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.Continue Reading
The Long, Hot Summer
At first glance The Long, Hot Summer looks like some tossed-out Tennessee Williams pages run through a Hollywood blender, but it’s actually a lot more fun then most of Williams’ stiff adaptations. Though, for literary street cred, it’s title card reads William Faulkner’s The Long, Hot Summer, because apparently it’s kinda-sorta, but just barely, based on his novel The Hamlet. It doesn’t come close to the emotional depth of Williams’ or Faulker’s best work, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Directed by Martin Ritt, who would go on to a long and distinguished career, the film sports an exciting cast of scenery chewers having a chance to do their corniest Southern accents. The Long, Hot Summer is a classic mash-up of contemporary Southern pulp and suppressed sexuality (think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof meets Picnic, or a much more entertaining version of The Fugitive Kind).
Emerging superstar Paul Newman (who also the starred in the similar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the same year) stars as Southern bad boy Ben Quick, a rogue con man and known arsonist who, after being run out of a town, wanders into another and quickly moves up the food chain of the local fat-cat, Will Varner (Orson Welles, only 42 years young at the time, forced to play much older, which explains his bizarre makeup job which looks almost like he is doing blackface, and may explain why his ham-level is turned up to eleven). Verner, a widower, owns the town and sees in the hotshot Quick a younger version of himself, something he’s doesn’t see in his own son, Jody (the even more miscast Anthony Franciosa). Jody may be married to the town beauty, Eula (Lee Remick), but he’s too spoiled and emotionally weak to carry out the legacy Verner dreams for his family. His daughter Clara (Joanne Woodward) is smart and modern, not the shallow belle her father can relate too. She has been limply wooed for years by momma’s boy Alan (Richard Anderson, a secret 50s supporting actor superstar who specialized in boring businessmen, but is probably best known for playing Oscar on TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man). By '50s movie standards Alan is probably gay and does not have the sexual desire to ever make Verner a grandfather (more echo’s of Tennessee Williams). So Quick quickly works his way up through the family business. Verner cuts a deal with him: wed Clara, give him grandchildren, and he will be comfortable for life. Clara doesn’t fall for Quick’s good ol’ boy charm, but hey, it’s Paul Newman, so eventually she has to give in, that is if his reputation for starting fires doesn’t get him first.Continue Reading
Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil is one in a long list of artistic triumphs for Orson Welles that was scandalously treated as a failure from the “lost years” of his post-Citizen Kane free-fall of a film career. Nowadays the film has been accorded the status of an absolute crime film classic usually referred to as the last real film noir of the original cycle. But try telling that to the dumb dumbs at Universal who decided to ignore his 58 page memo on crucial edits to the film and instead cobbled together their own sanitized version of his deliriously sleazy border town saga—a baroque mixture of pulp noir and Shakespearian tragedy as only Welles could envision and execute. Touch of Evil was meant to be Welles’ Hollywood studio return to form after a decade spent in European exile chasing money to fund his mostly dead-ended film projects. But as with so many events in Welles’s Hollywood career the end result was a cold, stilted, even hostile reaction to his exhilarating achievement. He could never shake his reputation as the enfant terrible of tinsel town and this black cloud of notoriety had a habit of eventually destroying any opportunities that lay ahead of him no matter the evidence to the contrary that he generally worked on time and under budget.
Nothing seemed to dispel Welles’ legend as a colossal money and time waster. We might wonder why he got these deals in the first place if the studios were given to losing faith in him so predictably, but such is the enduring mystique behind the life and work of Orson Welles. He was the real deal, the consummate auteur whose technical and narrative innovations in film we have still not yet caught up to and perhaps because of this he was someone Hollywood was never going to trust. It’s not easy starting at the top of your game with a film like Citizen Kane—still generally considered the greatest film ever made and, as such, something he was never allowed to top. Though his outsized life left us with more questions than answers what we do have is his fascinating body of work or what’s left of it. The uncut version of the Magnificent Ambersons is lost to history courtesy of the malicious meddling of RKO and likewise The Lady From Shanghai will never be seen as he intended due to Harry Cohn’s celluloid butchery over at Columbia. His footage of Carnival in Brazil that he shot for the still unfinished documentary It’s All True is rotting in a studio vault as I write this. The list of legendary lost films goes on and on.Continue Reading