Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1994)

6. Ed Wood

For the first five films of his career, Tim Burton had directed elaborate genre films. Even “Edward Scissorhands” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” were special effects films. Perhaps after the stylistic excesses, and massive box office performances, of the “Batman” films, the director was looking for something more down-to-Earth. In the mid-nineties, Burton quickly dropped out of “Mary Reilly,” which was probably a good decision, to make “Ed Wood,” a biographical film about the man widely considered the worst director to ever live.

Set in 1952, the film follows Edward D. Wood Jr., a struggling filmmaker and heterosexual cross dresser. He admires Orson Welles and considers them kindred spirits – full time auteurs that write, act, and direct. His career isn’t going anywhere, his plays get terrible reviews, and the patience of his long-suffering wife Doris and his close-knit group of friends are running thin. On a chance encounter, Ed meets Bela Lugosi, a Hollywood legend that has fallen on hard times in his old age. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, Bela joining Ed’s ragtag team of film misfits. Lugosi’s star power, faded though it might be, finally gives Ed the leverage he needs to get his mircobudget B-flicks made. Despite getting several films under his belt, success eludes the ever-optimistic Wood.

The biggest attribute of “Ed Wood” is that Burton never mocks the title character. The character’s enthusiasm sometimes leads to creative oversights. The wacky happenstances he finds himself in are frequently comical. The movie recognizes that Wood wasn’t a great filmmaker. However, it’s obvious that Burton relates to him. The character fits in neatly with the director’s band of outsiders, on the same page as Edward Scissorhands and Lydia. Ed is an outsider to the Hollywood system. He cheats sleazy, fly-by-night producers to make his personal epics. He scrounges up funds for his movies independently. He tells outrageous lies to money people, forces his friends to get baptized, just so he can get a monster movie made. If his movies hadn’t been awful, Wood probably would have been an early icon of the independent film movement. Burton is also nonjudgmental towards Wood’s cross dressing, treating it as another element that makes him a true outsider to the world around him.

There’s another element of the story that Burton obviously relates too. The director admitted as much in interviews. Ed Wood’s relationship with Bela Lugosi mirrors the director’s own relationship with Vincent Price… To a degree. Vincent Price was never washed up to the degree that Lugosi was. I don’t think Burton has ever been as desperate to make movies as Wood was. However, both Tim and Ed admired Vincent and Bela. Both directors were lifelong fans of the actors. In the film, Edward’s friendship with Bela is born out of fan boy enthusiasm but a mutual respect eventually evolves. It’s hard to know if Lugosi the character really knows how lousy Wood’s scripts are. He seems to just like working. In a weird way, the adventures the films set him on give the old man hope, something to look forward to. Though it doesn’t occupy every scene, the relationship between Ed and Lugosi powers the entire movie, providing its rich emotional heart.

Burton made the decision to shot the film in black and white, one that made Columbia Pictures pass on the project. This obviously roots this film visually to the kind of low budget, monochromatic flicks Ed Wood made. Occasionally, Burton creates scene that look like they're out of classic film noir. A few scenes set in bars are filled with dark shadows and half-obscured faces. From time to time, Burton adapts the kind of flat shooting Wood and other low budget filmmakers of the time used. Amusingly, this is done usually during the scenes when Wood himself is shooting movies.

Mostly though, Burton shoots “Ed Wood” like a Tim Burton movie. The director’s love of framing actors in the middle of a wider tableau surfaces here again. Two notable shots include Ed falling to his knees in front of Vampira or a lingering close-up on real life oddball Korla Pandit. However, Burton’s main stylistic choice is his use of forward-facing moving shots. Near the beginning of the film, while working as a stage-hand grunt, Wood holds a fake tree and moves around the back lot. The camera is in front of him, watching him go. Later on, as he walks down a rowdy theater to his film’s premiere, a similar move is employed. The best use of this trick comes when Lugosi decides to check himself into rehab. In the heavily shadowed room, we focus on a nurse at the front desk. The camera moves towards her, as she looks up in surprise. That moment is shot like a horror film which serves two purposes. It recalls Lugosi’s proudest moments, contrasting with his current situation, and also characterizes this, his darkest hour, as a personal moment of horror.

