Why Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” Deserves a Second Look

Why Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” Deserves a Second Look

There are many filmmakers in the world who stand out for their visual style, their realistic dialogue, the emotional performances they get from actors, or their acute attention to detail. And then there are a couple who stand out for doing just about everything wrong. There are more bad movies out there than good, but what does it mean to be so bad you’re good? Well, Ed Wood is one of those filmmakers.

In the 21st century there is a director known for what has been dubbed the best worst movie of all time. I am of course talking about Tommy Wiseau and his film The Room. The story behind The Room is an infamous tale of an Eastern European immigrant who wished to make it big in Hollywood. It’s a story of friends turned foes and back again, and how one man’s passion project became the focus of a midnight movie tradition in the style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film’s co-star Greg Sestero, who plays Mark, Johnny’s (Tommy Wiseau) best friend, wrote a book, The Disaster Artist, telling the mostly true story of what happened. It was adapted into a film directed by and starring James Franco. I say mostly true because Wiseau has kept his past a mystery, only a few years ago admitting he’s not from the United States during the press tour for the film The Disaster Artist. However, before Tommy Wiseau, The Room, and The Disaster Artist, there were Edward D. Wood Jr., Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood.

Ed Wood was a writer, director and producer with dreams of making it big in Hollywood. Despite his obsession with Orson Welles, arguably the greatest director to date, Ed Wood had a problem: he had no idea what he was doing. His best known film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, is the ultimate lesson in how not to make a film. They shot a night scene during both night and day with no color editing to even make the slightest illusion. The scene also took place in a graveyard where the headstones were clearly cardboard. One of the actors even knocks one over and Ed Wood didn’t do a second take. Tim Burton’s film on the career of Ed Wood is also only mostly true, not because Wood’s life is as hidden as Wiseau’s but because Burton went with a more light and fun tone which took license on Wood’s truly tragic life as an alcoholic. 

Making movies mostly throughout the ‘50s, Wood was a cross-dresser, something he kept a secret until talking a producer into getting him his first directing gig. Glen or Glenda explored the stories of a transvestite from the point of view of a psychiatrist. This was his way to try and normalize what other people believed to be so abnormal. He got a lot of flack for it and struggled with a lifestyle many people demonized, but that never stopped him from going on to the next project. This is what Burton’s film is really about and why it is an inspiring story. No matter how much he was beaten down, he was ready to pick himself up, write a script, cast a movie, and shoot it. Wood even struck up a wonderful friendship with Bella Lugosi, most well known for playing the famous vampire in 1932’s Dracula. By the time Lugosi got to know Wood his career was far behind him and he was a morphine junkie, but he still had the drive to keep working, even if no one wanted him. This was a big reason him and Wood got along: it seemed they were cut from the same cloth.

Johnny Depp plays the disgraced director in what I consider his best performance. He knows how to embody a bright-eyed oddball and his handsome face and silky hair is reminiscent of Wood’s. He puts on a voice that, though not exactly like Wood’s, matches the tone of the film well. The film is representative of both Wood and Burton in its camp. Burton’s films, especially those in the ‘80s and ‘90s, have a campy nature to them. His Batman films were considered too dark for children, which seems funny because the sets were so exaggerated and cartoonish and the performances often melodramatic. The same can be said for Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, and for Ed Wood. Depp’s performance is contagiously optimistic and cheerful. Viewers can’t fault him for the errors he makes. His childlike wonder and his energetic charisma make for an enticing character who will fight to the ends of the Earth to keep making his art.

Another brilliant performance came from Martin Landau, who played Bela Lugosi, a role which earned him the Oscar for best supporting actor. To say that he embodied Lugosi would be an understatement: He was Lugosi, just as Daniel Day Lewis is any one of his characters or Meryl Streep hers. Lugosi has a distinctive Hungarian accent and moved with intention like a dancer, both of which Landau nails. At this time in his life Lugosi used a cane and was growing frail which Landau adds an undeniable humanity to. 

