asks us to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
But wait, you say. Okay, so it’s a Tim Burton film. It says that on the keep case. But is it any good?
Yes, quite good, in fact. The black and white cinematography isn’t just a stylistic quirk. It is remarkably evocative; you could not tell the story of Ed Wood in color. Johnny Depp, one of Burton’s favorite actors (the two have worked together five times now: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, and the coming-in-2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride) turns in the sort of performance you expect from Depp. Like his performances in Donnie Brasco or Blow, he becomes this unique character, exuding exuberance from every pore and playing it completely straight. There’s no wink at the audience; Depp plays it like he’s oblivious that Wood is a freak. But what really makes the movie is the touching performance of Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, deservedly earning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role. Thanks to Rick Baker’s makeup work (also Oscar-winning), Landau becomes this famous actor. If you’ve seen him in any of his famous roles — Dracula, most likely — it’s nearly impossible to tell that it’s Landau in makeup, not Lugosi himself. He nails the voice, the mannerisms, everything that made Lugosi an icon.
It may not have been as coveted on DVD as Star Wars, but Tim Burton fans — and lovers of good cinema — have long waited for Ed Wood on DVD. Wait no longer, because it’s finally available, at least en masse. The disc is nearly identical to the disc that was very nearly released back in February 2004, making the delay all the more puzzling. (In fact, I’m reviewing the February release, thanks to a Verdict reader who sent me a copy.) The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in an anamorphic transfer. The picture is occasionally a little grainy, but I think that’s by design, not a transfer flaw, and there is occasionally some minor edge enhancement. There’s strong contrast and detail. Overall, it’s a perfectly acceptable transfer. Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 in English. Unremarkable, though perfectly acceptable.
Touchstone has put together a pretty decent array of extras. The headlining extra is a commentary track featuring Tim Burton, Martin Landau, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, DP Stefan Czapsky, and costume designer Colleen Atwood. The various contributors were recorded separately, except for Alexander and Karaszewski, who were recorded together. Since there’s so many people to choose from to assemble the track, there’s no dead gaps (except when the dialogue is featured). Burton and Landau are given the most air time, and everyone has something interesting to say. The 14-minute “Let’s Shoot This F#*%@r!” is a behind-the-scenes featurette. It’s pretty much all on-set footage — Burton directing, the actors acting, makeup artists applying makeup. That sort of thing. “The Theremin” is a seven-minute look at…get ready for this…the theremin. You get to see this interesting “instrument” in action, as well as listen to Howard Shore explain its history and why he chose to feature it in the score. “Making Bela” is probably the most fascinating extra. It’s an eight-minute look at how Martin Landau and Rick Baker brought Bela Lugosi to life. There’s interviews with the two men, footage of the daily makeup applications, and best of all, footage of the real Lugosi, including rare home movie footage. “Pie Plates Over Hollywood” is 14 minutes with Tim Duffield, the production designer (he also worked with Burton on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands). He goes into a lot of detail of how he designed the sets and the creative challenges of working in B&W. Also great stuff. The theatrical trailer, eight minutes of deleted scenes, and a music video round out the extras.
I’ve already alluded that many consider this Tim Burton’s best film. While I can’t deny its quality, personally it’s near the bottom of my list of favorite Burton films — just above Planet of the Apes (2004) and Batman (yup, don’t care for the first one all that much). Burton is a master visualist, and while Ed Wood is masterfully visual, the story — often the weak link in any Burton film — doesn’t have legs to carry the visuals through to the end. ‘Round about the second time Ed and his motley band must raise money for Bride of the Atom, my attention begins to waver. Bela’s death nearly loses it altogether — without the primary relationship of the film to provide focus, the story becomes like a balloon when you let the air out, flying all over until is sputters to death. Fortunately, it doesn’t entirely sputter out; Plan Nine is enough to keep you interested.
While Johnny Depp and Martin Landau are excellent in their portrayals of these Hollywood icons (imagine me doing airquotes around “icons”), one performance really sticks in my craw: Sarah Jessica Parker. She was definitely a star on the rise in 1994, with a couple popular romantic comedies (L.A. Story and Honeymoon in Vegas), a kids’ movie (Hocus Pocus), and a big action movie (Striking Distance, and by “big,” I mean “big flop”) to boost her stock. She’s never been a deep actress, and she’s at her shallowest and most shrill as Dolores. Every second she spends on screen is annoying, although it’s great rehearsal for her role in Mars Attacks!, where she plays the same sort of character, but somehow there it’s funny.
Remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future. So make your future interesting and pick up the Ed Wood DVD.