Category: biopics / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 96 of 100
Halfway through ‘Ed Wood’ – a film I saw at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema when it was first released in 1994 and have reapproached every three or four years since – I grabbed a pen, jotted a few words down and congratulated myself on a nifty opening line for this review:
“ ‘Ed Wood’ is what happens when a capable director makes a film about the life of an incapable director.”
Might need tightening, but hey-ho, good opener. I settled down to finish the movie, which has become like an old friend to me over the years, then fired up the laptop to start this review. I took another look at the sentence I’d jotted down and it struck me as inappropriate; a glib generalisation.
Tim Burton a “capable” filmmaker? Talk about damning with faint praise! Excuse me while I put my sniffy, academic, middle-aged Sight and Sound critic’s hat on!
Tim Burton, for want a better all-encompassing, single-word description, is an inspired director.
Nor is it completely accurate to deem Edward D. Wood Jnr “incapable”. Ed Wood was a man who made movies for virtually no budget, their runtimes padded with stock footage, his scripts tortuously contrived to incorporate said elements or explain away the non-existent production values; a man who peopled his opuses with actors who couldn’t act simply because they’d appear for free or they were his friends. A man who didn’t – unlike certain directors (no names mentioned, but dude your car insurance adverts are freakin’ annoying) – start out with the backing of a studio, some semblance of a budget, a script that could actually have worked and cast members who had proved themselves admirably elsewhere and still emerge with a stinker of epic proportions. Wood, too, can best be described as inspired – just in a different way.
Ed Wood (played with wide-eyed gleeful empathy by Johnny Depp) genuinely loves cinema; it’s something he aspires to even as his off-Broadway play (a belaboured wartime morality tale) dies a quiet death in a dingy theatre, its cast significantly more populated than the audience. The play’s a three-hander, by the way.
Encouraged by his long-time (and long-suffering) girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), Wood battles to get his hastily penned genre scripts into production. As his bounces from commercial failure to critical failure (usually within the scope of the same movie), collects an entourage of fellow oddballs including supposed psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), voluptuous late-night TV host Vampira (Lisa Marie), camp transsexual Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray in excelsis) and faded horror movie star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau).
It’s the friendship between Wood and Lugosi that forms the emotional core of ‘Ed Wood’, Martin Landau bringing a heartfelt gravitas to his Oscar-winning performance as the elderly Lugosi. Landau provides the anchor upon which Depp’s typically expressive performance is held.
Late in the film – with Lugosi’s health failing and Dolores leaving Wood for the heinous sins of giving a lead role to another actress and having a penchant for wearing her undies and angora sweaters – Wood strikes up a tentative romance with the starry-eyed Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette), a relationship which counterpoints Lugosi’s eventual and inevitable death. It’s from the last bit of footage he shot of Lugosi that Wood crafts his “masterpiece”, ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’. Funded by a religious organisation deluded enough to think they’re putting their funds into an educational and gently improving blockbuster that will spread the word and swell their ranks, the title is hastily changed from the original ‘Grave Robbers From Outer Space’ when his backers express outrage at the concept of grave robbing.
Still, after much wrangling and a few inspirational words from his hero Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), Wood gets to make his movie – suffering his entire cast to be baptized in order to secure the funding – and declares it, as he and Kathy head to Las Vegas to get married, “the one I’ll be remembered for”.
He wasn’t wrong.