"Visions are worth fighting for," a minor character informs a major one late in Tim Burton's visually striking, charmingly loopy Ed Wood, and we agree with this declaration. Especially since the actor speaking it (Vincent d'Onofrio), sitting at a dimly lit booth in the back of an empty bar, is playing none other than Orson Welles. With ironic eyes and throaty voice, d'Onofrio's Welles champions artistic freedom no matter what the cost. And Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), the awestruck listener and maverick filmmaker in his own right, is so inspired that he thanks his hero, rushes back to the set of his problem-beset movie and takes Welles' credo to heart in his own particular way -- by bursting onto the scene in full drag, where he and his unflinching technicians proceed to create flying saucers by suspending painted hubcaps from fishing poles whose dangling lines can clearly be seen on camera. Wood is thrilled with the results.
Burton is too, even though moviegoers weren't (Wood made a slew of less-than-popular B movies in the 1950s). Why would Burton, considered among the best contemporary directors, be attracted to Wood, considered not just among the worst, but the worst ever? A certain self-reliance, for one thing. Wood was determined to turn his singular vision into film, and he did, by hook or by crook. Burton's unflagging interest in eccentrics such as Beetlejuice and "freaks" such as Edward Scissorhands suggests a kindred spirit. What's more, Wood affords Burton the opportunity to continue to tease away the loose ends of middle-class sensibilities. Wood stocked his company with outsiders; Burton's films have variously dealt with misfits and others beyond the suburban pale. Plus, the artist in Burton gets to have a really good time playing with the contretemps that marked Wood's awkward moviemaking.
Less a biography of a strange man than a tribute to an even stranger filmmaker, Ed Wood starts with Wood's theatrical beginnings. "The soldiers' costumes are very realistic," he trumpets, reading aloud the only nice comment from a review of one of his plays. "That's positive!" Soon he has written Glen or Glenda, a quasi-autobiographical screenplay about a man quite fond of wearing women's angora sweaters. He isn't discouraged when his wholesome actress/girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) is dumbfounded by this revelation. When she tells him the story's too embarrassing for her to be in, Wood replies that that's exactly why she has to do it: it's real life! Financial backers, even the schlock producers, are also aghast.
One day outside a mortuary, however, Wood encounters an aged Bela Lugosi. "You're much scarier in real life than in the movies!" Wood fawns breathlessly after Lugosi has been criticizing a coffin for being too constringent. Thinking quickly, Wood realizes that the decrepit movie star, banished to the has-been wastelands, is his ticket to film directing. Lugosi realizes Wood may be the only option he has left. So the two join forces.
Burton, with mischievous sweetness, spends a good deal of time showing how Wood and crew went about their business. So we see cardboard headstones toppling when actors trip over faux-grass carpets. Zombies get stuck in graves. A daylight scene inexplicably turns dark. They work on budgets so small they have to dodge police on location shoots because Wood can't afford to pay for permits. They steal a fake octopus from a studio prop department and -- since they forgot to steal the mechanized monster's motor as well -- Wood instructs Lugosi to flap the creature's tentacles about him as if it were alive and evil. "You're upset," Wood tells an actor who looks to him for instruction as the camera rolls. "No, no, you're not that upset," he cautions, as the actor mistakenly walks into a door.
These yuks are certainly fun, but it's the emotional resonance within this hilarity that makes Ed Wood special. Wood, Burton seems to be saying, is lovable, interesting, complicated, human because he's from the uncompromising fringe. Likewise, Burton's earlier films offered the curios as the normal people and the normal people as odd. So of all the "colorful" characters in Wood, it's Dolores, forever mixing batters and vacuuming carpets while wearing Donna Reed clothes and speaking goody-goody honesty, who comes off as peculiar. Because the resident square can no longer take the inept filmmaking and because she wants a so-called normal life, she denounces Wood and his crew at a wrap party. We end up wishing her good riddance for judging them, for placing her seemingly objective value system above theirs. We hope that Wood won't be crushed, that he'll continue the exotic belly dance he began before the outburst, and soon start a new picture. Happily, he does both.
Burton renders the director's accepting nature even more soulfully in the relationship between Wood and Lugosi. Though Lugosi relishes the chance to reclaim his long-forgotten fame, he also agrees to work with Wood to earn enough money for his morphine fixes. (Lugosi was a notorious drug addict.) Wood knows this about his idol and, without judging, does what he can to help him, from guiding Lugosi on-screen to checking him into rehab off-screen. Lugosi, for his part, readily accepts the novice auteur. To Wood's delight, Lugosi hams it up frightfully on-camera; Lugosi's off-stage drama binds them closer. Martin Landau's extraordinary performance (my early choice for Oscar winner) infuses Lugosi with a hilarious crabbiness and a poignant neediness, and it's clear that while Burton has great fun with Lugosi's scary screen persona, he's mindful of the haunted man behind it.
Also impressive is Burton's ability to make the recreations of Wood's films so captivating to watch, since the originals were so singularly awful. Burton is aided by his longtime cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who employs suggestive chiaroscuro, crisp framings and a range of striking visual effects that include illuminating Wood and Lugosi underneath office-top gargoyles. And the "real life" scenes -- Lugosi in the throes of drug rehabilitation, for example -- are both analogous to and better than the melodrama in Wood's films. This is a masterful feat: simultaneously paying tribute to and sending up.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The film does occasionally err. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script, based on Rudolph Grey's biography of Wood, strains to make Wood's second love interest original. And Burton lays on one hearse joke too many at one of Wood's horror movie premieres. Too, it seems dubious, and manipulative, that at Lugosi's funeral, the only ones feeling bereft are Wood and crew.
Still, Ed Wood consistently delights, not in the least because Depp, all can-do and gee-whiz, is an enchanting comic actor, speaking his lines with snap and radiating a zany effervescence as his Wood finds something encouraging in every situation. "Shoot whatever baloney you want," Wood's distributor screams, "just make sure it's seven reels long." Wood does just that. And after every bad shot imaginable, he says, "That was perfect!" and means it, his vision forever intact. From campy opening credits engraved on tombstones, to unexpectedly moving closing credits that selectively explain what happened to these B-movie not-so-greats, Burton's vision is just about 20/20.
Directed by Tim Burton. With Johnny Depp, Martin Landau and Sarah Jessica Parker.