Wood’s low-budget films are now legendary for their ludicrous writing, inept production, and amateurish acting. Cardboard tombstones may topple over, walls may shake and nearly collapse with the opening of a door, and scenes of stampeding buffalo may appear out of nowhere, but such disastrous moments represented nothing more to Wood than the suspension of belief. For all his incompetence, however, Wood did not really warrant the title of the world’s worst film director. That title would more accurately be slapped on a filmmaker who bores his audience. Wood can be accused of many cinematic crimes, but boring his audience is a charge for which any viewer of Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and his masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space will certainly clear him. Wood’s films are generally hilarious, a distinction that redeems his otherwise misguided productions.
It’s clear from Tim Burton’s treatment of Wood’s unusual story that the director of such offbeat, big budget hits as Batman, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, likes his subject. As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Ed Wood is a charmingly good-natured innocent who is madly in love with movies.
"All I want to do is tell stories," he says, and though his talent is not equal to his ambition, Wood told stories--poorly, perhaps, but with a sincerity that make them hard to resist.
Wood’s love for his craft is strong, however, too strong to reject even though he is repeatedly rejected by critics, studio heads, and even some of the oddest oddballs in the underground exploitation market of the movie business with whom he is forced to do business. Along the way, he must also compromise his integrity, if he has any, by making changes in the cast lineup to include an investor’s son, and even changing the title of his film, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, to Plan 9 from Outer Space to accommodate the conservative Christians who finance Wood’s bizarre epic about alien invasion.
Unlike the Medveds, Harry and Michael, whose Golden Turkey Awards brought about Wood’s resurgence, Burton’s film is not smug. It doesn’t patronize its subject, but instead celebrates Wood’s love affair with film, a love no doubt shared by the maker of Ed Wood. That passion for the magic of moviemaking is evident throughout the film, and is what makes it a surefire candidate for cult status in the years to come. This is a film buff’s movie, hence its failure at the box-office when released in time for Halloween 1994. To fully enjoy Ed Wood almost requires an all consuming passion for the movies, good and bad movies alike.
The sets and black-and-white photography are beautiful to behold, the script by Rudolph Grey and Scott Alexander is fresh and alive with many memorable moments, and the performances are first-rate. As the angora sweater wearing Wood, Johnny Depp is simply wonderful. Jeffrey Jones nails phony psychic Criswell to a T, Bill Murray is his always delightfully insincere self as Bunny Breckinridge, the effeminate member of Wood’s ensemble who is obsessed with having a sex change operation, and Lisa Marie is sexy, stunning, and arrogantly aloof as horror movie hostess Vampira. Sara Jessica Parker also shines as Wood’s long suffering girlfriend, as does Patricia Arquette as her replacement for Wood’s affections, and Juliet Landau as the most ambitious member of Wood’s ragtag repertory company. Even the great Orson Welles is briefly resurrected from the grave, seems to be, anyway, thanks to Vincent D’ Onofrio’s magical cameo as Wood’s idol.
Then there’s Martin Landau’s Oscar winning portrayal of the tragic Bela Lugosi. Spouting profanity laced insults at his rival Boris Karloff, admiring the "jugs" on Vampira, and pompously but artfully reciting Wood’s generally atrocious dialogue, Landau does not merely inhabit some very impressive makeup, he appears to serve as a medium for the long dead actor’s spirit. Prior to the film’s release, Landau stated that he wished not only to portray the screen’s legendary horror star, but to give a great Lugosi performance. He succeeds on both counts.
Everything about Ed Wood clicks perfectly. The film pays tribute not only to Wood, but to the era - the 1950’s - in which he made his very unique mark. It conjures a mood similar to Joe Dante’s Matinee, but even more delightfully. Ed Wood, a tribute to the man who made some of the worst movies in history, is one of the best pictures of 1994, and one of the greatest films ever made about the movies.
Brian W. Fairbanks
© 1994 Brian W. Fairbanks