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Non-Review Review: Ed Wood

One gets a sense that Tim Burton is one of those people who feels a deep connection with famously awful director Edward D. Wood Jr. His bio-pic on the (in)famous director is saturated with a sense of deep nostalgia and almost earnest respect for the man, who it paints as an enthusiastic and inoffensive loon. In fact, coming out of the film, it’s really hard to feel that describing the master of schlock as “the worst director of all time” is actually an insult – but rather an endearing little nickname, a half-joke half-serious remark amongst friends. The movie does share an odd laugh at the expensive of its protagonist, but it also can’t help but admire a visionary who just wouldn’t compromise with the studio system. Even if it didn’t always (or ever) work out, you get the sense that Burton admires the actor/producer/writer/director for that.

A Wood(en) performance?

I’m going to be honest. I think that Ed Wood represents Burton’s masterpiece. I don’t think a movie from Burton before or since has ever managed to connect so perfectly with its subject. One gets the sense, of course, that Burton feels a strange link with Bruce Wayne alone in his gothic mansion in Batman or poor Edward in Edward Scissorhands, but there’s something incredibly honest about his approach to the classic fifties sci-fi/horror director – something that rings incredibly true. While Burton has much more talent than his subject, it’s hard not to get the sense that they’ve both shared the experience of sitting in a fancy room opposite a big-shot produce who just doesn’t get it. Hell, as terrible as it would undoubtedly have been, any film called Dr. Acula deserves some funding.

For those unfamiliar with Wood, he’s a cross-dressing World War II veteran who was responsible for several turkeys – including Plan 9 From Outer Space, one of the few serious contenders for the title of “worst film ever made.” Burton offers us the middle chapters of the director’s life, from his “breakout” directing a theatrical adaptation of his own novel Casual Company (a play which gets points at least based on the name) through to the “premiere” of Plan 9 From Outer Space. In doing so, Burton is able to paint the story with a somewhat affectionate nostalgia, avoiding some of the later problems Wood would end up facing – he ultimately ended as the writer and of pornography, developing an alcohol addiction.

Dressed up to the "Nine"...

Burton’s film takes some liberties with the events portrayed as well – to the point that the family of Bela Legosi have serious issues with how the Hungarian actor is portrayed – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every aspect of the production possesses a strange and sincere earnestness, but an endearing one. Watching it, the viewer gets the impression that this is Wood’s life as he would like to tell it – albeit executed with far more skill and finesse than the director could ever really pull off.

Shot in black-and-white, the movie features a central performance from Johnny Depp which seems cheekily self-aware. The actor plays Wood with a sort of “never say die” optimism and self-belief, to the point that we want him to succeed – even though we know that the end result will be absolutely terrible. Depp’s style is intentional corny, based on a very old-school approach to acting. His line delivery calls to mind the style one encounters on watching classic films. Several of the other actors wander in and out of the style (most awkwardly Sarah Jessica Parker), but it’s Depp who is consistently in that sort of mood. In any other film, it wouldn’t work – but here it suits to have Wood noticeably out of step with the world around him.

A vampy vampire...

Indeed, Wood is very much a typical Burton protagonist. Being a cross-dresser, he already rejects the social norms of the buttoned-down fifties. However, it’s the company he surrounds himself with that truly defines him. “You’ve surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdos!” his girlfriend Dolores declares as Wood finds himself heading a posse which includes a buxom vampire television host, a Swedish wrestler, a man who continually discusses his planned sex change operation (but never follows through on it), a phony psychic and a former Dracula actor.

This group forms something of a surreal family unit, to the point where actors join the crew on raiding trips for props, or go out of their way to help Ed receive financial backing. “How do you do it?” Bucky Beckinridge ponders at one point. “How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?” It’s a strange bond that they share. One gets the sense that the crew don’t hang around with Ed because they believe that he’ll make them rich – many even openly acknowledge that he’s not the strongest director – but they do it because they genuinely care about him (and he genuinely cares for them). When an executive ponders, “Why would Lugosi wanna do a sex-change flick?” Ed honestly answers, “Because he’s my friend.”

The original Edward and Bela...

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the production concerns the relationship between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. Lugosi was famous as Dracula, a real star – only to end up fading from the spotlight to the point where people asking whether Lugosi is dead becomes something of a recurring joke. Wood gave the actor work again. Surreal work (in fact, we’re treated to the infamous sight of Lugosi chanting “pull the string!” superimposed over stock footage of buffalo stampeding), but work nonetheless. Wood pays Lugosi, money that the former celebrity uses to fund his morphine addiction. Wood comes across as something of an enabler, albeit one motivated by sincere and genuine affection.

It’s Wood who tries to protect his friend by scaring away the paparazzi who are hounding him (even though Lugosi can’t see the harm that they bring). It’s Wood who films footage of his friend just walking around, because Lugosi enjoys the comfort of a shoot. As much as Lugosi is initially using Wood as a means to earn money, you sense a deep bond and affection between the two men – a genuine and mutual respect and appreciation which is rare to come by. It’s true platonic love.

I wouldn't sweat(er) it...

Martin Landau earned his Oscar for the role of Lugosi and he is brilliant. It’s a mark of Depp’s quality that I think the younger actor was slightly better, but it’s still two fantastic performances. Even amid an affectionate little film like this, there’s more genuine pathos around Lugosi than there is around Wood. Wood never seems to doubt that he’s making a masterpiece, while Lugosi seems perfectly aware of just how far he has fallen. Lugosi has that wonderful air of tragedy as he admits that it was pride that put him in his current situation; while Ed clearly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

The movie is a love letter to a man who clearly loved movies and tried to honour them in his own distinct way. I wonder if Burton feels something approaching admiration for the man’s sheer ambition, and relentless energy in seeing his own unique vision make to the big screen. It’s not impartial or fair, but it never really pretends to be – after all, genuine love and affection is seldom objective. It’s just a perfectly sweet little film, and it packs perhaps the most earnestness I think Burton has ever brough to the big screen.

4 Responses

  1. You summed it up lovely. I mean, even if they take liberties, it’s like Wood and his crew were the original ‘wacky band of misfits team up to ____’.

    • Yep. Hard to hate a guy who never meant anybody any harm and simply wanted to do what he wanted to do, even if the results were terrible.

  2. This movie is a favourite of mine. I love the line (paraphrasing), “Life is too short to spend it living others’ dreams.” Ed Wood in this film loves movie-making so much he doesn’t even care if what he makes is terrible. I envy that kind if powerful optimism, geared toward making shlocky movies of all things.

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