Ed Wood (1994, Tim Burton)

edwood

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Tim Burton never worked especially hard to come out from under stereotypes about his work. By the time of his sixth feature Ed Wood, his aesthetic was all but set in stone: a cute if juvenile attachment to the macabre atmospheres of Gothic horror and German Expressionist silent films, with touches of bad 1950s sci-fi, Roald Dahl’s fiction and the live action cartoon (think The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T), all generally processed through a well-developed sense of irony. Available evidence always suggested he was better when he didn’t work on spec; let off the strings for Edward Scissorhands in 1990 thanks to the success of his goofy rock & roll version of Batman, he turned out not only his most touching and good-hearted film by that point but his funniest. Half a decade later, his two best films — this one and the dimly comprehended Mars Attacks! — would offer us the only real glimpse at a Burton without the usual aesthetics to fall back on. It’s intriguing to consider that when you peel back the curtain of dutch angles, outlandish costume designs, ominous sets and even Danny Elfman’s over-the-top music (he was absent from this project due to a brief falling-out with the director), you’re left with the winning, lightly comic but engagingly idiosyncratic story of a man enthusiastically trying to exorcise his own demons through motion pictures.

That man is none other than Edward D. Wood Jr., a director, writer, “producer” (dubiously) and actor not widely known during his lifetime but recipient of a cult following after fans and writers familiar with the midnight movie circuit declared him the most incompetent filmmaker of all. Such a label seems trite in an age when the fervent nutters of the internet have discovered the likes of Coleman Francis, Harold P. Warren and Nicholas Winding Refn, but Wood’s films truly are distinctive for their deliriously homespun, kitchen-sink ineptitude that translates to a weird sort of honesty and charm. In contrast to so many B to Z-grade directors (and even some actual professionals), Wood’s movies are rarely boring and are actually fun to watch in a way that isn’t strictly tied to a feeling of superiority over them; to every succeeding generation of trash cinema advocates, his output serves as the very kind of found art that makes hobbyists cheer. Make no mistake: Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space are cheap, poorly made exploitation films (and so, presumably, is Bride of the Monster, the other feature whose creation is extensively documented in Ed Wood but which I’ve personally never seen), but they do work their own weird magic, which is undoubtedly why their director’s story interested these particular filmmakers.

Wood’s an ideal subject for Burton and for screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for multiple reasons. In Burton’s case, it starts with his infatuation — dating back to his very first short film, Vincent — with the all-consuming nature of the creative process. Burton grew up an alienated oddball fortuitously based in Burbank and formed his taste for the whimsical and macabre during time alone, a tendency that’s manifested in all of his most celebrated work from Scissorhands to Frankenweenie as an advocacy for the sullen underdog. The desire to be an artist (never mind a significant one, but that would be all right too) lights a fire under the Citizen Kane-worshiping Wood as well, though so does the intense desire to make a buck. And yet the first time we see his eyes really light up with passion is when he fights his way to the chance to make the autobiographical Glen or Glenda, intermingling a story about a cross-dresser with the usual hideously scummy mumbo jumbo. Wood had been dressing in women’s clothing since childhood at a time when such behavior generated not just ridicule and persecution but suspicion of criminality. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from Wood’s need to validate his own experiences through film to Burton’s fixation upon loner, inventive protagonists like those in Vincent, Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie and even Beetle Juice (Winona Ryder’s surly teenager).

More superficially but no less crucially, Burton would also have been drawn to Wood’s story by his association with once-great horror icon Bela Lugosi during the tragic twilight of his life; on top of his own love of Lugosi’s work, Burton had enjoyed a similarly close collaboration with the much more fortunate Vincent Price up to his death in 1993. It was undoubtedly also attractive to Burton that his lowest-profile production to date, though still studio-made and thus financially secured, would permit him to shoot an entire film in black and white and steep an audience in another time, both elements that draw important distinctions from his earlier and (mostly) later work.

