Friday, November 27, 2009

Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood is, by far, my favorite of the seven films Tim Burton has made with his go-to leading man Johnny Depp. It also happens to be my favorite Tim Burton movie period. For that matter, this may very well be my favorite Depp performance (I'd have to really think about that one though as he's consistently memorable in all of his work, regardles of the strengths of the films themselves). Ed Wood, as some of you may know, is famously lauded as the worst director of all time. His film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, has likewise been named the worst movie ever made. The Ed Wood biopic, however, is far more than just a celebration of schlock (although it is that too).

Ed Wood, with his big false teeth and pencil thin moustache, looks like a younger, more energetic John Waters. And like Waters did many years later, Ed Wood has a unique gift in drawing in various "freaks" to his life and assembling them into a rag-tag army of sorts, prepared to go to the ends of the earth in the shared pursuit of "the dream". The dream, in this case (as with Waters), is making over the top B movies. The main difference between Ed Wood and John Waters is the self-awareness. John Waters is a pop-culture and high society skewering satirist while Ed Wood was 110% sincere and believed he was making a masterpiece every time the camera rolled. We see this from the first time we meet Depp's incarnation of the man while he's standing backstage at an amateur play he's put on. Wood's big, childlike eyes grow wider with each passing moment as he silently mouths the dialogue being performed on stage, giddy like a child at witnessing his project come to life. We also see the first signs of his nearly unshakeable optimism in the face of failure when, the next morning, he gets his first (dreadful) review and reacts by pointing out that "it wasn't all bad" since the critic commented on how realistic the costumes looked. A few scenes later he subtley incorporates this slight bit of positivite feedback while meeting with a film producer, bragging about his recent hit play that was "praised for it's realism". The film he's agressively pursuing is based on a recent news story about a man who went under the knife for a sex change operation. Wood, when asked why he's the perfect choice for this material barely skips a beat, nor does his smile waver when he cheerfully replis that "I like wearing womens clothes". He's not homsexual, he explains, just that he's always felt very comfortable in them. He later shares this same information to his disgusted girlfriend Dolores (the dreadful Sarah Jessica Parker who I can tolerate here since she's not playing someone you're supposed to like...and because I get to smirk during the aforementioned play review scene when she gasps while reading and asks "Do I really have a face that looks like a horse"...yes you do SJP, yes you do). After explaining that he first acquired a taste for cross-dressing in his youth, raised by a mother who always wanted a girl and would dress him up as one, he goes on to share that while wearing women's underwear during his time in the army "I wasn't afraid of being killed in combat, but I was terrified of being wounded and having the doctors and the men find out my terrible secret".

Many other colorful characters populate Ed Wood. An easy favorite being Bunny Breckenridge as played by Bill Murray (in one of his first dramatic departures from the wise-ass Ghostbuster persona we all know and love). Every scene Murray's in, as a sad sweet woman, trapped in a man's body, adds a lot of heart and frequent comic relief (Murray can't help but be funny even when he's not in classic Murray mode). Ed Wood is loyal to his friends and loyal to his cast and crew that transition with him from amateur plays to amateur cinema (including Max Casella who I immediately recognized from his work as best friend Vinnie on Doogie Howser many years ago). We also have the always brilliant Jeffrey Jones (who you all know as Principal Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller but who also worked with Burton previously on Beetlejuice and has done excellent dramatic work in the HBO series Deadwood and in Milos Forman's films Valmont and Amadeus as well), here performing as "The Amazing Criswell", an amateur physcic who was apparently famous at the time for going on TV to make bizarre predictions about the future. We also get the universally beloved cleavage and mediocre acting skills of Ms. Lisa Marie (the future Ex-Mrs. Tim Burton would go on to work with him again in Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow and lastly Planet of the Apes, where Burton traded up for his current wife, the incredibly talented Helena Bonham Carter who has taken over as his muse ever since, in Big Fish, The Corpse Bride, Willy Wonka and his upcoming Alice In Wonderland). Lisa Marie plays Vampira, an old B-movie TV host who I assumed was an earlier version of Elvira, who I remember in vivid curvy detail from when I was an adolescent boy and who, we learn from the closing credits, was later sued unsuccesfully by Vampira for stealing her act.

The most important relationship in the movie, though, is between Eddie and beloved movie star Bela Lugosi (an Oscar winning turn from Martin Landau). We meet Lugosi for the first time as Eddie does, walking past a store window and seeing him lying inside a casket. Lugosi is not dead, as it turns out (just browsing). But he does seem to be heading there in a hurry, even telling Wood "I'm planning on dying soon". Lugosi is grateful to have a companion around who worships him and tells him he's made a difference in his life and they become fast friends. Eddie does of course "use him" to try to add value to his movie projects but it's clear that he loves him dearly too. There's a great moment where, before Lugosi's first day on the set of what will become Bride of The Monster, Wood gathers the cast and crew around him, and while whispering into a directors megaphone (funny enough in it's own right), tells them not to make Lugosi feel uncomfortable on the set by asking for autographs, being overzealous, etc. As he's emphasizing the point that they should just treat him like a regular guy, Bela walks in and Depp practically skips over to him with a childish little yelp of "Bela!". Another of my favorite moments between these two is earlier on when Wood sits at Lugosi's house watching Dracula with its star beside him. Lugosi, moved as I am by Vampira's sleek silhouette (she's hosting the showing) attempts to hypnotize her right through the TV screen to fall in love with him. Lugosi is completely sincere as he uses a smooth, transfixing hand gesture and a powerful stare to work his magic. Wood, sitting next to him, grins from ear to ear and tries to double this gesture, only to be told that "you must be double jointed...and you must be Hungarian" to pull it off.

