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“Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It’s about the big picture.” – Ed Wood
In 1988 director Tim Burton exploded onto cinema screens with the classic Beetlejuice. This was not his first outing but his first to reach wide acclaim, winning an Academy Award for make-up. He followed this with his reimagined Batman, casting Michael Keaton again as the titular character as he did with Beetlejuice. Sticking with the tried and tested actor he was familiar with, it led to a better cinematic treat with Batman Returns.
In between the two Batman features though lay Burton’s dark fantasy Edward Scissorhands, his first collaboration with Johnny Depp. This would lead to an artistic partnership similar to that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, or Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. Depp’s star was on the rise as he played the protagonist in Burton’s retelling of Frankenstein with an abstract touch of Romeo and Juliet. Depp would later star in a further seven Burton movies. Of late however, the outings – Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows – have been heavily criticised. Meanwhile, Depp’s other adventures on-screen and off – including his now tired Captain Jack Sparrow and well-publicized divorce from actress Amber Heard – have caused the actor’s career to slide further.
However, in 1994 things were very different. Tim Burton released what would become one of the most creative works of his career, casting Johnny Depp in a biopic on eccentric low-budget director Ed Wood. The movie Ed Wood can be summed up in one word – charming.
Ed Wood is unlike any other character in the movies of Burton. Usually his focus lies on the outsider, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice. Instead, Wood is the north star for the outcasts, the magnet that draws the misunderstood in society towards him. And for once here, the setting is in the real word, not a gothic-fairytale creation.
Who was Ed Wood?
The phrase ‘cult’ is heaped upon figures, and indeed works of great importance, that are admired by certain sectors of society. In the case of the director Ed Wood (1924-1978) he achieved the title because the movies he made garnished him the title ‘the Worst Director of All Time’. His movies were sci-fi, horror and crime based, cut with stock footage and the worst special effects ever committed to film. His most widely known work remains Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), also dubbed as the worst movies of all time. It follows aliens who use their fabled ‘Plan 9’ to take over the earth by resurrecting the dead.
With fondness Wood tried to resurrect the career of horror veteran Bela Lugosi who died during filming. Of course, that did not stop Ed from completing the movie, using a chiropractor with no acting experience to fill in. But that was nothing compared to the wooden gravestones, fold up chairs as aircraft seats, visible microphones and scripts and everything else that could possibly go wrong.
It’s the relationship between Wood and Lugosi that is at the very center of Ed Wood, with Lugosi played by Martin Landau in an Oscar-winning performance. The chemistry of the enthusiastic, misunderstood director and the burnt-out, drug-addicted actor who still wants to remain relevant in a changing world translates as a father-son relationship. Wood cares and nurses the aging star, while also using his name to get backing for Plan 9.
Other castaways from society that Wood surrounded himself with are completed by Bill Murray as drag queen John “Bunny” Breckinridge, Jeffrey Jones as psychic The Amazing Criswell, and real-life wrestler George “The Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson. Most of whom were acquaintances of Wood with no acting experience who suddenly found fame in their pal’s movies.
Another of Wood’s projects mentioned in Burton’s movie is Glen or Glenda (1953), showcasing a different side to the director. The very premise is quite revolutionary for its time. It follows a cross-dressing character by the name of Glen, who when he wears women’s clothes prefers to be referred to as Glenda. The narration throughout the movie tries to make society understand that this is not the habits of a homosexual man, simply a man who loves female clothes.
The movie again was a huge failure, even though it starred Lugosi, as well as Ed Wood as the title character. To him, this was a semi-autobiographical tale wrapped in a controversial outing – his girlfriend Dolores Fuller even had a role as Glen’s partner.
In the movie Ed Wood, Depp excels at these points, fearlessly displaying the charisma, and genuinely likeable qualities of the director. Even when his girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) leaves him, embarrassed by his leanings towards transvestism, he finds a kindred soul with a cashmere sweater to share in Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette).
All these aspects are presented respectfully throughout the movie, feeling like part homage, part love-letter. Particularly, the loving and retro black and white presentation adds a touch of nostalgia, not only to Wood, but the era of fifties B-movies in general (which Burton would later pay tribute to in Mars Attacks!). Similar to Wood’s films though, the starkly ironic fact remains Ed Wood was too box office flop, returning only a third of its $18 million budget.
All that aside, maybe the most amazing thing about Ed Wood is the way in which Tim Burton does not so much mock the character of Wood but celebrates him. This is not for his disregard for quality control when it came to making movies, but rather the drive, compassion and at times enthusiasm of the protagonist that led him to continue working. All this is captured with the performance of Johnny Depp. Whatever you say about his current career, this was the time he made his mark by crossing over into the realms of method over madness.