“Ed Wood” is the movie that might have confirmed Johnny Depp’s leading man status. Though Depp had led a number of interesting projects up to this point, “Ed Wood” seems to be the movie that finally had critics taking him seriously. His portrayal of Wood is one of unfailing optimism. That enthusiasm for making art leads him through tough times. Depp adopts a higher pitched voice then his own, a spark of hope always coming through Ed’s words. Yet Depp’s performance isn’t one note. He brings a depth to Wood, showing him as a fully formed guy whose love for film making, and being creativity, drove his entire life. Depp’s acting suggests that Wood’s films were campy not because he lacked talent but because he just wanted to get as much done as soon as possible. Despite the strength of his performance, Johnny Depp didn’t win any awards for this one.

Johnny didn’t win an Oscar but his co-star Martin Landau did. Landau’s performance as Bela Lugosi is halfway between flat-out impersonation and a more personal interpretation. Landau copies Lugosi’s Hungarian accent without ever perfectly capturing it. However, the strength of Landau’s performance overshadows any of these flaws. The script nor the actor back away from the man’s many flaws. The movie captures some of Bela’s darkest moments. Twice he calls Eddie up in the middle of the night, begging for help. The first time, Bela has collapsed on the floor, his addiction to morphine sapping his strength. The second time, and by far the darkest moment in the film, has Bela pulling a gun on Ed and himself, threatening suicide. The desperation in Landau’s voice conveys a man at the end of his rope, facing down a lifetime of regrets. At this point in his life, Lugosi was so desperate that he actually greets a crowd of paparazzi, happy to have the attention.

Yet the film captures the lighter side of Lugosi’s personality too. His introduction, swearing at a coffin salesman, is darkly comical. While the others are horrified by a film premier gone wrong, Lugosi laughs it off, calling it a “good time.” Lugosi's profanity-laced tirades against Boris Karloff is one of the movie's best reoccurring jokes. One of the stand-out moments of the film, and the scene that probably won Landau his Oscar, is when a post-rehab Bela recites a speech from “Bride of the Monster” for a street side crowd of on-lookers. The scene is shot from a low angle, amplifying the actor’s mythic status. Landau gives the silly dialogue a real power, imbuing the lines with Lugosi’s meloncholey. That he dies soon afterwards lends that a moment bitter-sweetness. Though it’s easy to say that Samuel L. Jackson was robbed that year at the Oscars, you can’t say Landau doesn’t give a great performance.

One of the best aspects of the film is how well it captures the sense of camaraderie among Ed and his group of friends. They are true misfits and classic Burton-esque outsiders. The film gathered together some great actors to portray this motley group. Jeffrey Jones doesn’t imitate the Amazing Criswell’s particular speech but does captures the man’s unique charm. I also like that the movie confirms that Criswell was a self-aware huckster. Bill Murray is a surprisingly big name for the relatively small part of Bunny Breckinridge. An open homosexual, Breckinridge was a real life eccentric and his role in Wood’s gang isn’t never well explained. Murray brings an animated spaciness to the part. Murray gifts much of his dialogue with a surreal hilarity. Pro-wrestler George Steele seems naturally cast as pro-wrestler Tor Johnson. Like Tor, Steele has a limited range. Also like Tor, he has an odd, good-natured, natural charm. One of the funniest roles is also one of the more minor. Norman Alden plays Cameraman Bill as a slightly agitated but loyal fellow who doesn’t seem surprised by any of the strange things that happen. Alden’s deadpan delivery adds to a lot of the film’s humor.

