Of all the film directors who’ve ever amassed enough work for a coherent filmography, none are more challenging than Ed Wood. His paradoxical aesthetic boggles my ability to hand out star ratings. For example, Plan 9 from Outer Space is rightfully held as one of the absolute worst movies ever unleashed on the public. Yet, its pedestrian dialogue, histrionic performances, and rickety special effects make it an enormously entertaining experience. It’s aggressive awfulness helps it hold up as well as any classic movie. So, do I give it zero stars? Or five? It’s a real conundrum, but my heart opts for the latter. After watching Tim Burton’s intelligent, moving biopic of Wood, I suspect he would feel much the same way.
The story begins in the early 50s, as Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp) emerges from the creative badlands in Hollywood. As a man who could act, write, produce, and direct his own material, Wood models his career trajectory after that of his idol, Orson Welles. With the aid of his frustrated girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) Wood churns out schlock screenplays about monsters and vampires, and makes passionate attempts to secure funding for his work. Somehow, someway, Wood convinces investors to fork over money, and he cranks out an increasingly disjointed and tone-deaf body of work. Along this journey, Wood gains an eccentric group of thespians into his orbit: Hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), who built a film career despite his heavily broken English (“It’s time for go to bed!”), voluptuous horror presenter Vampira (Lisa Marie), and Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a tuxedoed charlatan known for spouting bizarre visions about the future (“I predict, that by 1970, men will have colonized Mars!!!”).
None of Wood’s associations would have more lasting poignancy than his friendship with Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Lugosi, perhaps the most famous actor to inhabit the role of Dracula, was a faded boogeyman by the time he crossed paths with Wood. With one man despondent over where life has taken him and the other depressed from where his is headed, the two form a real and genuine bond. If Wood gives Lugosi a reason to emerge from his coffin, then Lugosi supplies Wood with a taste of the validation he craves.
Ed Wood gains much of its dramatic heft from the precise, passionate performances of the two primary actors. Depp plays Ed Wood as a daffy, wild-eyed zealot, in delirious denial of his own abilities. In many ways, this film announced that Depp’s chameleonic charisma had fully arrived. Landau, who rightfully took home the Oscar, conveys Lugosi’s inner high-wire act between proud and pathetic. Long relegated to bland supporting roles, Ed Wood gives Landau a chance to soar.
As director, Burton makes the wise decision to strip the film of his usual eccentric artifice. His considerable skill often hides in plain sight. This makes him an interesting flip to Wood, whose bold flourishes bombastically drew attention to his ineptitude. Burton bravely shoots his opus in black-and-white, echoing the faux-spooky kitsch of Wood’s own films.
Wood’s career stands as a unique entity in movie history. Common sense should dictate that anyone who demonstrates Wood’s complete lack of creative instincts and self-awareness is likely doomed to perpetual obscurity. His shooting star didn’t burn briefly; it never burned at all. And yet, Wood’s movies are still quoted and celebrated at festivals all around the world. Better still, here is an all-star cast and an all-world director offering gentle affection for a man with gargantuan ambitions, but without the talent to realize them. Ed Wood is one of the most touching biopics ever made, and a lasting testament to a man who was the absolute best at being the worst ever.
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