Movies We Like
Over the decades, Tim Burton has made himself into a brand name (mostly off the success of his earlier films). While he is a master of images and ideas inspired by comic books, B-movies and campy pop culture, the story and payoff rarely lived up to the potential. After an impressive run of films about outsiders like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (and the box office bonanza of Batman and Batman Returns), Burton peaked with what is still his best movie, a biography of the beloved, transvestite director of horrible films, Edward D. Wood, Jr., titled appropriately enough Ed Wood. The flick follows Wood in his “Golden Period” of the 1950s and his collaboration and friendship with has-been horror icon Bela Lugosi on three quickie cheapies, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and his Citizen Kane, Plan 9 from Outer Space. All three films are on the Mount Rushmore of so-bad-they-are-good movie classics. Wood’s best qualities may have been his enthusiasm and an ability to build a stable of oddball friends who took part in his projects. Burton has managed to craft both a moving tribute to a talentless dreamer and a perfect scene-for-scene recreation of those hilarious films.
The film is shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky (Last Exit to Brooklyn), and instead of the usual Danny Elfman score this one is provided by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings), who brings a fun mix of sci-fi and conga room. Based on the book Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey, the script was written by the screenwriting duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who were hot in the quirky bio business, also penning The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, as well as the Problem Child movies and TV series). Ed Wood marks the second of at least seven films Burton has made with Johnny Depp. And the casting of Depp at the time was really ingenious; who knew the pretty-boy had such creative chops? Depp wonderfully infuses Wood with an ah-shucks charm; everything seems to give Wood zeal. Always the optimist, Wood believes in everything, whether it’s his inept actors, sets, shots or his girlfriend’s sweaters--or the belief in the stardom of Lugosi who, at this point, was a heroin addict with failing health and is played beautifully by Martin Landau. When Wood sees Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a TV psychic, make ridiculous predictions, he believes him. He spots Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele) in the ring, and instantly sees a great actor. And these random people that Wood meets along the way and in whom he believes join him in his own dream of making movies, and in turn believe in him. It's a motley group that includes Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a homosexual in search of a sex change operation who is most memorable as The Ruler in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and eventually the horror show hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), plus assorted goofy crew members. They forge an "Island of Misfit Toys" style family; think Wes Anderson without all the preciousness.
No matter what anyone tells him, Wood simply believes in his own talents. The guy is obsessed with movies, he is sure that he was put on earth to make them. He spends most of the film trying to raise money and convince others to pay for them. He will take whoever they insist on putting in the cast as long as his “vision” will one day make it to the screen. This all peaks with the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills agreeing to finance his Grave Robbers from Outer Space so they can use the (expected) profits to make their own religious film afterwards. Though a con man, Wood is always shown as good hearted (in real life he may have had a little more boozy sleaze attached to him). Of the inner circle, only his fiancee Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) seems to have her doubts, but she hangs around so she can be his on-screen ingenue. When he stars in Glen or Glenda in an attempt to explain his own need to wear women’s clothing and then is embraced by the gang for it, it’s enough to finally send her packing. His next girlfriend slash leading lady (and eventual wife) Kathy O'Hara (Patricia Arquette) proves to be much more understanding. The Church forces a leading man on him and objects to “grave robbing” in the title of his movie, instead renaming it Plan 9 From Outer Space. Defeated, Wood leaves the set (in drag) and ends up at Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard, where he has a drink with his idol Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio). According to Wood, they are the only two guys writing/directing and acting in their movies. Welles gives him some words of encouragement, complaining that the studio is making him cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican. (Of course savvy movie geeks know this not to be true. Welles was cast in Touch of Evil and it was the star, Heston, who pushed for him to become the director). Still, these are two legends meeting from two different sides of the talent spectrum. It’s one of many wonderful moments about Hollywood in this special film.
The bigger than life characters, the recreation of Wood’s hammy films and the hazy darkness that Lugosi sees the world through, are the closest to the usual fantastical Burton flourishes. The images of Vampira in her full busty costume, first riding a city bus and then wandering the streets, are the type of pictures in Burton’s head that must have attracted the ex-animator on a creative level. Burton's films since this one have mostly been remakes and reimaginings of known stories (Alice in Wonderland, Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sleepy Hollow, Dark Shadows). The fantasy film Big Fish (surprisingly based on a not very well known recent novel) is the closest thing to an examination of real people Burton has attempted since Ed Wood, but that one doesn’t always work. Nope--Ed Wood really is the piece of true gold in the Burton canon (for a realist like me) and Landau probably gives the best performance Burton has ever directed (though I do recall Michael Keaton being pretty spectacular in Beetlejuice). The seedy streets of 1950s Hollywood and the drabness of low rent studios are, in some ways, the best use I’ve seen on film of Burton’s brilliant eye for detail. And though it was released about twenty year ago, Ed Wood makes me wonder what some heavier source material and more challenging characters would bring out of Burton’s twisted imagination... Mr. Burton, you may think this is out of your range but I’d like to introduce you to the hard boiled noir period novels of James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential). Enough with kiddie flicks! Let's see if you have another Ed Wood in you.