Not all the performances are charming. “Ed Wood” possibly does a disservice to Ed’s ex-wife Dolores Fuller. At first, Dolores is unfailingly supportive of Ed’s endeavors. It’s not long before the cracks in her composure start to show. All too often, the film paints Fuller as a shrewish woman, unwilling to tolerate her husband’s eccentricities. Sarah Jessica Parker is fine in the part but can’t overcome the limitations of the script. Also in the cast are Lisa Marie as Vampira and Juliet Landau as Loretta King. Marie was Burton’s girlfriend at the time while Juliet is Martin Landau’s daughter. Considering both actresses’ performances, you wonder if nepotism had a hand in their casting. Marie, though she fills out Vampira’s infamous outfit beautifully, plays the part in an oddly flat way. Landau is similarly flat and spaced-out, though sometimes hilariously. Both actresses seem to be imitating the acting style of people in Ed Wood’s movies instead of in his life. Marie’s limited range certainly does a disservice to Maila Nurmi’s bizarre, fascinating life.

The film boldly considers Wood’s fetish for angora and women’s clothing. It briefly explores the origins of his obsession, how his mother would dress him in girl’s clothing as a child. Wood’s cross dressing is a coping mechanism. The movie isn’t too proud not to get laughs out of Wood’s habit. When he dons a harem girl’s outfit and angora sleeves, dancing a belly dance, it’s played for laughs. The film’s last act has him visiting a bar and film set in a dress and heels. However, the movie takes a generally mature approach to Wood’s transvestism. The basis of his love for his last wife, Kathy O’Hara, is based mostly out of her accepting Wood’s habit at face value. One of the best scenes in the film is when Ed tells Kathy about his cross dressing in the middle of a broken down fun house. The slight tears in Depp’s performance and the kind acceptance of Patricia Arquette’s performance makes the moment sweet and lightly humorous.

You can’t overlook how funny “Ed Wood” is. The low production values of Wood’s films, and how the director dealt with them, are frequently played for laughs. An early moment of humor has both Bela and Tor having trouble getting through a door. A malfunctioning rubber octopus leads to a highly amusing moment. One of the film’s best reoccurring jokes is producers wondering out-loud if Lugosi is dead. When this gag is lastly revisited, after Lugosi’s actual death, the joke takes on a sadder quality. The movie mines a lot of humor out of ironically comparing Wood’s real life with his films. While frustrated with producers, the director mirrors one of the funniest lines from “Plan 9.” The last scene, where Ed claims that “Plan 9 from Outer Space” will be the one he’s remembered for, is dripping with irony, both cruel and sincere.

The film is an idealized biopic. The script brushes over Wood’s real life alcoholism, depression, and womanizing. No less a source then Bela Lugosi Jr., who is left out of the film entirely, has suggested that Wood was taking advantage of the aging Lugosi. The film portrays the two as close friends instead. Ultimately, you have to wonder if the film’s presentation of Wood’s life is even meant to be taken at face value. The film’s climax involves Wood meeting Orson Welles in a bar. The two auteurs compare their similar production problems. That one director is talking about “Touch of Evil,” a great classic of cinema, and the other is talking about “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” maybe the most unintentionally funny films ever made, is knowingly played for laughs. The encounter between Wood and Welles is obviously imaginary. On this viewing, I have to wonder if it isn’t imaginary within the movie as well. Perhaps Wood’s encounter with his idol is purely meant to be the filmmaker pumping himself up with confidence when he needs it the most.

Once voted the Worst Filmmaker of All Time, public opinion has softened on the works of Edward J. Wood Jr. Maybe it’s because the internet has made the works of far worst filmmakers, like Andy Millgan or Coleman Francis, more widely recognized. Or perhaps people have come to appreciate Wood’s ear for surreal dialogue or the fact that his movies are rarely boring. Probably, more then anything else, “Ed Wood” has made the guy too sympathetic to dislike. Considering Tim Burton is a self-professed Ed Wood fan, perhaps that was his intention. “Ed Wood” the movie is a comfortable break from Burton’s usual style and a good indication that the filmmaker could do more then just special effects movies. It’s a well-shot, funny, and infectiously fun biopic. [Grade: B+]

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