For the two screenwriters, the interest in Wood came from a slightly more complicated, distant place. By their own account, they’d been frustrated by their lucrative but discouraging work on a godawful film called Problem Child, a formulaic kiddie grossout comedy and box office hit from the Home Alone era that ended up only faintly resembling the black comic script they’d written. On the one hand, they wanted to return to writing for adults, and the profanity-laced Hollywood disillusionment plot of Ed Wood, like a sort of Poverty Row Sunset Blvd., returned them to a world that, while no less lurid in a sense, didn’t leave them ashamed. (Unfortunately, Ed Wood was a staggering flop; looking at it now, one can hardly help but shed a tear at how impossible it would be to even get a studio to make it now, only two decades later, much less to get even the same number of people to get out and go see it.) Somewhat more important, though, is their insight into the purity of Wood’s intentions. There are plenty of inaccuracies and events refashioned for comedic or dramatic effect, with Burton certainly doing his part to make the seamy side of Hollywood quite a bit cuddlier, and there might not be much reason to think the real Wood believed in himself with quite the same zeal as the character they’ve created, but his aggressive faith in his vision is no small point: their Wood just wants to make movies he believes in and, like so many more accomplished and beloved directors, he’s stymied at every turn by scattered financiers, angry producers, technical shortcomings and outside interference. No one knows better than a writer who’s seen his or her work butchered of the many ways in which good intentions can empty out into bad cinema.

There are lots of cynical movies about the dark side of Hollywood, most of which concentate on studio operations we see little of in Ed Wood; but to add this to a pile of narratives about the emptiness of the business would be an unfortunate mistake. It’s the characterization of Wood himself, embodied masterfully by Johnny Depp in (by far) his best ever performance, that lifts this film above being just a witty variant on The Barefoot Contessa or The Bad and the Beautiful. In the professional life that intermingles liberally with his personal one, Wood takes us on a virtual tour of the miseries of independent filmmaking, almost in a textbook sequence of the ways in which one can try to secure money and run afoul of the consequences: Glen or Glenda is bankrolled by a trash Z-grade producer who makes movies in under a week and pre-sells them to markets around the country on the basis of shock-value premise alone; Wood takes the finished film to Warner Bros. in an attempt at landing a studio deal for his next project; failing that (horribly), he takes the fundraiser route to try and interest some deep-pocketed investors who have their own ideas about theme and casting, settling eventually on a local rancher; and when all else fails, he resorts to swindling a local church. Through it all, the grin of a confident master only rarely leaves his face, as though no setback can dim his enthusiasm; that very enthusiasm — and what it suggests about the therapeutic power of creation, even when the results please no one but oneself — is a large part of what makes Ed Wood so surprisingly uplifting. Thanks to Depp, there’s nothing sinister or foreboding in Wood’s confidence here; he’s the best, most vaguely ridiculous kind of eternal optimist.

Thanks to Wood’s merry band of oddballs in real life, Burton and the writers’ film is populated with weird figures to whom they show no interest in condescending; associates like the sham psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), TV host Vampira (Lisa Marie), wrestler and eventual cult figure Tor Johnson (George Steele, uncanny) and early drag icon Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray) among others all throw their hats, sometimes reluctantly, into the ring for the sake of helping Wood create his impossibly insular, amateurish productions. There’s a depressing side to this as well, of course, and the film doesn’t ignore the paycheck anxiety that rules over the lives of minor celebrities on the autograph circuit, but its affection toward these eccentrics is a statement by itself because it would be so easy to poke fun at them. Instead, this is a Hollywood story about movie-world weirdness that doesn’t just point and laugh when confronted with the idea that the shady practices and enterprising people at the bottom of the rung are a part of what created the culture of movies, are indeed perhaps an inevitable outgrowth of art itself.

The tragic aspects of capitalism’s tyrany over art, rather than the funny ones, are made most apparent in the narrative that occupies the bulk of Ed Wood, that of the title figure’s friendship with Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who’d been so unforgettable in Tod Browning’s Dracula but hadn’t worked in years when Wood ran into him. In the film, Lugosi — brilliantly brought back from the dead by Martin Landau, in one of the most deserving Academy Award-winning performances of modern vintage — is first seen testing out coffins because he’s preparing to die soon, but their relationship does evolve into something believable and charming; Wood isn’t much less financially desperate than the morphine-addicted Lugosi, but his admiration for the man steps over quickly into love and compassion such that finding work for his friend becomes a large part of the motivation for securing financing to complete Bride of the Monster and to shoot Plan 9 from Outer Space. Lugosi is too old to deal with the havoc and chaos of a film shoot, particularly one so low-rent as Wood’s invariably are, which leads to a lot of monologues in chairs that have little to do with the narratives Wood has conjured up. (At one point he does get stuck fighting a flaccid mechanical octopus in the middle of the night, but this was a fabrication by the screenwriters; he actually used a stuntman, but what would Ed Wood be without that moment?)

