What if you had a passion for doing something you were terrible at? Would you make it your life’s work regardless, or would you shove The Dream down under a pile of Get Real? Most people would do the latter. "When I grow up I want to..." says everybody, but hardly anybody actually grows up to do what they completed that sentence with; most people don't join the circus, become an astronaut or make movies. Most people don’t have what it takes to live those candy-colored dreams, recognise that and find a “real job” instead.
Edward D Wood, Jr. was not most people.
And neither is Tim Burton most filmmakers. Most filmmakers, after all, make movies about heroes, super-villains, big achievers or champions. Burton – ever the champion of the outsider – chose to make a film about someone who never really succeeded at anything except doing what he always dreamt of doing. Wood wasn’t even one of those ‘ahead-of-his-time’ masterminds whose genius is only recognised posthumously. B-grade? This maverick journeyman’s films probably rank 24 letters further down the alphabet, and have earned him the ignoble title of Worst Director of All Time.
Yet, this is not a farce or a send up. In anybody else’s hands, the story of this nutty writer, director, actor and producer (sometimes he was all these at the same time) could easily have gone there. But Tim Burton’s hands shape it into a charming tale of a passionate, undiluted and unabashed love for the movies.
Edward D Wood, Jr. grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the movies soon captured his heart, never to release it. Often choosing the cinema over school, little Ed Wood would rummage around the trash cans at the end of the day looking for discarded stills from the day’s films to add to his growing collection. Fascinated by the strange and weird, his favorites were films based on horror and the occult. These would become the focus of the movies he dared to dream up and make.
Intriguing though his early years were – carnival freak being amongst his jobs as a youngster – Burton chooses to concentrate on what could arguably be called Ed Wood’s golden years. Ed Wood, the movie, takes us through Ed Wood, the filmmaker’s, years from struggling scriptwriter to his piece de resistance – Plan 9 from OuterSpace. Less biopic, and more strange love story.
Ed Wood’s taste of relative success began when he rediscovered yesteryear superstar Bela ‘Dracula’ Lugosi. Together, this odd couple of never-was and has-been managed to convince studios and investors that they had something special. Lugosi’s career was reignited, and Wood’s career sparked into motion, with Glen or Glenda – a film that was supposed to be I Changed My Sex – the true story of transsexual Christine Jorgensen. When Jorgensen refused to cooperate, Wood, undaunted, wrote Glen or Glenda, a screenplay about transvestism that was based on his own love for dressing in women’s clothing. It was a very personal film, and included lengthy medical expert testimony to stress that a man who cross dresses is not homosexual, neither is he “off” in any way. He is perfectly normal and completely heterosexual, but just happens to feel more comfortable dressed as a woman. Wood's love of cross-dressing is rumoured to have stemmed from his mother dressing him in girl’s clothes as a kid, since she wanted a baby girl. Indeed, for Wood, it seemed to be nothing more than a stress-buster, the equivalent of a maternal hug, and he often resorted to his favorite outfit of angora sweater, skirt and heels when he was feeling frazzled and tense.
Wood went on to churn out movie after movie on shoestring budgets, in a matter of days, with motley-crew casts that included his production assistants, a pro wrestler, a television psychic, a chiropractor and a mechanical octopus monster, that had to be manually controlled by an ailing Bela Lugosi after its machinery had conked off. With a charming – if completely misplaced – confidence, he rarely shot more than one take, declaring even scenes with glaring acting faux pas and obvious blunders perfect to print. He would save money by filling chunks of his movies with stock footage; he had the particular skill (if that is the word to be used) of managing to fit any random footage into any story. His movies turned out as ludicrous as their names sounded – Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, The Night the Banshee Cried and other questionable gems. But Wood carried on regardless of rotten reviews, empty theatres, the lack of investors and the loss of his ambitious girlfriend who wanted to be rich or famous or both, and knew he could never make her either. Making movies was all he knew how to do, and all he really wanted to do.
One of the most endearing – and funniest – scenes of the film is when Ed Wood happens upon his idol Orson Welles. You would think the Z-grade filmmaker and the genius would have nothing in common, that the latter would snub the former. You would be wrong. Welles and Wood connect and bond over a shared artistic frustration with the system, and identify with each other’s struggle to bring their respective, uncompromised visions to the screen. Tim Burton himself could easily have been the third man in that conversation. Big studios are rarely comfortable letting filmmakers like him swim as far outside the mainstream as they would like. That scene does more than establish Burton’s empathy with Wood, however; it establishes Wood's credibility as a true artist – he may not have been a very good artist, but he was a legitimate one.
Tim Burton injects the movie with an infectious enthusiasm that skips off the screen, and pulls on your smile muscles, rendering them utterly unable – indeed, unwilling – to resist. Like Wood himself, Burton picked black & white as his cinematography palette, and yet he manages to splash the film’s canvas with the kitschy colorfulness of a child daring not only to paint outside the lines, but also to color the grass purple and the sky green. The movie seems to drag its feet in places, and leap about with no discipline in others, but that is more likely than not intentional – it all fits the haphazard mad method of its subject. The always-superb Johnny Depp plays right along – his starring turn as Wood has an over-the-top delight to it that seems to channel an eleven year-old boy who has seen his first pair of breasts. Ed Wood is, yet again, evidence that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are a match made in some weird, enchanted place that I would very much like to visit someday.
But Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are hardly the only people to be enjoyed in Ed Wood. Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood’s fiancée Dolores Fuller, and Bill Murray as campy queen Bunny Breckinridge are delightful in their brief appearances. Worth particular mention, though, is Martin Landau. We first meet Landau’s Bela Lugosi in a scene where he’s picking out his own coffin, testing out his options the way people usually test out mattresses – by lying in it. It’s the start of an instant classic performance that in a lesser actor’s hands could easily have crossed over the line into grumpy-old-man caricature. But Landau plays Lugosi with equal parts of pathos and deadpan humor in an outstanding turn more than deserving of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he picked up for the role. If Ed Wood’s love for the movies is the soul of this film, the relationship between Wood and Lugosi – part friendship, part co-dependence – is its heart.
Ed Wood cocks a snook at the notion that dreamers must be celebrated and revered only if they actually make something of themselves. It dares, instead, to commemorate an impractical dreamer. In doing so, it has made the real life Ed Wood something of a cult favourite, with the kind of movie fan who loves the movies for their ability to tickle not your mind, but your sense of mindless fun. And it does so by refusing to be mindless itself.