In 1986 I got a book called RE/SEARCH: Incredibly Strange Films. I had been a lifelong film buff and even worked in movie theatres throughout my high school years, yet this book opened my eyes to an entire world of directors and actors I had never heard of. I grew up with drive-ins, midnight movies and late-night television reruns so I was familiar with b-movies, and a few of the films in the book were ones I had seen, but this marvelous book gave the b, c, d and z- movies of the world critical and intellectual credence. It offered complete videographic information and approached the movies not with ridicule but with an eye toward understanding their place in the cultural and aesthetic landscape of modern film. There was a chapter in this book about a director named Ed Wood, that described him as the maker of the worst movie ever made - Plan 9 From Outer Space - as well as other legendary turkeys including a groundbreakingly bad film about Woods’ own proclivity toward transvestitism called Glen Or Glenda. I ended up seeing most of his movies over the next few years and figured I was pretty much alone in my appreciation of this weirdo outsider.
I was thus surprised in 1994 when popular director Tim Burton released a movie called Ed Wood starring Johnny Depp as Wood and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Ed Wood focuses on the period of Wood’s life when he created his most well known films. Although he never achieved critical or financial success of any sort he managed to surround himself with a retinue of eccentric Hollywood types desperate enough to star in or work on his movies for little money. He also was able to convince a series of people to minimally finance his movies. His films got distribution and were seen by some and remembered by few. They listed Ed Wood as the director, producer, writer and occasional actor. And that fact is the compelling reason to care about Ed Wood the person and Ed Wood the movie. The thing that made him fascinating and that got his films made was his unshakeable belief in his own abilities. Wood idolized and fancied himself a peer of the great auteur Orson Welles. The only difference between them was Wood’s overwhelming lack of talent. Although he had doubtful skill as a writer or director of movies, he somehow completed a handful of pictures with recognizable actors. His rudimentary skills and world-class enthusiasm allowed him some level of infamy.
Burton’s movie uses Wood as a symbol for the optimism and creative energy of the 1950’s and early 60’s Hollywood dream factory. It was a tarnished dream in a broken-down factory, but it lived on in Wood’s breast and he was willing to do almost anything to get behind a camera. Filmed in black and white, Burton employs the same flimsy, homemade techniques that Wood used to create his sets and the result is that Burton’s film has some of the same low-rent ambience as Wood’s did. The film’s primary focus is Ed’s relationship with Bela Lugosi whom he happens to meet and befriend as the once great actor is entering the terminal phases of washed-upness. The secondary story involves the women who lived with Wood and dealt with his predilection to dress in their clothes. A decades-long addiction to morphine and methadone had left Lugosi sick, shriveled and unreliable, yet Wood is so thrilled to meet a genuine movie star that he becomes Lugosi’s final director and caretaker during the vampire’s sad last days. This relationship is at the heart of the movie, and Landau’s performance as Lugosi is so sadly on-target that he won an Academy Award for it. In fact the movie is filled with extraordinary performances; Bill Murray as openly gay actor Bunny Breckinridge, wrestler turned actor George “The Animal” Steele as wrestler turned actor Tor Johnson, Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood’s first wife who utters the single greatest line of her career when she asks “did he really say I look like a horse?” But Depp is the star of this show and he offers one of the strangest (and that IS saying something) and ultimately most touching performances of his career. Depp embodies the very schism that provides the dramatic tension to the story. Ed Wood bought into the Hollywood dream, but Hollywood didn’t buy into him. He plowed forward through adversity and indifference, making movies that were so low budget, so poorly conceived, so badly executed that they ultimately had to be recognized as some kind of achievement. This optimism in the face of abject failure is at the heart of Depp’s performance (and the American dream) and is the duality that makes Ed Wood such a fun and rewarding movie experience. One can’t help but root for Depp’s ebullient Ed Wood. Who among us hasn’t watched a movie, a rock band, a basketball player and said “I could do that?” Ed Wood took it to the next level, and Tim Burton tells his story with sympathy and obvious affection.- Paul Epstein