Friday, November 15, 2013

Ed Wood (1994)

Edward D. Wood Jr. often gets labeled as the worst director to ever come out of Hollywood (I’d dispute that little title, because I’ve seen the cinematic cannon of Coleman Francis). In the spirit of being contrary Tim Burton decides to do a biopic of a director that is often mocked and derided. The result may be one of Mr. Burton’s best films and a loving look at the less glamorous side of Hollywood in the 1950’s.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) has big plans. He’s going to be a world famous director just like his idol, Orson Welles. Ed is going to do this by making the types of movies he wants to make. These tend to include mad scientists, monsters, and a huge helping of Angora. He just has to get his foot in the door. He joins forces with his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) and the infamous Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). 

Unfortunately as enthusiastic as Ed is about his films, he just can't manage to make movies that resonate with the public. But Ed battles on, each film becoming larger and more complex then the last. After Glen or Glenda fails to find an audience, Ed finds himself trying to drum up cash for his new project Bride of the Monster. All this is leading toward his magnum opus Plan 9 from Outer Space. But even the Amazing Criswell (Jeffery Jones) might not be able to predict the fate the man we know as Ed Wood.

Good Points:
  • Great acting by just about everyone in the cast
  • The production design captures the dreamlike feel of 1950s Hollywood
  • A score balances 50’s style horror and sci-fi with bongos!
Bad Points:
  • The black and white cinematography might turn some viewers off
  • Ed and his pals may be a bit too colorful for some people
  • Burton romanticized Ed’s life - those looking for facts may want to look somewhere else
For anyone who loves a good bad movie or at least appreciates the work that goes into making a movie (no matter how small or goofy it may be), Ed Wood is worth checking out. Burton’s film creates a likable character that does his best to follow his dreams no matter how bad things get. The mixture of fact and fantasy works well. The cast really gets into their parts. I’ll admit it’s not a film everyone can enjoy, and it helps if you’ve seen at least one of Mr. Wood’s works. For me, it’s one of Burton’s best films, and an overlooked gem of 1990’s cinema.

Scores (out of 5)
Visual: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 5
Music: 5
Script: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 4
Total: 5

In Depth Review:
Ed pitches his latest film idea: Bride... of the ATOM!
Edward D Wood Jr. just doesn’t seem like the type of guy you’d want to see a whole movie about. I mean he’s not a household name, and those that do know of him, may wish they didn’t. Yet, there are a lot of people out there who enjoy watching "bad" movies and are curious to know just what kind of mind is behind the process. Tim Burton has always been interested in the concept of “the outsider” and Ed Wood is just that. But rather than simply create a biography, Burton infuses the film with a layer of fantasy. It’s a world that seems to fit Ed and his off the wall friends perfectly. 

Visually Burton elected to film the movie in black and white. This may alienate some viewers, but I think it’s a masterstroke. I gives the film the feel of an actual 50’s horror or sci-fi film. It adds to the visual fantasy that Burton was trying to create. The visual design goes out of its way to evoke the type of films Ed made or inspired him. Film noir style lighting and framing are used in many of the scenes with Bela Lugosi. Lightning and thunder fill the air in key scenes. Even montages are set up in a way that fits perfectly in something like Bride of the Monster or Bert I. Gordon’s The Beginning of the End. The costumes, cars and set design all fit in the 50’s period. The sound work follows along with the visuals. The stormy sequences are particularly effective.

Ed directs his actors on the set of the renamed,
Bride of the Monster
Howard Shore who was best known for his moody and dark scores for director David Cronenberg seemed like an odd choice for Ed Wood at the time. Shore knew exactly what the film needed, creating a classic main title sequence including use of the Theremin (an early electronic music device used in classic sci-fi soundtracks like The Day the Earth Stood Still). Much of the score is actually low key, but uses a lot of bongos and Latin style beats that were popular in the 1950s. The fun stuff occurs when Ed is making his films. Shore goes full bore with the over the top horror or sci-fi music in the style of 50’s composers like Albert Glasser (who scored movies like The Amazing Colossal Man and Earth vs. the Spider). It is so different from his usual moody dark work and yet so well realized. It shows that Shore was capable of creating excellent music if given the chance. He got that chance a few years later with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The Amazing Criswell tells us the truth... from a
certain point of view.
The script of Ed Wood is a mixture of fact and fiction. You can feel Burton’s influence in some of the style of the story, but that’s not a bad thing. The movie opens with a slow pan into a creepy old house (obviously a model) and inside The Amazing Criswell appears from a coffin to tell us that what we are about to see is based on true testimony made by the individuals who lived the events. The setting, the music and Jeffery Jones acting combine to set the stage – and tell us that this isn’t true, even if Criswell is telling us otherwise. Would you believe a man in a sparkly tuxedo rising from a coffin? 

Later in the film we see Criswell telling Ed that all his predictions are bull, and the he makes all of them up. On top of that, we see nearly the exact same introduction by Criswell used for Plan 9 From Outer Space. Essentially, what we have here is Burton telling us that the film is not based on fact, but a wonderful mix of entertainment and truth. Ed Wood is primarily a fantasy film.

