Ed Wood

Don't expect a camp bitchfest from Ed Wood, even if it is a biopic about a cross-dressing Hollywood filmmaker – he relishes fluffy Angora sweaters and strappy high heels – with an unrivaled reputation for making cut-rate crap. Director Tim Burton, a former Disney animator with a famous sympathy for freaks (Batman, Beetlejuice, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands), doesn't do the expected. It's a cherishable trait that he shares with Scissorhands star Johnny Depp, who wriggles into a skirt to play the auteur of such classic clinkers as Glen or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space. The last, featuring paper plates as flying saucers, is widely regarded as the worst movie of all time. But it's Glen or Glenda, an ode to transvestism in which Wood plays the dual title role, that began the march into turkey legend for the man in Angora.

Wood is an easy target that this sympathetic and endearing movie bravely resists. Burton's freewheeling take on Wood's life is comic without being cruel, satiric without being superior and moving without being maudlin. Burton has fashioned a celebration not of bad movies but of what it takes to get an uncompromised vision on the screen.

Burton should know. He had to fight to do Ed Wood his way. Despite a below-average budget of $18 million (still 100 times greater than all of Wood's budgets combined), few studios wanted to touch a risky drag epic, especially since Burton insisted on shooting it in Woodian (read cheeseball) black and white. Disney's Touchstone Pictures finally put its faith in Burton. Good move. Ed Wood is Burtons most personal and provocative movie to date. Outrageously disjointed and just as outrageously entertaining, the picture stands as a successful outsider's tribute to a failed kindred spirit.

Background comparisons yield amazing similarities: Both men were raised on horror films. Wood got his start through a friendship with the definitive Dracula, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in an Oscar-caliber performance); Burton made his first short with mentor Vincent Price. Wood's stilted dialogue has been compared to words randomly cut from a Korean electronics manual; Burton's verbal knack has never matched his visual artistry. Still, a struggle to articulate inchoate feelings about a hostile world unites the work of both directors. If Wood didn't exist, Burton might have conjured him up.

Edward D. Wood Jr. was 53 when he died in 1978, boozed up, broke and finished in Hollywood, where he slipped into porn films and obscurity. Burton sidesteps that period to concentrate on Wood's age of innocence – the 1950s – a time when he churned out movies in a few days and watched them vanish from theaters even faster. The mail clerk's son from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., had come to California after being decorated as a Marine in World War II. Although he decorated himself by wearing a bra and panties under his battle fatigues, the twice-married Wood was a transvestite, not a homosexual. He loved women and their wardrobes. He also loved movies. Wood was determined to make it in the rebel style of his idol, Orson Welles. His directing technique was more a misreading of Will Rogers: Wood never shot a take he didn't like, even if an actor walked into a wall or uttered such immortal lines as "This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation earlier in the day." Wood showed real compassion for his characters – hardly the mark of a hack – but no discernible talent. It was his passion no one could miss.

The usually recessive Depp breaks form to express Wood's wide-eyed optimism. Depp is terrific in a hilarious, heartfelt performance, but his fast-talking, arm-flailing hustle throws you at first Selling himself to Grade Z mogul George Weiss (Mike Starr) or starlet-girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker in a wicked sendup of Fuller's stiff emoting), Wood sounds like Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian ("Acting!" "Get to know me!"). There is little delicacy, just delicious fun. Tom Duffield's production design, Colleen Atwood's costumes and Stefan Czapasky's cinematography show why Wood is the touchstone for tacky.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also know their schlock; they created the Problem Child movies. It's a hoot to watch the futile attempts at acting from the notorious Wood stock company, including wrestler George "the Animal" Steele as the hulking Tor Johnson, Jeffrey Jones as the fake psychic Criswell, Lisa Marie (Burton's real-life love) as scream queen Vampira and Bill Murray winning big laughs as Bunny Breckinridge, acting for Wood while making plans for a sex change ("Off with the penis!").

But a hunger for something deeper kicks in. It's not satisfied by any insights into Wood's romantic life. The talented Patricia Arquette is pretty but wasted as Kathy, the director's second wife, who basically knits and offers support. Burton doesn't provide psychological underpinnings that tell an audience what to think. He wants us to keep a watchful eye for behavior that reveals character. There is a remarkable scene when Wood, in a rare attack of nerves, storms off the set of a film he's directing only to return later fully becalmed. He's also fully in drag. A lesser director would play the scene as a sniggering sex joke. Burton plays it for poignancy. The laughter that comes from seeing Wood in a dress is secondary to the understanding that comes from seeing how the clothes bring Wood a serenity he can't find otherwise.

These grace notes are a Burton hallmark. He is a dazzling visionary, gifted at illuminating the pain and surprising sweetness in people who hide behind masks. But his movies remain exasperatingly uneven. Ed Wood is more inspired than insipid, but anyone seeking a thorough documentation of Wood's life will find Burton's dark flight of fancy a cinematic nightmare before Christmas.

What gives the film gravity and a much needed emotional core is the relationship between Wood and Lugosi. When he met Wood, Lugosi was long past the glory days of Dracula. Alimony, alcoholism and a morphine addiction had rendered the 70-year-old Hungarian actor desperate enough to take a role in Wood's 1953 debut, Glen or Glenda. Fittingly, Wood cast his idol as god. Lugosi sat in a chair chanting Woodian gibberish ("Bevare. Take care") that the great ham managed to alchemize into something genuinely eerie.

Burton shows how the two exploited each other – Wood to get his films made, Lugosi to get his next fix. But he also shows a tenderness that sustained both of them until Lugosi's death in 1956, a fact that did not stop Wood from incorporating old footage of Lugosi into Plan 9 and hiring a chiropractor, face covered with a cape, as the star's double.

Landau (Tucker, Crimes and Misdemeanors) bites into the role with robust humor and blunt honesty. Even when Lugosi is raving about his arch rival Boris Karloff ("He doesn't deserve to smell my shit") or lost in a drug haze, Landau gives him a beleaguered dignity. In a career that spans five decades, these are Landau's finest two hours on screen.

During night filming on Bride of the Monster, Lugosi retreats to a car to shoot up. It's an unnerving and haunting image, intensified when Wood persuades the old man to sit in a cold swamp and wrestle a rubber octopus to get a shot. "OK," says Lugosi, ever the good soldier, "let's shoot this fucker."

It's a desolate scene but not for Wood and Lugosi The charge they get out of working fuels their friendship and their sense of worth. That's the love story Burton tells in Ed Wood. It's the joy in creating a film, no matter how shoddy the result, that puts a Wood in the same league with an Orson Welles. At a restaurant, Wood introduces himself to Welles (a sharp cameo from Vincent D'Onofrio), who generously commiserates with a fellow artist. "They want me to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican," Welles says, referring to Touch of Evil, the 1958 cheapie that he turned into a masterpiece.

Wood never had that magic touch, but for Burton genius isn't the point. Vision is, along with a gusto to communicate that seems to have vanished in the age of merchandising. Wood was ignored in life and mocked in death. Burton isn't asking for tears or even a reassessment. Watching Wood on video remains a unique form of torture. Burton asks instead that we see Wood and his misfit menagerie as part of a community in the exhilarating business of making movies. And so, at least for the length of Burton's affectionate and slyly affecting movie, Ed Wood finally belongs.

From The Archives Issue 693: October 20, 1994