The stylized “Ed Wood” holds a special place in my heart.
During my time at Keene State College, I could always count on the school’s Film Society to provide me with an inviting environment to express my admiration toward a number of great movies with some wonderful people. We may be separated from one another right now under some incredibly strenuous circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we can’t indulge in some spectacular cinema together. I want to extend an invitation to all of you in reading and discussing said classic film featured in this bi-weekly column.
“Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making somebody else’s dreams?”
A frustrated Ed (Johnny Depp) sits at the bar, gulping down a shot of Imperial whisky. He casually turns around and who else is sitting in one of the booths but Orson Welles (played by Vincent D’Onofrio; dubbed by Maurice LaMarche), legendary director of “Citizen Kane” and Ed’s idol. The two bond over outside influence over their productions. And after Welles instills one last bit of inspiration, Ed triumphantly waltzes right back into his studio a freshly rejuvenated artist.
“We are gonna finish this picture just the way I want it because you cannot compromise an artist’s vision,” Ed says to the film’s backers. The jovial enthusiasm emitted from Depp’s performance cements “Ed Wood” as Tim Burton’s masterpiece and one of the few reasons I’m writing this all to you now.
Notoriously hailed one of “worst directors of all time,” Edward D. Wood Jr., a man of great ambitions, made low-budget shlock movies up to the skin of his teeth. With his ex-girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker), Vampira (Lisa Marie), the love of his life (Patricia Arquette), Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), TV psychic (Jeffrey Jones), drag queen friend (Bill Murray) and the iconic Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) at his side, the 1950s filmmaker would make the cult classics “Glen or Glenda,” “Bride of the Monster” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” despite every budgetary obstacle hurled his way.
Until very recently, I hadn’t seen “Ed Wood” since the end of high school many years ago. I had such an affinity for all sorts of classic B monster movies — from Universal’s classic titans to Z-grade trash — and I wanted to dig into what made them all so special. Maybe I could make one myself in loving homage. That’s right, I wanted to be a filmmaker.
After two years in the Film Production program at Keene State College, I realized that I didn’t have the patience nor the passion (something Ed had in spades) to give the profession what it needed. I found my passion elsewhere in Critical Film Studies and even though I was no longer behind a camera, I still find “Ed Wood” to be an empowering story of pushing forward when you’re grasping at straws to complete your vision.
Here we see Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice”) — a visionary filmmaker after his own creepy, macabre heart — take a step back from his arrangement of the surreal to focus on a man, rooted in reality… to an extent, whom he most likely found inspiration in. The film’s opening sequence, gliding over an impressive display of heavily detailed miniatures, prepares you to enter a story as bizarre as the B-grade movies Ed held so dear. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky’s striking black and white aesthetic, scattered with aggressive shadows and sharp lighting, and Howard Shore’s theremin score, evocative of orchestrations in 1950s sci-fi movies, work in tandem to provide Ed an otherworldly vibe of his own.
Burton has no qualms mixing fact and fiction for the sake of making a better movie, but not at the expense of overwhelming truth or emotion. Ed never really had a chance encounter with Welles, yet the scene transpires as a hazy, inspiring dream the actual filmmaker would have had. The heartwarming sentiment of the best and worst filmmaker sharing their creative struggles as equals at the same table in a “what if?” manner is all that really matters. It’s fictionalized beyond belief, sure, but spiritually honest and more earnest than most “based on a true story” biopics.
I always found myself interested in directors who have acquired a cult classic “worst of” sensibility in regard to their filmmaking talents. I admired them just as easily as I laughed at their work, all to the extent that I wrote my thesis paper on their sustainability. Sure, it’s great to laugh when the cardboard grave just falls over in “Plan 9,” but Ed’s dedication to get these movies made is infectious. His optimism stems from taking advantage of everything he has at his disposal. Depp’s portrayal is exaggerated, no doubt, but you need a larger-than-life performance for an individual with larger-than-life ideas.
Ed’s films, strung together on a shoestring budget, were as technically incompetent as “Ed Wood” makes them out to be. Shoddy sets, incomprehensive scripts and outrageously terrible performances remained a constant staple of his filmography, but nothing could ever convince Ed to do another take. Get the shot and move on to the next one. Depp infuses his performance with the glee of a kid on Christmas. If terrible reviews came in about his work, he’d focus on the positives. “Well, my next one will be better,” Ed would proclaim to the studio head of Warner Bros. before persevering onto his next project.
Ed may never have ascended to the throne of mainstream Hollywood filmmakers, but his legacy, however bumpy, remains a riveting portrait of determination. He had nothing. As a matter of fact, he had less than nothing. And somehow, he and his band of industry misfits made that nothing into a bizarre cultural phenomenon that still dominates conversations today.
To pluck one thing out of “Ed Wood” that I would need to keep safe and cherished forever, it’s Martin Landau’s transformative portrayal of famed Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, left behind by the industry who all believe he’s been dead for some time. Landau flawlessly captures everything from his squinchy face to his raspy laugh. His budding friendship with Ed is where the heart of the film lies. “Ed Wood” is truly the greatest swan song Lugosi could have ever gotten. Landau rightfully won Best Supporting Actor in 1995 along with makeup effects artist Rick Baker (“Best Makeup and Hairstyling”).
Depicting Ed’s cross-dressing as a wonderful extension of his identity plays beautifully into his acceptance as a filmmaker. The pink angora sweater gave Ed more happiness than most things, and Burton never wanted it to come across as funny. If you can find essays from trans writers on the subject, I would highly advise seeking them out. They can honestly speak to a reading of the film’s themes more than I ever could.
I’ve learned so much since “Ed Wood.” When you see as many middle-of-the-road releases as any film journalist does, it can be easy to lose sight of what made you fall in love with movies in the first place. To be reminded of your personal cinematic treasures is a beautiful reminder of the ones that got you to where you are now. “Ed Wood” is one of those endlessly rewatchable treasures.
I’m no longer pursuing filmmaking. That part of my life, for now, has passed. Writing about the wonders of film became my new passion. I learn new things about my writing every day, making changes as often as I can. It makes me happy. Like Ed would say, “it’s all about the big picture.”
What’s your favorite Tim Burton movie? Were you previously familiar with “Ed Wood?” Send me an email (email@example.com) and let me know! Be safe out there.