Ode to a Director Who Dared to Be Dreadful
“Ed Wood,” Tim Burton’s very good film about a very bad film maker, has a cheerful defiance that would surely have appealed to Orson Welles, who was Ed Wood’s hero. Late in the film, Welles appears (played deftly by Vincent d’Onofrio, who really looks like him) to advise Wood that independence is everything and that an artist’s visions are worth fighting for. Mr. Burton, currently Hollywood’s most irrepressible maverick, has taken that credo to heart.
So here is the Z-movie ethos of Edward D. Wood Jr., as filtered through the dark wit and visual brilliance of Mr. Burton. Two questions immediately present themselves: Who and why? To answer the first, Ed Wood was a director working on the outermost fringes of Hollywood in the 1950’s. He made the kind of science-fiction film that used Cadillac hubcaps for flying saucers.
He’s best remembered for the transcendent tackiness of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and for “Glen or Glenda,” which achieved midnight movie notoriety for its story about a man who loved wearing angora sweaters. Ed Wood played that role himself, and he played it from the heart.
Even allowing for the special ineptitude of the Wood oeuvre, or for Wood’s habit of turning up in full drag to do his directing, it would take more to explain Mr. Burton’s fascination with this subject. Wood was also a dauntless guerrilla film maker, assembling his own band of outsiders as a stock company and using anything or anyone he could commandeer for the film-making process.
His daring deserves to be legendary: he made films on a shoestring, raised funds by hook or by crook, and really did steal a fake octopus for use in a scene with Bela Lugosi, who had to wrestle with the thing in a shallow pool of water (as depicted in “Ed Wood”). He also lovingly resurrected the aging Lugosi, rescuing him from oblivion just as Mr. Burton rescues Ed Wood today.
Ed Wood eventually descended into terminal sleaze, drinking himself to death, writing books with titles like “Death of a Transvestite Hooker” and making hard-core porn like “Necromania,” which depicts oral sex in a coffin. So the biggest surprise about “Ed Wood” is that it manages to be a sweet, sunny mainstream comedy, with its kinkiness reduced to the level of a joke. There is, for instance, the moment when Ed Wood’s girlfriend, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), asks: “Where’s my pink sweater? I can never seem to find my clothes any more.” Angora-loving Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) says nothing but looks guiltily at the camera.
Mr. Depp isn’t best known as a comic actor, but he gives a witty and captivating performance, bringing wonderful buoyancy to this crazy role. He captures all the can-do optimism that kept Ed Wood going, thanks to an extremely funny ability to look at the silver lining of any cloud. ” ‘The soldiers’ costumes are very realistic,’ ” he exclaims early in the film, reading aloud the nicest line in a review of one of Wood’s plays. “That’s positive!”
“Ed Wood” has devilish fun revisiting the scenes of Wood’s many cinematic crimes, depicting with glee and accuracy the horrible conditions under which his films were made. George Weiss (Mike Starr), who distributed Wood’s films in extremely out-of-the-way places, gives the director a motto of sorts when he says: “Shoot whatever baloney you want. Just make sure it’s seven reels long.”
And Ed Wood himself, happily exclaiming, “That was perfect!” after any bad shot, is seen directing his cast in typical laissez-faire fashion. “You’re upset — no, no, you’re not that upset,” he tells an actor who accidentally walks into a door.
“Ed Wood” is in love with bad-movie high jinks, and with nutty, improvisatory film making as an antidote to the antiseptic slickness of today. But its real heart is in the Wood-Lugosi friendship. The aging vampire star, played with hilarious crankiness by an outstandingly fine Martin Landau, becomes a poignant figure even at his most bizarre. (Early in the film, Lugosi is seen at home in full cape and regalia, watching “Dracula” on television and holding a chihuahua in each hand.) Through all the humor about Lugosi’s histrionics, and through pathos about his drug addiction, Mr. Burton’s respect and admiration are unmistakable.
When it comes to respect, “Ed Wood” pays homage with loving re-enactments of authentic Wood movie scenes and with actors who look uncannily like members of Wood’s freakish troupe. (A closing credit notes that Tor Johnson, the bald, hulking wrestler played here by George “The Animal” Steele, achieved “greatest fame as a best-selling Halloween mask.”) Though the real Wood scenes looked starkly awful, “Ed Wood” is an unobtrusively gorgeous black-and-white film (expertly shot by Stefan Czapsky, Mr. Burton’s usual fine cinematographer) with a wide range of striking visual effects.
If “Ed Wood” has a major failing, it’s the lack of momentum. Wood’s career had nowhere to go, and to some extent the film (written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on Rudolph Grey’s enterprising biography of Wood) has the same problem. Still, Mr. Burton has no trouble holding his audience’s attention with incomparable Wood antics like the group baptism of his “Plan 9 From Outer Space” cast. That film’s financing came from the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills and church officials insisted on both baptism and the removal of “Grave Diggers” from the original title.
One cast member is John (Bunny) Breckinridge, played by a delightfully demure Bill Murray in a suit, lipstick and pearls. Mr. Murray’s slyest moment comes during the filming of “Plan 9,” when he wonders whether he ought to wear antennas on screen.
“No!” exclaims Ed Wood. “You’re the ruler of the galaxy! Show a little taste.”
“Ed Wood” is to be shown tomorrow at 9 P.M. and midnight as part of the New York Film Festival. It opens commercially in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Janet Maslin, NY Times, September 23, 1994