Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Off The Shelf: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)

Johnny Depp in Ed Wood (1994).

At the Star Wars Celebration press event this past weekend in Anaheim, a preteen kid stepped up to the mic to ask J.J. Abrams how to become a filmmaker. Abrams (doubtless sensing the same starry-eyed wonder in this kid that he must have felt while channeling his own idol, Spielberg, for his 2011 film Super 8) told him gently that he and his peers have access to technology and distribution platforms that never existed when he was that age, and that if you have a smartphone in your pocket then you already have far greater tools for moviemaking than he ever did. His advice was to use those tools, as often as possible, and to get your hands dirty making movies, no matter the result. Abrams’ apparent love for the art of spectacle – it’s what earned him a job directing a new Star Wars film, after all – would have made him right at home in cinema’s golden age, where he might have kept council with directors like Ed Wood. His advice certainly sounds like something straight from the famous cult filmmaker himself.

Best known for his 1959 disaster Plan 9 From Outer Space, Wood was a miserable failure as a Hollywood filmmaker, earning neither critical acclaim nor significant box office returns. His legacy as one of the worst directors of all time has led to a posthumous cult following, thanks to film buffs coming together to celebrate the indomitable spirit that kept Wood in the movie business despite bomb after insufferable bomb. Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic, named for the man himself, is celebratory too: a joyous examination of the passion for spectacle and wonder that endures behind the money-grubbing cynicism of the Hollywood we know. Ed Wood never had a smartphone, but that sure didn’t stop him from making movies.

Nor, apparently, did his constant lack of success. The term “dramedy” is a facile mashup that does no justice to the complex ways in which a single film can move us – whether it’s the comedic highs and sorrowful lows of Life is Beautiful (1997) or the simple joys and complex themes of Ed Wood. Burton presents Wood, played by Johnny Depp in perhaps his finest film role, as neither an imbecile to be mocked nor a serious and misunderstood figure (the default for so many modern “prestige biopics,” like 2014’s glum Alan Turing film The Imitation Game). Depp’s Wood really was terrible at filmmaking, there’s no denying, but he was also thrilled by the process, overcome with boyish glee at shouting “action!” and “cut!” through his bullhorn, and his enthusiasm is highly infectious. Described by Depp as “utterly confident” with a “breezy salesman quality to his voice,” it’s not hard to understand how he was able to convince people to work with him. Through the course of the film we learn that Wood enjoys dressing in women’s clothing – not as a sexual practice, but for what he describes as “neomaternal comfort” due to his mother dressing him as a girl when he was young. (The real Wood even starred in his own film called Glen or Glenda in 1953, whose production is dramatized in Ed Wood, as the titular transvestite). True to the real Wood’s sensitivity, which allowed him to tackle this challenging concept amidst the moral panic of the 1950s, it is simply a character trait in Burton’s film – which, if written today, would probably be portrayed as a crippling personal defect that hobbles his chances at success. Depp dances around at a wrap party in angora sweaters and lacy veils to the delight of his entire film crew, who have come to understand that Wood, despite his quirks, is a man deserving of respect – both for his inexhaustible optimism and his great social courage. Ed Wood manages to do more for LGBTQ awareness than half a decade of internet crusaders, and it does so without dampening its own sense of energy or fun.

A large part of that energy emanates from Martin Landau, in his Oscar-winning performance as horror cinema icon Bela Lugosi. (As with Wood and everyone else in the film, his portrayal of this real-life figure is both respectful and accurate – except for the cursing, which Lugosi’s son Bela Jr has said was never one of his father’s vices. Too bad, because Landau makes the Hungarian ham a foul-mouthed delight, with frequent references to “that asshole Karloff!”) At times powerful (giving a moustache-twirling speech about ruling “the vorld”), poignant (picking a flower from his front lawn in his last filmed performance before his death), and pathetic (checking himself into rehab for morphine addiction, a supportive Wood on his arm), Lugosi is shown as a man both shackled and supported by his fame, whose biggest failure isn’t passing over the role of Frankenstein’s monster – it’s his inability to rely on others for help. This makes his friendship with the entirely self-sufficient Wood a fascinating and tender thing to watch.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood.

Wood idolizes Orson Welles for this reason, too: he is proud to take on the responsibilities of acting, directing, writing, and producing his films because it’s a club in which only he and Welles are members. Late in the film, when his backers are threatening to pull their funding if he refuses to kowtow to their script changes (and reveal their true colours when he cross-dresses to calm himself), he jets off to the nearest bar, only to run into Welles himself (played by a shadowy Vincent D’Onofrio, and overdubbed by Maurice Lamarche). Welles’ advice about dreams being things worth fighting for works because it’s what Wood had been telling himself all along – he just needed to be reminded that he was still in the same club as his hero. (Welles mentions that Universal is pressuring him to make a film starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican, a throwaway reference to Touch of Evil (1958) that, in reality, wasn’t initially his own project – a strange “dream” to chase, to be sure, but I suppose that didn’t matter to Depp’s Wood.)

Whereas Burton’s later works – notably Mars Attacks! (1996) – would riff on the themes and imagery of the low-budget schlock Wood was known for, they became cynical and dark-hearted, abandoning the endearing juxtaposition that characterized Edward Scissorhands (1990): a gloomy, gothic Halloween aesthetic that disguised a sweet, childlike heart. (Everybody in Mars Attacks! is either an idiot or an asshole, and the ending, which sees the attacking alien scourge decimated by Slim Whitman’s warbling falsetto, is hopeless in its absurdity.) A chain of adaptations beginning with 1999’s Sleepy Hollow and extending to 2012 with Dark Shadows conflated the issue, until Burton’s singular look – that same monochromatic Halloweeny aesthetic – became his defining trait, with little narrative or thematic substance for us to grab hold of behind the creepy stop-motion and black makeup.

But I don’t want to be unfair. Many of the things that make Ed Wood brilliant were still on display in his later career, including his ability to wrangle big ensemble casts into a cohesive story that never felt like it was cramming famous faces into the frame just to elicit a reaction. A young Jack Black as a hoo-rah, kill-‘em-all army brat in Mars Attacks! works just as well as Bill Murray does in Ed Wood, with his portrayal of effete producer Bunny Breckinridge (the difference being that Black’s character is incinerated the moment he steps on the battlefield, while Bunny’s ultimate fate is more sympathetic). Burton sprinkles character talent left and right, from Jeffrey Jones as Criswell the fraud psychic to Lisa Marie as horror TV host Vampira, to create a sort of Hollywood freak show to surround the ebullient Wood. It’s not a “championing the underdog” story, per se; these underdogs would likely scoff at the idea, and tell you to get bent. But the support they get from Wood – for whom quality is no object – is rare indeed, and their acceptance of him isn’t grudging for long.
I admit I don’t understand why Burton claimed the film “had” to be in black and white; its nuanced scripting and performances are certainly anything but. Maybe it was just an effective way for him to let us visit Ed Wood’s world, if only for a little while, one where cynicism and failure certainly exist, but don’t amount to anything next to the power and thrill of the greyscale cinema screen. Ed Wood is a triumphant exultation of what it means to make movies, and a reminder that it doesn’t really matter if they’re any good. Thankfully, this one isn’t just good – it’s the brilliant high-water mark of both Burton and Depp’s careers, and a fun, satisfying film.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

1 comment:

  1. I never thought of Ed Wood as a bad filmmaker. Interesting appreciation.