After a stint in rehab he cannot afford and several close calls with suicide and overdosing, Lugosi dies before his last Wood film can begin shooting. Seemingly suspecting it may be nearing the end, Wood takes an elegiac bit of footage on his own of Lugosi stepping out of his house and sniffing a flower, a moment that with a few other scattered vignettes will embody the whole of Lugosi’s contribution to Plan 9 despite his screen credit; this is an ideal example of the way Alexander and Karaszewski render comedy from darkness without trivializing lives. Filming Lugosi that day is a gesture of gratitude and encouragement, to remind a great man that he can still work; but without betraying any sort of hollow cynicism, Depp’s Wood can instantly turn this around into a commercial opportunity on the occasion of Lugosi’s death, and this small amount of footage secures him the money to make his best-known movie.

Burton takes pains for period authenticity, though in typical Burton fashion his interest is not in generating nostalgia for the Hollywood of the 1950s but a particular, only faintly remembered niche and subculture within it. The duplications of various scenes from the three relevant Wood features are exhaustive in their accuracy, nothing exaggerated for extra comedic mileage that wouldn’t be necessary anyway. These reenactments are really the most historically accurate moments in the film, and they’re sincerely funny on the same basis that Chris Elliott replicating a William Shatner monologue was funny: designed to reproduce something so genuinely strange that it can’t be parodied. The catty dialogue scenes in Bride of the Monster, the oddly beautiful sweater-passing sequence in Glen or Glenda, and every incomprehensible moment of Plan 9 from Outer Space — all seem too weird to be true, but in the context Burton provides they deliver the thesis of underfinanced, ill-conceived motion pictures as semi-accidental folk art.

Really, though, Ed Wood‘s substance is in the life lived outside of work; Lugosi’s acting for Wood is less vital than their bonding. Wood’s ability to find acceptance for his transvestism among the supposed degenerates of Hollywood matters more than the desperate senselessness of his movie about the issue. Wood, Breckinridge, Lugosi and the other denizens of this weird circle may not have had such camaraderie in real life, but giving it to them now puts across something significant about the way L.A. and other urban centers can provide life-saving solace for those who, like Burton and Wood and probably many people reading this, can’t blend in uncompromised with the middle-American ethos. It’s not a matter of class; you go off to “make it” and will probably struggle more, not less. Wood never seems to be able to comfortably pay his rent but he does find, at least within the confined space of this narrative, a kind of happiness that comes only from the nonjudgment of other people, and the freedom not to hold back. He asserts his dominance over his crew and his obstinate financiers only by dressing in drag, and to most of those surrounding him this does not seem abnormal behavior; this doesn’t extend to his girlfriend, actress Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), who reaches the end of her rope when Wood surrounds himself with such a flamboyantly unconventional brood that he’s no longer viewed as freakish.

Shortly thereafter, Wood meets his future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette), knitting booties in a waiting room and hitting a carnival on a date during which they discuss old movies and radio performers. In the Spook House, a smitten Wood, determined not to repeat old mistakes, quickly admits his Angora fetish to his new girlfriend, who — after processing and clarifying — receives it warmly, and accepts him immediately. This is one of most persuasive cinematic depictions of “coming out” in any capacity; Wood isn’t gay, but he risks a lot by laying his soul this bare just after meeting someone he suspects may be a large part of his future, and their conversation about the matter is both believable and notably progressive, modeling an understanding of complex sexuality and a resistance to shaming that one only wishes could be the norm in film and in life even today.

The two key scenes in Ed Wood are in some ways extrapolations of that moment; most audiences will most fondly remember the Spook House conversation, Lugosi’s monologue about turning down Frankenstein before the octopus fight, and the many Wood reenactments as the quintessential points of this delightful film. For me, however, three other sequences have stuck out even more through the years, marking the most optimistic, freewheeling moments in Wood’s life, and also the moments in which Burton stretches farthest from the kind of movies he’s known for. First is the Bride of the Monster wrap party (clearly modeled on the wedding banquet in Browning’s Freaks) wherein Wood performs a full burlesque routine in drag with his friends cheering him on with the sole exception of Fuller. While her tirade just afterward is reasonably pitched, and clearly the frustration of someone honestly not prepared to enter the sleazier corners of the film industry, it demonstrates a gulf between the two former lovers that emphasizes how much Wood has now found his home among the gaggle of wackos he’s slowly accumulated. Pushback from an “outsider” only further unites them. Secondly, there is the scene in which all of Wood’s cronies are baptized in a swimming pool (because Johnson wouldn’t fit anywhere else), and Bunny (after one of Murray’s best moments of physical comedy ever) wonders aloud how Ed managed to convince so many people to do something so weird and dumb for the sake of his shitty movies. Wood dodges the question but the truth of the matter is that this experience, like the gathering of loopy locals around a dead body in The Trouble with Harry, says so much about the way the utopian ideal of friendship and acceptance permits happiness as often as the act of creation, even as one unmistakably benefits the other.

