Lessee now...bio-pics about filmmakers. I dunno what took moviemakers so long to get around to attacking this subject---doesn't make sense, given how they make their lettuce. But as far as I can tell, Clint Eastwood's 1990 film White Hunter, Black Heart seems to have come first, surprisingly enough. It may have cloaked its main character with the name "John Wilson," but it obviously and effectively tells the brutal story of John Huston and his exploits while making The African Queen. Then we have Richard Attenborough's stuffy 1992 recounting of the life of Chaplin, with its only memorable element being Robert Downey Jr.'s dead-on performance as the film pioneer. But the best of the bunch, before or since, is Tim Burton's comically inventive version of the life of the greatest Z-list moviemaker of all time. What would've Ed Wood himself thought about Ed Wood? He would've eaten it up like a thick steak and downed it all with a fifth of scotch.
I'll never forget seeing Ed Wood for the first time, at 10:30 on a Sunday night in Atlanta, at Phipps Plaza. Not many people in the audience--the film was a bigger hit on video/DVD than at the theaters. That was okay by me--that meant less people talking in the theater. But from their rapt attention, I knew this crowd knew and appreciated Ed Wood the man. And from that first shot pulling into a rain-battered house that hides a coffin containing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), who rises and proceeds to introduce this film in the same manner that the real Criswell introduced Plan 9 From Outer Space--this thunderstruck concept had its hooks in me, and I had no worries. I knew we were all in for a good time. Further, when Howard Shore's masterful, bongo-and-theremin-driven score blares forth, and the inventively orchestrated credits sequence carries us through an Woodian cemetery, a fight with a giant octopus, and a trip into outer space--I REALLY knew I was in for transcendence. And the show had barely started.
Face it: Edward D. Wood Jr. made movies the way he wanted to make them. He had twisted visions and technique, and not a dime, and it didn't matter, 'cuz people are still watching Plan 9 From Outer Space, Bride of the Monster, Glen or Glenda, and Jailbait. Ed Wood is easily Tim Burton's greatest movie, and one of the greatest movies about the movies, because it knows this. It realizes the singularity of his efforts and boldly makes a direct correlation between Wood, who made the "worst" movies of all time and Orson Welles, who made the "best." On top of that, the film's special luminescence comes from the clever irony seeing Burton's opulent, expensive black-and-white work, gorgeously produced and paced, about a guy who made perfectly ugly black-and-white el cheapos that still, because of their naive, even sloppy uniqueness, hold us in their thrall.
In what is still also their best work, pop culture chroniclers/ screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski (Man on the Moon--about Andy Kaufman--and Auto Focus--about Bob Crane) found a sapphire of inspiration in their exploration of the creative urge and the joy in following a dream, however whacked-out it may be. Ed Wood exudes a romance for filmmaking, maybe for the first time in cinema history; it loves the process. Rich in character--and in characters (Jones' Criswell, George "The Animal" Steele's Tor Johnson, Lisa Marie's Vampira, Bill Murray's Bunny Breckinridge, and the incomparable Martin Landau, unrecognizable in Rick Baker and Ve Neill's deft makeup, as Bela Lugosi), Ed Wood's life now seems made for cinematic retelling (the film is based on Rudolph Gray's verbal history book, Nightmare of Ecstasy). Even if Wood's (and Lugosi's) time on earth weren't as peachy as it appears here, it's okay--for me, that's part of the movie's cosmic joke: it's a $25 million Hollywood movie about an off-Hollywood director who was probably lucky to make 25 million cents in his lifetime.
Even with its love-lettering to movies, the decision to center the work on the father-son relationship between the optimistic Wood and the morphine-addicted Lugosi is a masterstroke, particularly coming from Burton. He had a similar relationship with his own boyhood idol, Vincent Price, who was not only the subject and narrator of Burton's first animated success, the likely autobiographical Vincent, but also, in his final screen role, played a key part in Burton's Edward Scissorhands. It stands, then, that this odd, touching on-screen fellowship between Johnny Depp's always-firey Wood and Landau's alternately sluggish and sharp Lugosi resonates throughout the film, even after Lugosi has disappeared from the scene. Both performances ended up being the single best special effect of 1994, a spinning wheel of desperate ego and deflated despair, all spiced up with Landau's grouchiness and Depp's emboldened zeal. Depp's showing here, after his uniformly touching displays of talent in Edward Scissorhands, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Benny and Joon, convinced me that he was the finest male performer of his era.
As for the supporting cast, Murray scores points for delivering some of the movie's funniest moments, including its best throwaway gag--he dips a sneakered toe into a baptismal pool to "check" its temperature. Sarah Jessica Parker is an appropriately shrill presence as Ed Wood's first girlfriend and ill-fated leading lady (who went on to bigger things as the writer of a few Elvis Presley songs), while Patricia Arquette effuses wonderful sweetness as Wood's understanding true love (she barely reacts to Wood's nervous confession of compulsive tranvesticism). And Vincent D'Onofrio cameos brilliantly with his exacting imitation of Orson Welles (which is strangely looped in its sound--an element I like to view as a tribute to Welles' largely sound looped work in Touch of Evil). I also like Rance Howard (Ron Howard's dad) as the demanding producer of Bride of the Monster, with his emphatic desire that the film end with a "biiiiiiiig explo-sion!" Mike Starr's confused, streetwise backer of Glen or Glenda? is also a blustery notation.
But Martin Landau is the miracle worker among them all. I still remember being introduced to him with Space:1999, the often maligned but strangely, quietly entertaining 1970s science fiction show from Britain's Thunderbirds producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. If you would've told me when I was 13 that he'd take home an Oscar in twenty years for playing Lugosi, I woulda laughed in your face, even while knowing of his contributions to such films as North By Northwest and Cleopatra. But, starting with Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream and on into Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Landau was obviously on to a superior second wind. I mean, is there anything funnier than the scene where Lugosi is charged with stepping into a night-shrouded pond ("Damn, it's cold! Throw me the viskey!!") in order to fake a life-or-death struggle with a giant, dead-tentacled fake octopus? His screams as he writhes with this thing are the stuff of myth, and the camera crew doesn't even have sound! By scene's end, the shot of an awed Ed Wood saying "That was perfect!" is completely called-for. And, in another key sequence, the way Landau's drugged-up Lugosi begs to end his life--with Wood in tow for the ride--and then grabs ahold of himself, eyes aglow, and breaks down in Eddie's arms, apologizing for even considering the notion. Wow. I didn't expect to cry in this movie. But I did.
Finally, as if all this weren't enough to convince one of Ed Wood's merits (and some people might still need convincing, since the film's cult status was confirmed by its sadly low $6 million box office take), the movie boasted of some indespensible technical contributions: Shore's moving and detailed score, Stefan Czapky's award-winning, contrasty black-and-white photography, Tom Duffield's appropriately seedy art direction, and Colleen Atwood's imaginative costume design. With the exception of his gloriously silly Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands (each of which were nearly equal in quality to Ed Wood), I had always thought that Tim Burton had a genius for creating deeply-flawed but quite watchable films (his subsequent output, with the exception of the charming Big Fish and ambitious Sweeney Todd, has been much less impressive, with the outrageously puzzling and derivative Planet of the Apes, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and on and on, with the diminishing returns of Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows). But he vindicated himself, forever and entirely, with this heartfelt comedic masterpiece Ed Wood. I like to think that Burton is constantly striving to make this kind of movie once again. Maybe the fulfillment of this prophecy will be his upcoming 2014 production Big Eyes (also with Alexander and Karazewski as screenwriters, and with Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in the leads, and with a similarly obscure story that needs to be told). I certainly hope this is the case.