Lugosi, tragically, is not without his demons. The most glaring example being his addiction to morphine "with a demorral chaser". We see devestating track marks in his arm when the make-up artist is working on him before shooting a scene and "Eddie" (as Lugosi affectionately calls him) gets woken up in the middle of the night more than once to come to his rescue. Lugosi though, like everyone Edward D. Wood Jr. meets, is caught up in Wood's passion and zest for life and for the magic of cinema. You can't really blame him (or any of the misfit army) either. As I watched Depp in this movie recently, I struggled to think of any of the 20+ characters I've seen him portray that reminded me of this one...and I absolutely could not find one! Ed Wood is as far removed from Captain Jack Sparrow as Sparrow is from Donnie Brasco and Brasco is from his work as John Dillinger in this year's underrated Public Enemies. It's amazing to me that such a striking, handsome face (I recently saw him on the cover for this years People Magazine "Sexiest Man Alive" issue for what must be at least the 3rd or 4th time) can be employed with such vastly different results time and time again. If you're not there already, I'd strongly encourage you all to look up Depp's filmography on IMDB and jump on the well populated bandwagon.

The film's look is quite striking as well. Intentional use of black and white in modern film is virtually unheard of (the so-so film noir experiment The Good Shepard, another Depp vehicle, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and the magnificent and tragically little known Coen Brothers film The Man Who Wasn't There are the few that come to mind). In this case, it is employed not just for the wonderful shadows, fog and ambience it creates, but also to evoke a type of moviegoing experience (50's B-Movie schlock spectaculars like The Incredible Shrinking Man and many others, too numerous to name). Much like the long forgotten John Goodman film Matinee, this is a love letter to that time and place. Accordingly, this feels like the most heartfelt and personal movie Tim Burton has ever made (although I suspect he'd tell you his colorful daddy issue extravaganza Big Fish would take that prize). While I feel Burton is very talented and has a visual sensibility that has become an unmistakeable signature over his 20 odd year career, I think most of his movies are hit or miss. More specifically, very few of them have stood the test of time for me. Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and many others have been solid filmgoing experiences for me but for some reason, most of them lose some of their splendor in the 5th or 6th viewing. Some, like the aforementioned Mars Attacks and his Willy Wonka remake are just plain BAD (and not in a good, Ed Wood production kind of way). My point is that it's interesting to see Burton, so well known for his striking visuals and lush color palletes, to be so seemingly subdued in a black and white landscape. However, not only does he make the film tremendously interesting visually but in terms of its themes and character dynamics, it's wholly consistent with his body of work. Burton makes movies about loners/outcasts/weirdos and the people who love them. From Pee-Wee Herman to Edward Scissorhands, to Batman, to Sweeney Todd, even his Planet of the Apes remake, one could argue, is all about a man alone in a society that doesn't want him. Show me a Tim Burton movie and I will show you a unique, isolated man as its protagonist.

I absolutely adore this film Ed Wood. I never even got to the introduction of the love of his life, Kathy, as embodied by the magnificent Patricia Arquette (she of the blessedly untouched snaggle tooth, a fitting beauty mark for one of my favorite actresses). Put her characters from Lost Highway, True Romance and Ed Wood together in a blender and you have created the most sexy, complicated and loving woman to ever grace the silver screen as far as I'm concerned (granted, she's maybe a tad evil in Lost Highway but I'd let that freight train run me over anytime). It's also noteworthy that this screenplay was written by Larry Karaszewski & Scott Alexander, a sort of biopic power duo who also gave us scripts for The People vs Larry Flynt and the Andy Kaufman story, Man on the Moon.

There are so many moments in Ed Wood beyond the one's I have mentioned that melt my heart, make me laugh and inspire me to bring bottomless passion and drive to my own life. This film is a great companion to my original "Mission Statement" blog in a way. It's all about putting yourself out there, giving it your best shot and knowing in your heart that if you love what you're creating, with every fiber of your being, that's all that matters! I do have to admit that I feel the pacing slows down significantly for the last 15 minutes or so and I often find myself looking at my watch in this part. It's for a fairly obvious reason though (a turning point that I won't spoil here) and in terms of plot, the rest of the story is still essential to the movie and the ending is very satisfying. Grade: A+


  1. I think Ed Wood's sincerity is what makes him, and the movie, so likable. The effort and his faith in himself have to be valued! What doesn't that "count" in the real world??
    As far as it owning the title of the worst movie ever made...I had heard that went to Ishtar, also one of my faves...

  2. I wonder if they thought they were making something brilliant during the filming of Ishtar. I'd have to say yes since I don't think of Dustin Hoffman being the type of guy to do a movie for a paycheck.

    Just to clarify though, no one's calling Ed Wood the movie "the worst film of all time", they labeled the real Ed Wood's film "Plan 9 from outer space" the worst movie ever (and it is memorably bad...but in a great way).

  3. "Lisa Marie plays Vampira, .... who I assumed was an earlier version of Elvira." No, Elvira was a later version of Vampira as Vampira couldn't have anticipated Elvira.

  4. DT, I don't get it, is this a semantics/grammar issue? What I meant is that Vampira did the same show Elvira did before Elvira did it. Obviously Vampira couldn't have predicted Elvira, but Elvira was known to me (being born in 1983) and Vampira was not until I saw Ed Wood so naturally my reaction in learning of this real life person was that "oh...she was an earlier version of Elvira". We're both saying the same thing...