Name: Ed Wood
Release Date: 1994
Writers: Rudolph Gray (book), Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (screenplay)
Director: Tim Burton
Johnny Depp: Ed Wood
Martin Landau: Bela Lugosi
Sarah Jessica Parker: Dolores Fuller
Patricia Arquette: Kathy O’Hara
Jeffrey Jones: Criswell
G.D. Spradlin: Reverend Lemon
Vincent D’Onofrio: Orson Welles
Bill Murray: Bunny Breckinridge
Mike Starr: Georgie Weiss
Max Casella: Paul Marco
Brent Hinkley: Conrad Brooks
Lisa Marie: Vampira
George ‘The Animal’ Steele: Tor Johnson
Juliet Landau: Loretta King
Run-Time: 127 mins.
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
For me, “Ed Wood” belongs to a pretty elite class of movies.
It’s one of a handful of flicks, where, despite no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I’ll stop what I’m doing and watch it again. Also included in the ranks of these repeat-watchers is the first “Star Wars” movie, Richard Curtis‘ 2003 ensemble rom-com “Love Actually,” Sam Jones‘ Wilco documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and (please don’t laugh) the 2000 remake of the classic Peter Cook/Dudley Moore vehicle “Bedazzled,” with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley in the lead roles.
Despite winning two Academy Awards, the film didn’t make a ton of money. On a budget of $18 million, it only returned $5 million at the box office. But one suspects that DVD sales made all that cash back and much more. It was critically well-received, earning plaudits from, among others, Roger Ebert, The Washington Post and The Austin Chronicle, which called it the “strangest biographical film ever made,” but also “one of the most charming.”
At the heart of the movie is Depp’s manic performance as Wood, a man so clearly in love with the magic of the movies and the purity of his vision that he believes every shot is a keeper. Wood’s exploitation movies, shot on a shoe-string and with special effects that would make modern audiences cringe, earned him the honor of “The Worst Director of All Time.”
But undeterred by either a lack of technical skill or critical praise, Wood pressed on with his films anyway, putting together features so guilelessly artless that they never fail to charm.
In one hilarious scene, wrestler Tor Johnson (Steele) bangs into a door-frame, shaking the entire set. Wood yells “Cut” and plunges heedlessly to the next scene. When his colorblind cameraman asks him whether he wants a reshoot because of the obvious technical blunder, Depp/Wood enthusiastically and confidently fires back, “No, it was perfect,” arguing that. in real life, Johnson “would be struggling with that problem” all the time.
In many ways, Wood’s breathless Sci-fi (“Bride of the Monster,” “The Ghoul Goes West,” and the classically atrocious “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” have an energy and vitality in them lacking from respectable Hollywood. Anyone remember the sword-and-sandal epics that respectable Hollywood churned out with stunning regularity in those days? Try sitting through “Demetrius and the Gladiators,” for instance, and see if you’re not in stitches from the pretentious dialogue and the faux-Shakespearean affectations of most of the cast. Star Tony Curtis, it should be noted, may be the only gladiator to ever emerge from the ring with his Brooklyn accent fully intact.
Some of “Ed Wood’s” best scenes are between Depp and Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi, who, when Wood finds him, is in a funeral parlor trying on a casket for size.
When Depp/Wood asks him what he’s doing, Lugosi shoots back in a borscht-belt accent, “I’m plannink on dyink soon.”
By the 1950s, Lugosi’s heyday as the original screen “Dracula (Universal, 1931),” was far behind him. In 1948, for instance, he played The Count for laughs in “Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Landau’s Lugosi is living in a flimsy tract house, is a recent divorcee, and is addicted to morphine (“I’m just an old bogeyman,” he tells Wood, shortly after admitting that he hasn’t had a film role for years and is making ends meet by playing dinner theatre Dracula.).
It doesn’t matter. Depp’s Wood is starstruck. And you can see the wonder in his eyes as he goes home to tell his long-suffering girlfriend Dolores (Parker) all about his meeting. And in return, all Wood gets from his best gal is “I thought he was dead.”
A tender father-son/mentor-student/doctor-patient relationship soon develops between the filmmaker with a predilection for women’s clothing and one of the scariest actors ever to strap on fake fangs.
The film’s side players: Bill Murray as the drag queen Bunny Breckenridge; Jeffrey Jones as The Amazing Criswell (who makes a living as a TV psychic whose gift is for shockingly inaccurate predictions); and a quick turn from Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles also conspire to make the film shine.
In his few minutes of screentime, D’Onofrio/Welles provides one of the movie’s best moments, as he encourages Wood to fight for his artistic vision. Never mind that the artistic vision in question is “Plan Nine from Outerspace.”
If you weren’t familiar with Wood’s body of work going into the movie, you’d emerge with the impression that he was a huckster, a charlatan only interested in churning absolute schlock.
Burton’s film highlights the howlingly bad acting that infected many a Wood feature. One scene, between Parker and Juliet Landau, looks like it was blocked out by a high school drama class.
The first couple of minutes of the movie, shot during a rainy storm and featuring some of the most wooden dialogue I’ve heard on film, is a reminder of why Wood isn’t mentioned in the same breath with the other great directors of his era.
But once you get past that and into the meat of the movie, it actually turns into a diverting little romp that never becomes much more than it was apparently intended to be: A 1950s monster movie.
The Wood repertory company is in force here. Lugosi plays a mad scientist looking to “create a race of atomic supermen”; Steele plays the mute giant Lobo, who eventually turns on his master; Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller makes a brief cameo and the star turn goes to the now–forgotten Loretta King (played in the biopic by Juliet Landau).
I found my viewing of “Bride of the Monster” informed by my earlier experience with Burton’s movie, though that, in no way, detracted from my enjoyment of it. The film moves energetically through its allotted hour to the inevitable triumph of good over evil through a combination of hammy dialogue, a clearly fake octopus and some awkwardly edited stock footage.
And by the time I got to the credits, I found myself wishing that Hollywood had more characters like Ed Wood haunting its backlots.
It’s one thing to fail with nobility as Wood did. It’s quite another to make an honest effort, spend millions and still end up with the unimaginative junk that now populates the multiplex.