How does one describe Tim Burton’s film "Ed Wood?" Is it a documentary on the infamous director’s life, a comedy, or a vehicle for some great acting? Happily it succeeds on all three counts. For those of you who don’t know who Ed Wood is, he is a Hollywood legend. Careers have been made panning his films, some calling them the worst ever made. And yet movie fans are still enjoying them. Why? Ed made these films with little time and no money, but there is that weird passion, that strange honesty that pervades his work; that is Ed Wood’s saving grace.
Sometimes you get what you wish for. One week before I was handed the new DVD of "Ed Wood" by Cinema Tuesdays' Nathan Cone, my wife and I were lamenting the fact this Tim Burton film was still not available on disc. Well, the wait is over. The movie stars Johnny Depp in the title role. His friendly, bouncy and ever optimist outer demeanor hides a man with the doubts we all have, and a fetish for women’s clothing. While Burton plays up the transvestitism, having Depp directing in drag, something the original never did, he treats the subject as a matter of fact. The real Wood hit the beaches of Normandy wearing woman’s undergarments under his uniform. He was not so afraid of dying as he was of being wounded and the medics finding out his secret.
"Ed Wood" covers the relationship between Wood and Bela Lugosi, once world-famous for his portrayal of Dracula, now a broken-down has-been. Martin Landau gives an Academy Award®-winning performance as the tired old man given a last chance by the struggling filmmaker. This film in fact won two Oscars®, the second for the outstanding make-up that turned Mr. Landau into Lugosi. Filmed in glorious Black and White, director Burton’s direct and unaffected manner echoes the working habits of this film’s namesake and whisks us back to Ed Wood’s tinsel town.
For years I had been hearing about Johnny Depp from women of a certain age. A slow kind of ecstasy comes over their face as if they were describing a dessert that is no longer available on this planet. I better understood Depp’s appeal after viewing this film. In an age were so many actors play themselves endlessly, Depp disappears into his character. The naturalness and totality of the transformation is haunting. The cast here is perfect, giving us viewers an insight into that strange but functional family that Wood surrounded himself with: the prognosticator Criswell, the Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, who went on to make many more B movie classics, and Vampira, Morticia Addams come to life, with a 19-inch waist! No one had ever come up with such an odd gaggle of underdogs before, and we root for their slim shot at success with Wood’s films.
It is their love of the myth of Hollywood that keeps them and Wood going. Why does this story resonate? It might be that Ed Wood lived the creative Hollywood existence we secretly wish for ourselves. He is not a genius, not rich, not well connected, and yet his movies are still being enjoyed nearly fifty years after they were hastily cobbled together. His energy, optimism, and joy of film making kept him and his family of misfits going. Ed Wood was about living the Hollywood dream and not the overpowering business reality that inspires no one.
Tim Burton regulars Jeffrey Jones, and Sarah Jessica Parker are terrific, as is Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge. Howard Shore’s campy cocktail hour score is fun and adds to the nostalgia. The "Ed Wood" Special Edition disc contains deleted scenes and all the extras we movie lovers appreciate.