Hidden Gems: Ed Wood
By Kyle Lee
April 24, 2018
When I first saw Ed Wood, I thought “Finally, a Tim Burton movie worth giving a shit about.” I've never been shy about my distaste for the work of Tim Burton, whether it was Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Beetlejuice, or his Batman movies, I don't understand why he's such a revered director. His movies are always visually impressive (though even there the credit should maybe go to Burton’s production designers and cinematographers), but on a storytelling level I have found all of them to be lacking. However, I hadn't seen all of his movies, and I had been told for years that Ed Wood was the movie to see that would prove what kind of director Burton was. Well, it is. People were right. It's a terrific movie filled with wonderful performances by a great cast, gorgeous black-and-white visuals, and a good story. The snarky side of me wants to say that it seems like Burton really threw himself into this one because he could personally relate to a story about a terrible director, but let’s move on...
Ed Wood wasn't just any terrible director, he has been routinely called "the worst filmmaker ever". Johnny Depp is better than he's ever been as the Orson Welles worshipping Ed, who is so caught up in the spirit of filmmaking that he doesn't care that he's no good. That's not the point; the point is that he's making movies. When a studio executive tells Ed that his movie was the worst he'd ever seen, Ed's response is a cheerful "Well, my next one will be better." Johnny Depp is just so perfect in this role.
Ed also has to balance his personal life, which includes admitting to his girlfriend Delores (a thoroughly lovable Sarah Jessica Parker) that he enjoys crossdressing. He continuously, and hilariously, has to explain to everyone that he's not gay, he just likes the feel of the fabric. Not that being a crossdresser in the 1950’s was necessarily an easier life than a gay man, but the distinction matters to Ed, so there you go. Ed continues to surround himself with many fellow oddballs, like the hopeful pre-op transsexual Bunny (Bill Murray) and wrestler-turned-actor Tor Johnson (played by classic era wrestler George "The Animal" Steele).
The group makes movies together alongside Ed's newest friend: living legend and Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), a childhood hero of Ed's. Lugosi is way on the downside of his career, and foolishly hopes Ed's movies will put him back on top (or at least above his old box office nemesis Boris Karloff). Ed uses what little star power that Lugosi has left to help get financing for his movies. Lugosi added some credibility to Ed’s group, and the two needed each other. Ed needed a star, and Lugosi needed work. He never really elevated himself above being the classic horror movie star, always associated with his role as Dracula, and his rivalry with fellow monster movie star Karloff.
Ed knew how to get his projects made, that's for sure. He was seemingly always able to find someone to invest in his work, but never by showing them his previous work. And I think he cared whether his movies were bad or good, I'm just not sure he knew the difference.
Martin Landau won an Oscar for his role as Lugosi in 1994, in a year where he was up against some heavy hitters, including Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Landau deservedly won. His performance is one of heartbreaking sadness, of a man near the end of his life, addicted to morphine and desperately hoping to get back to his previous stardom. Thankfully, since this movie is a comedy, Landau is also hysterical. When one of the crew members asks for his autograph, he happily accepts, but when the guy tells him his favorite movie was one in which he played Karloff's sidekick, Lugosi responds with "Karloff? Sidekick? FUCK YOU! Karloff did not deserve to smell my shit! That limey cocksucker can rot in Hell for all I care!" There's not a lot of language in the movie like that, but when there is it's usually coming from Lugosi. Landau’s work is truly extraordinary, full of fire and pathos. The best work of the great actor’s career, for sure.
Johnny Depp also mightily impresses with his performance in the title role. I think it might be the best work of his considerable career as well, but this was back when he would do movies like Dead Man, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, or Donnie Brasco or something. When he pushed himself as an actor, instead of the almost self-parody he’s become in his post-Jack Sparrow career, sadly much of it also in Burton movies. He reminds in Ed Wood why he was often thought of as one of the most talented actors in the world. He’s effortlessly charming and infinitely watchable.
And I don’t hate Tim Burton. I admit that my dislike of him started out because he was often the go-to favorite filmmaker of every too cool for school kid I knew growing up in the 90’s. I had no problem being the contrarian on the topic. But I revisited Burton’s work when I became more of a cinephile in my 20’s. Then I was able to articulate what my dislike of his work was. And sadly, now he too has descended into self-parody. He hasn’t done much of anything original in many years, and has barely made a movie worth watching since Sweeney Todd more than a decade ago. He has made a few movies that I haven’t seen yet, but none that I’m particularly looking forward to. He doesn’t seem to be working from his heart anymore. Ed Wood is undeniably close to his heart, and I can’t think of a better tribute to what Burton can do than to watch this, his only truly great movie.