United States, 1994
U.S. Release Date:
R (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie, Bill Murray
Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
A title like "the Worst Director of All Time" virtually assures that people will remember Ed Wood, although perhaps not in exactly the way the filmmaker would have preferred. Tim Burton, with a biopic that is as much a parody as a tribute, has brought Wood to black-and-white life in the person of actor Johnny Depp, and surrounded him with a cast whose members often bear an uncanny resemblance to their real-life counterparts.
It's difficult to know what Wood was better known for: his bad movies, the unbelievable pace at which he shot them, or the women's clothing he enjoyed wearing. ("I love women. Wearing their clothing makes me feel closer to them.") His feature, Plan Nine From Outer Space (the production of which is chronicled in the final quarter of the movie), is often referred to as "the worst movie of all-time." While the picture is admittedly very bad, it probably doesn't deserve that distinction. Nevertheless, the appellation has stuck.
Ed Wood opens with the aspiring filmmaker's play "The Casual Company" getting panned in the newspapers. Undaunted, Wood moves on -- this time to movies. After a chance meeting with Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) gives him a bankable name, he obtains financing to make Glen or Glenda, the story of a transvestite struggling with his identity. Casting himself in the lead role and his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) opposite him, Wood creates a movie so dreadful that some of the influential powers in Hollywood think it's a practical joke.
Nevertheless, the director presses on with his next feature, Bride of the Atom (later renamed Bride of the Monster), and, following that, the infamous Plan Nine from Outer Space, the film that he "will be remembered for."
The most interesting personality in Ed Wood is not the title character, but Bela Lugosi. So covered up with makeup that he's barely recognizable, Martin Landau gives a deeply-felt performance -- a eerie and stunning recreation of a man haunted by lost fame. When Lugosi dies three-quarters of the way through the movie, Ed Wood loses a lot of its vitality.
One of the problems with Ed Wood is that the only well-developed character is Lugosi. Everyone else is played with enough intentional campiness to distance the viewer. Burton's chosen tone for the film has advantages and disadvantages -- this is one of the latter. Nevertheless, without crafting a "bad" movie, he has managed to capture something of the feel of one of Wood's productions. Ed Wood is at times over-the-top and silly - but it's never condescending or mocking. This makes for solid entertainment without a nasty edge.
Given the finished film, one also has to wonder if Ed Wood was interesting enough to base a two-hour movie on. It's not that he isn't a flashy character, but there are times when this movie drags, and it occurred to me that Bela Lugosi might have made a far more engrossing motion picture.
Set design, costume design, and makeup are superior. Burton has taken great pains to duplicate scenes from Wood's productions, including the infamous "home movies" of Lugosi that were used in Plan Nine. The strength and accuracy of these recreations are one of Ed Wood's more impressive aspects. Watching Landau's Lugosi putter around his garden or Lisa Marie's Vampira stalk through a fake graveyard is likely to create a sense of deja vu.
Tim Burton has acquired a reputation as a filmmaker who will take chances and embrace unusual projects. Whether Ed Wood is successful or not, it is definitely not a typical Hollywood motion picture. That it got made in this style is a testimony to the director's clout (behind Spielberg, he may be the industry's current most-bankable person behind the cameras). Black-and-white major studio releases are a rarity these days but, as colorful as Ed Wood might have been, it's hard to imagine his story told in any other medium.