Is there anything more meta than a flop about making flops? Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s biopic on “the worst director of all time,” may have been the critical darling its subject could only dream of (it’s Burton’s highest-rated directorial effort at 92% on the Tomatometer), but it hardly caught on. The comedy took in less than a third of Burton’s comparatively small $18-million budget, whereas the filmmaker’s predecessor, Batman Returns, skyrocketed to become the then-highest-grossing opening weekend of all time. To give an idea of the comedies the public did pine for in 1994, Jim Carrey starred in three movies in the top 20 that year. Ed Wood was decidedly nothing like a Jim Carrey movie.
Dark, sweet and restrained (by Burton standards, anyway), Ed Wood chronicles the life of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp), a crossdressing wannabe auteur in the 1950s who befriends his hero, a washed-up and drug-addled Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), and makes schlocky B-movies with a misfit crew. Here are just a few reasons why it remains a high-watermark for Burton and pretty much everyone involved — and warrants some serious reassessment if you shrugged it off 25 years back.
Wait, so where did the guy go who wowed with the visual feasts Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and the thrilling art direction in Edward Scissorhands and Batman? He’s Mostly absent here. There are some nifty, Burtonesque flourishes — a cheesily spooky title sequence that harkens back to ’50s horror and sci-fi sets the tone perfectly — but overall, Burton puts a simple story over any distinct style. It’s him at his least showy, a move that lets the comedy’s quickfire script breathe and doesn’t muddy up its already arresting performances. Besides, when you have black-and-white cinematography (thanks to cinematographer Stefan Czapsky) this beautiful, why complicate things? Burton, in fact, was so adamant about the film being monochrome that Columbia dropped the picture (Disney picked it up later).
It’s not hard to understand why Burton would relate to a story about an energetic young director bonding with his childhood idol. Burton famously adored Vincent Price, casting him in the stop-motion Disney short “Vincent” and as The Inventor in Edward Scissorhands, and, like with that relationship, the one between wide-eyed Wood and an aging Lugosi boasts a delightful mutual appreciation. While Ed Wood capitalizes on the odd couple for comedic effect (it’s tough not to laugh as an Energizer Bunny-like Wood shepherds around a moribund, ever-frowning Lugosi), the bromance always comes off as weirdly sweet. Ed Wood was a labor of love for him — in fact, Burton, who demanded creative control, even waived a paycheck.
The success of any buddy comedy — and boiled down, Ed Wood is one — rests on the chemistry of its stars. Depp upped his game, giving a performance that’s all gusto and unrelenting optimism and over-the-top tics yet still somehow grounded. Wood’s ridiculous, but you pull for him. Landau, too, imbues what could be a cartoonish Lugosi — essentially, his Dracula character thrown into ’50s California, complete with the accent, mannerisms, and gait — with some real emotional heft, and he rightfully nabbed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sarah Jessica Parker is a great comedic foil as Wood’s encouraging (and later disapproving) girlfriend, and Bill Murray is brilliantly deadpan as aspiring transsexual John “Bunny” Breckinridge.
“We envisioned Ed Wood as more of an indie-style picture, because we had written two big Hollywood hits that we were very unsatisfied with,” co-writer Larry Karaszewski told Medium, referencing the Problem Child movies. You can see what he means: He and Scott Alexander’s script, written in a mere six weeks after the go-ahead from Burton, has a quirky, left-field, character-driven quality that doesn’t scream “huge studio” (like, say, Disney) or “big-deal director” (like, say, Burton). So Burton reining in the very sensibilities that made him a name is necessary, especially with a script packed with this much snappy dialogue. Just take this exchange between Wood and Breckinridge, during the filming of Plan 9 from Outer Space:
Breckinridge: What about glitter? When I headlined in Paris, audiences always loved it when I sparkled.
Ed Wood: No.
Breckinridge: Cats’ eyes?
Ed Wood: No!
Breckinridge: Well, I’m going to need some antennae.
Ed Wood: No! You’re the ruler of the galaxy — show a little taste!
Ed Wood may have not saturated the zeitgeist and spawned copycats the way Pulp Fiction did in ’94, but it’s not too much of a leap to suggest it helped open the door for other love letters to ragtag groups of outsider filmmakers with questionable tastes. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights a few years later similarly embraced the freak-flag spirit of the early porn industry. Interestingly, Wood’s line about Plan 9 from Outer Space (“This is the one I’ll be remembered for”) is echoed by Nights’ Burt Reynolds, talking about his directorial opus (“This is the film I want them to remember me by”). (Also interesting: Wood helmed porn in ’70s.) Wes Anderson’s seafaring adventure-comedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Disaster Artist, a big-screen retelling of the making of “the worst movie ever,” also have traces of Ed Wood. And Wood’s spirit was alive and well in documentaries about enthusiastic, unfazed, unrealistic dreamers — be they about aspiring filmmakers (American Movie) or rock bands (Anvil! The Story of Anvil).
Ed Wood opened nationwide on October 7, 1994.