Nearly as telling is the closing fantasy premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space, a wholly invented gala event that isn’t even intended to seem like a real thing that happened. With respectful and sometimes ecstatic applause for each of the stars and Wood himself, their big names in gravestones on the screen (a famous gag repeated verbatim in Ed Wood‘s own wonderful title sequence, one of Burton’s few cops to his usual tricks and a welcome one at that), it gives Wood an opportunity to step out, bask in the glow briefly, and thank Bela. Like the blissful redemption that closes The Last Laugh or Max Fischer’s dream at the beginning of Rushmore, this is a stirring, slightly heartbreaking vision of a world that can never actually exist, in which all of Wood’s impulses are fully validated and he and the people he loves enjoy the glory of earnest recognition for one fine moment. After the film ends, Wood drives Kathy to Las Vegas to get married in the rain, which he assures her will stop as soon as they get around the corner. As the closing epilogue announces, it won’t and never will, but it’s a fine thing to believe for just a second.

The most egregious fiction generated about Ed Wood since its release has been the perception that it’s somehow anti-independent filmmaking, that it props up Hollywood studios as those who know what they’re doing, everyone else as a hopeless freak priced out of the relief of self-expression, by extension scolding the idea of such expression without monetary motives. Such a reading of the film requires a disrespect to its characters that it quite simply never demonstrates. The dignity afforded to Wood and his wife (and his former girlfriend, a poor match with him but never denied her humanity and shown to suffer long and faithfully for Ed), to Lugosi, to Bunny Breckinridge, to even the needling Baptist financiers of Plan 9 is insuffient only if one also feels that Jonathan Demme is dismissive of working class people in Melvin and Howard. While Wood is an interesting and weird story to rise from the outskirts of the movie world, nothing in the film invalidates the experiences of outsiders such as Roger Corman, Herk Harvey (Carnival of Souls) and virtual unknowns like John Parker (Dementia), each of whom performed the remarkable feat of using the exploitation structure to make artful, serious films, much less the numerous avant garde and amateur filmmakers artistically thriving outside any semblance of a financially motivated film industry.

The attraction of Wood’s story as told here goes far beyond the boundaries of said industry: if there’s an instructional message to Burton’s film, it’s to plug away at one’s own passions regardless of outside protest, even if it doesn’t quite advocate the bilking of finances on false pretense practiced by Wood himself. Obviously this is the message brought to Wood during his also wholly fictitious chance meeting with Orson Welles, still ridiculously young and on the verge of making Touch of Evil, so many times the artist Wood could ever be but struggling with, almost to the letter, every one of the same obstacles. In other words: the personal value within the act of creating is wholly separate from our creations’ ability to speak to other people, something that is sometimes easy to forget and is almost impossible to remember in a collaborative field like filmmaking full of external pressures. We may never live on a sufficiently level paying field that it will truly be possible to make movies without compromise, and Ed Wood isn’t much less passionate a lament for that situation than a biography of Welles might be.

Such misgivings about the possibility of living off art, sadly, extend to Burton himself. He has done good work since Ed Wood, especially in his original field of animation; he has also surrendered with ever-increasing eagerness to a machine perfectly capable of chewing up even its most promising figures. For now he remains a lucky, financially successful filmmaker, but one whose ability to inspire any kind of awe has been stymied in part by large audiences’ resistance to even attempting to meet him halfway on a magical valentine to filmmaking like Ed Wood, a ruthless satire like Mars Attacks! or even a children’s film like Frankenweenie, and even more so by the seductively comfortable nature of conventional big-budget studio filmmaking, which from the outside seems so much more harrowing and nightmarish than jumping into a pool to get baptized with a bunch of pals to “make a monster movie.” Burton will probably never make another film this honest and sublime, but I hope he doesn’t spend the rest of his career just helping the unfeeling cogs turn.

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