Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

Ed Wood is a biopic of the unsung. The “misfits and dope addicts” of impossibly low budget American filmmaking. The film’s epilogue, following up with the characters, puts the film on the same level as all other big Hollywood biopics. Except this one is about someone who really didn’t do anything (and didn’t even get famous until after his death).

I remember around the time the film came out–I still have fond memories of seeing it at a sneak preview–the screenwriters talked about how difficult it was to turn Plan 9 from Outer Space into the momentous event in Ed Wood’s life it is in the film. Glen or Glenda, for obvious autobiographical reasons, was the better choice, but it wouldn’t have worked as a film (and certainly wouldn’t have gotten Martin Landau an Academy Award, though I doubt anyone was seriously considering the film for awards season at that point). Their solution is an interesting one. After Wood goes from funny to dramatic (the introduction of Patricia Arquette and the death of Landau’s Lugosi), the last act goes back to funny. But in a strange overdrive, best described by Bill Murray in the film–“How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?” It isn’t just the characters in the film, it’s the viewer too. The lunacy has to encompass the viewer to get the picture to end right. And it works beautifully.

The film portrays Wood as a bit of a dope, but also filled with such unbridled, infectious enthusiasm, he can get anyone to do anything. Of a certain age, anyway. One of Wood‘s funniest running jokes involves the older members of the film crew, who are either perplexed by the director’s actions or resignedly amused.

The whole show actually isn’t Johnny Depp, which is kind of surprising, given the enormity of Depp’s presence. He’s so big it’s hard for him to fit in the frame. I remember during one early scene with Mike Starr, I forced myself to notice Depp’s twitching eyebrows. It was the only time during the viewing when I thought about his approach to the character as an actor. The rest of the time I was transfixed.

It’s all about Tim Burton really. Breaking down the dialogue, it’s better than average, but nothing earth-shattering. It’s Burton’s approach to the characters and to the story itself. Watching Ed Wood and thinking about what careful and deliberate steps Burton took in making it… is a little strange. Especially during the third act with the reenactments of the Plan 9 scenes. Burton convinces the viewer to stick around for the guy who made Plan 9, then goes and shows the film in all its awfulness.

The supporting cast–from Sarah Jessica Parker to Max Casella–are all excellent. Parker’s got some of the meatier scenes in the first half with Depp–Arquette’s basically just playing the dream girl, she’s good, but she doesn’t get to do much–and she’s got a wonderful exit. Landau’s Lugosi performance is something to behold… especially given Lugosi was a terrible actor himself, only to be portrayed as beautifully as Landau does. He really does some amazing things with Lugosi, borrowing the film from Burton and Depp.

Somehow, Burton manages to make the film feel good at the end–it must be the silliness–and it’s an exquisite experience. The deft handling of comedy, drama and practically fetishized filmmaking suggests Burton’s capable of great things. It’s just a shame he doesn’t try to attain them anymore.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on a book by Rudolph Grey; director of photography, Stefan Czapsky; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Tom Duffield; produced by Denise DeNovi and Burton; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Johnny Depp (Ed Wood), Martin Landau (Bela Lugosi), Sarah Jessica Parker (Dolores Fuller), Patricia Arquette (Kathy O’Hara), Jeffrey Jones (Criswell), G.D. Spradlin (Reverend Lemon), Vincent D’Onofrio (Orson Welles), Bill Murray (Bunny Breckinridge), Mike Starr (Georgie Weiss), Max Casella (Paul Marco), Brent Hinkley (Conrad Brooks), Lisa Marie (Vampira), George ‘The Animal’ Steele (Tor Johnson) and Juliet Landau (Loretta King).

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