Movies We Like
I readily admit that among my favorite films some are more naturally enjoyable than others. I’ve enjoyed the films of Guy Maddin and Godard and Bergman I’ve seen, but their films are generally not those I’m going to put on after a few drinks on a Saturday night. That sacred time slot is reserved for The Girl Can’t Help It or All about Eve or True Romance. A really brilliantly made film designed to be popular with lots of people is my favorite kind of film, truth be told. Ed Wood is a superb film that should have been a hit with audiences but was inexplicably not. I’d lump similarly marvelous entertainments, Quiz Show and L.A. Confidential, into this category as well. The fact that they were celebrated by critics and not particularly popular with the public is just another piece of evidence that I don’t understand the American public very much at all.
Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s lost classic. He was sent into movie director purgatory because of its dismal box office performance and it took several films (mostly remakes) to regain his stature as an auteur with box office clout. Ed Wood is Burton’s ode to the auteur, in this case a hopeless kind of auteur. It’s a celebration of the kind of director who stays defiantly, naively, but always sincerely true to his own cinematic vision. Ed Wood the man is notorious as one of the worst directors who ever made movies in Hollywood. Burton uses Wood's life and career as a means to examine the pressures on an artist as he tries to turn his vision into reality. The film is also a touching story of friendship between a Hollywood monster movie has-been (Martin Landau playing Bela Lugosi) and the ultimate Hollywood outsider working on the fringe of the poverty row film industry. It’s also a love letter of sorts to a Hollywood that no longer exists—Hollywood the small town with its crazy hat-shaped restaurants and eccentric, seedy show people. Not since Edward Scissorhands had Burton made such a personal film about the life of an artist.
Everyone likes Johnny Depp - and I’m certainly not one to argue - but he nails the role of Ed Wood so perfectly that I think it might be his best performance. He’s quirky but there’s vulnerability in his performance that I’ve never seen since and he hits the right notes again and again. As the renegade film director with a secret fetish for wearing angora sweaters and other lady things, Depp finds the humanity beyond the quirk in his character. We see that Ed is delusional about lots of things but we root for him all the same. Sarah Jessica Parker is his wife who finds it harder and harder to tolerate his abundance of issues and eventually can’t commit to what he demands of her as his sidekick. Martin Landau gave an Oscar-winning performance as Lugosi unraveling due to morphine addiction.
The film glosses over some of the less savory aspects of Wood’s life but the film is a fantasy, an affectionate ode to a quixotic film career. It’s also Burton’s funniest film. He isn’t always given credit for the humor in his films but there’s a humor both dry and campy that runs through his films and it finds its ultimate expression in Ed Wood.
So why did no one go see it? It’s possible that the black-and-white cinematography turned audiences off or the fact that the film’s protagonist is movie stud Johnny Depp playing a talentless transvestite film director who wears dentures. It was just too weird for a big audience. But that just shows how boring most people are. I think Burton should be proud that Ed Wood lives on as a cult film. Even if it’s not what he intended it’s certainly a fitting tribute to the ultimate cult film director.
Ed Wood won two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau) and Best Makeup.