Filmmakers will sometime make great movies, sometimes they will make awful movies, but it is not often a director will make a great movie about another director who became known for awful movies. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) tells the story of a director for whom there was no such thing as a bad take and consequently every bad take ended up on film. But god help him, Ed Wood passionately loved movies and led a life that did indeed warrant a great movie.
This was the last movie I saw as part of a film club back when I was at the University of Sherbrooke in 2010. It was supposed to be The Last Waltz, which would have been appropriate given it was the club’s last waltz, but Ed Wood is actually a great fit for a group of people who love to watch movies and are sometimes curious about the filmmaking process. This can sometimes be twice as entertaining as the movie itself, especially in the case of Wood who was not only a bizarre character in his own right, but surrounded himself with cult movie characters of his era. For film lovers, Burton’s film is a real treat.
The movie was shot in black and white, which is a good fit given it is set in early 1950s Hollywood and that all of Wood’s movies were in black and white as well. It is as though we are seeing the world of Ed Wood (frequent Burton collaborator Johnny Depp) through his own eyes as he tries to launch his aspiring career as a director. As with most of his roles Depp immerses himself in the character, giving him a boundless optimism especially when he indulges in his habit of putting on women’s clothing.
Being a transvestite Wood thought he would be perfect to direct a movie called Glen or Glenda about a woman going through a sex change. Wood convinces Z-movie producer George Weiss (Mike Starr) to give him a chance to direct the film when he strikes a friendship with fading actor Bella Lugosi (Martin Landau) who was best known for his portrayal of Dracula in the original 1931 film. The old saying is a movie star will sell tickets, but Wood’s directing style of only using one take, filling holes in the story with stock footage, and not giving much direction to his actors, results of course in a pretty awful piece of filmmaking.
Despite every hurdle he encounters Wood keeps trudging on, seeking independence as a filmmaker and surrounding himself with other people living on the fringe of the entertainment business. These included psychic The Amazing Criswell (Jeffery Jones), TV horror host Vampira (Lisa Marie), actor/drag queen Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), and professional wrestler Tor Johnson (real-life wrestler George “The Animal” Steele). Put all of these oddballs in a blender with Wood’s direction and you get movies like Bride of the Monster and Wood’s “masterpiece” Plan 9 from Outer Space.
In addition to Depp’s winning performance as the ever persistent and optimistic Wood, the movie’s highlight is Martin Landau as Lugosi. When Wood meets him he is star-struck, believing he is meeting a legend at the top of his game. However at that time Lugosi had been forgotten by audience and was struggling to find a role while succumbing to a serious drug addiction. On one of his darkest days he suggests he and Wood commit a double suicide, which is when Wood realizes his friend desperately needs professional help.
Although most of the characters in Ed Wood are larger than life, they still have to deal with realistic problems one has to go through to get a film made: a shrinking budget, malfunctioning props, actors having temper tantrums, and producers meddling with the story, something Burton must have definitely experienced a few times in his career. It is easy to see why Ed Wood appealed to him and if Wood were alive today he would be touched by this great homage to the world’s worst director.