Ed deals with "studio" issues. The wig doesn't help
The focus of the script is Ed, but Bela Lugosi is a major part of the story. His friendship with Ed and the way that interaction is crafted provides the emotional core of the film. These two men are both outsiders, and Bela feels his star fading fast, Ed is filled with hope and optimism that things can only get better. These two losers need each other and the writing between the two is really excellent. Once Bela disappears from the film, Ed has met Kathy (Patricia Arquette), a woman who understands and accepts Ed and all his oddities. That relationship is really sidelined by the force of Ed’s will as he tries to get Plan 9 From Outer Space off the ground for his departed friend Bela. While the real Dolores Fuller did not behave as Parker portrayed her, it is important to the story that she leaves Ed. It take away the last support that he has. Unfortunately the movie tends to jump around quite a bit, but this is a problem common to many biopics.

Bela in full puppet-master mode.
A lot has been made of Martin Landau’s performance in Ed Wood, and it is really quite entertaining. He turns Lugosi into a real showman, but one who is crippled by drug addiction and depression. His accent seems a bit much, but it fits a lot of people’s memories of Lugosi. A combination of age make up and latex appliances add some of the features necessary to complete the image. Landau’s acting that completes the character. We feel sorry for him, but he entertains with his eccentricities and outbursts. It’s a top notch performance, for certain.

Johnny Depp is always very good at bringing oddballs to life, and this is a delightful performance. You like Ed for all his eccentricities and delusions. He loves movies. He loves making movies. He just wants to entertain people with his stories. He doesn’t see his ineptitude at all. Instead he sees many of his cost cutting measures as creative. His corny dialogue sounds like Shakespeare to his ears. His “one take” mentality is easily explained by lack of funds, money or a desire for realism. When Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) walks into a doorframe and shakes the entire plywood set, instead of doing another take Ed says, “No, it’s real. You know, Lobo would have to deal with that problem every day.” Depp’s performance sells the character.

"Now that's an alien!"
The supporting cast is all top notch. I’ve already mentioned a few of them but I can’t forget Lisa Marie looking sultry as an annoyed Vampira. Bill Murray steals quite a few scenes as Bunny Breckinridge, one of Ed’s close friends. Jeffrey Jones is also a lot of fun as Criswell, the television psychic who makes up all of his predictions making each one is more outlandish than the last. I also liked Mike Starr as George Weiss, a film producer who made some real duds. He hires Ed to direct Glen or Glenda. Check out Mystery Science theater 3000’s take on Racket Girls to see some of Weiss’ skills in action.

Burton’s direction of Ed Wood is spot on. It may not be as dark and gothic as some of his other films, but there is a spirit of fun that is present here. I also love the way that Burton captures what it must have been like to work on these horrible movies. When you these scenes, it’s obvious that Burton and the cast had to watch Ed’s films quite a few times to really capture the feel of an Ed Wood opus.  The montage of making Plan 9 From Outer Space is so funny because it exactly fits what the final film looked like. I admire is the way Burton really fuses all the elements of the film and makes them work as a whole. From the black and white visuals, to the use of gothic images and Shore’s over the top score, Burton creates a world that never existed, but we kind of wish it did. It is one of Burton’s best realized films.

Ed enjoys the fantasy he has brought to the screen.
I admit, it is a bit slow in a few places, and Bela’s storyline does move into some depressing territory, but for the most part this is a real movie lover’s movie. I enjoy this movie each time I watch it and often I’ll give it a spin after watching Plan 9 From Outer Space or Bride of the Monster or The Sinister Urge. I do recommend that you check out some of Ed’s films first, it makes some of the scenes especially humorous if you’ve got a point of comparison. For anyone who loves "bad" movies, this is one you must catch.


  1. This was a wonderful film. Yes, my enjoyment surely was aided by having seen his movies as a kid -- they were a recurring part of Saturday morning fare on the independent TV channels. In everyday social matters, the 50s were at one and the same time more reactionary and more revolutionary than is commonly remembered, and this film catches that sense well. Besides, it's funny despite not being, in the usual sense, a comedy.

    1. Yeah it is really hard to classify this movie. I don't think of it as a comedy either, but as a really quirky drama. But I end up laughing most of the time. Yeah, I think most folks write off the 50s because of the more splashier colorful 60s, but as you say there was a lot of changes going on in the earlier decade.

    2. Hands down, Burton's masterpiece. I think the commercial failure of this really stung him and I believe he's said as much in interviews. Fantastic biopic that not only celebrates movies but the act of watching them as well. If you think about it, Wood is a fan of his own films, tirelessly championing them to anybody who will listen.

      Anyways, fantastic review! You really did the film justice.

    3. Thanks J.D. You can tell Burton was really committed to this one. His films after this, while very entertaining, seem to the lack the spark of his earlier flicks leading up to "Ed Wood".

      Still, I can't imagine this film ever being one with mass appeal. There are too many things that general audience wouldn't like or appreciate. This came out on video when I worked at the video store, and I can tell you, it was a really hard sell to get folks to rent it. Only people who knew about Ed Wood, or about the film itself seemed interested. But I can say I was one of the few people who saw the film in its original theatrical run.