This movie has an interesting cast. Playing Wood’s girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, was Sarah Jessica Parker, who at this time had been in Footloose, Hocus Pocus, and Honeymoon in Vegas, but was still a few years away from Sex and the City, which would make her a household name. Between this movie and that HBO show, she would work with Tim Burton again in Mars Attacks!. Bill Murray plays Bunny Breckinridge, a long time collaborator and friend of Wood’s. He was also a cross-dresser and often performed as a drag queen and had plans to have a sex change. A fun note is that Bill Murray had also played the rambunctious and infamous journalist Hunter S. Thompson in 1980’s Where the Buffalo Roam, a role Johnny Depp would later take on and master in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Patricia Arquette played Cathy O’Hara, a woman Wood meets after Fuller left him due to his living such an extravagantly counter-culture lifestyle. Other than Parker’s character, everyone in the film plays a misfit of some sort, whether it be a gay drag queen; a straight crossdressing filmmaker, or an aging monster movie star with a drug habit who studios believed had been dead for some time (though it was made eight years before he died, Lugosi was not asked to be in Abbot and Costello Meet Dracula because the studio though he had passed.) Though many ‘90s films have cheap jokes and demeaning humor that could have easily been included at the expense of Wood and his eccentric gang, this movie is a celebration of these people and how their personalities and unpopular life choices made them go against the grain, no matter how foolish a vision it might have been to make Plan 9 From Outer Space. But without that vision we would have never gotten Burton’s film nor would we be talking about Wood today.

While a lot of the film is an exaggerated reality the core of each scene is true to Wood’s life. But one thing in the film that was entirely from Burton’s imagination is a scene where Wood meets Orson Welles, played very authentically by Vincent D’Onofrio. The scene, while not true to reality, is essential to this movie. At the time hardly any filmmaker wrote, produced, directed and starred in their own films. He had total control over Citizen Kane, his first official feature, though didn’t have much to show for his talent as a filmmaker before making it except a theater career, a few shorts, and an hour long film. Today, based on how talented you are, that might get you a call from Marvel but in no way will they give you the type of control Welles had on Kane. And at the time, studios had contracts that essentially owned actors, writers, and directors for years. Like nowadays when an actor signs up to be in a superhero film they are contracted often for six films. Back in the golden age of Hollywood a studio would sign an actor or writer or what have you to contracts that would sometimes span decades. But Welles was a prodigy. Smoking cigars in his teens and sitting with intellectual elites into his twenties, he was far beyond his years and spoke with his iconic voice. Wood worshipped Welles, but never got to meet him in real life. This scene, even if fantasy, finally gave the world a look at what it might have been for these two filmmakers to meet. Both were on either ends of the movie-making spectrum, but both were individuals who didn’t let people tell them “no.” And that’s what this scene is about. Welles tells Wood that no matter what obstacles you face, keep going until you get your way.

The big difference between Tommy Wiseau and Ed Wood is that Wood never got to see his career flourish. After the end of Ed Wood, his life went into a spiral of alcoholism and making nudie monster movies. Wiseau embraced the flow of cult audiences that would screen his film at midnight and ritualistically throw plastic spoons at the screen. He released The Room as a drama, and even paid top dollar to keep the movie in theaters for two weeks, a requirement for films to be considered for an Oscar nomination. I don’t think Wood would have relished “love-to-hate, so-bad-it’s-good” success that particularly Plan 9 From Outer Space would get. When people started laughing at The Room, Wiseau went along with it and changed his stance, saying it is a dark comedy. Wiseau would even go on to produce one season of a sitcom called The Neighbors, starring himself as the landlord to a bunch of wacky tenants in an apartment building. For better or worse, he doubled down on the comedy aspect. But both men today have movies about them, books written about them, and Hollywood directors and filmmakers astounded by them. Ed Wood is a film about what it is to be a true artist. No matter what talent you have, if you stick to your guns you can make something special, perhaps so special it lasts longer than you yourself do.