The Simpsons Decade

How Tim Burton's Ed Wood Gave A Z-List Filmmaker the A-List Treatment

With the recent passing of Martin Landau, Nathan Rabin reflects on the lovingly crafted biopic of a Hollywood misfit that earned him an Oscar.

by | August 10, 2017 | Comments

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

I recently had the surreal pleasure of interviewing misunderstood auteur Uwe Boll for a book I’m co-writing about the notorious video game and movie Postal. During that time, I learned — or perhaps re-discovered — that Boll really does not like being considered the worst living filmmaker. At all. Not even a little bit.

When I pointed out to him that Ed Wood became famous as the worst filmmaker in the world, he argued persuasively that Wood was famous because Hollywood made a big movie about him, not because cult movie fans were morbidly intrigued by Wood’s infamy. Boll had a point; there is no glory in being named the world’s worst living director, only the shame of being maligned and misunderstood. But being the subject of a loving, exquisitely made tribute like 1994’s Ed Wood is an undeniable honor, no matter how you look at it.

Ed Wood is a film that threatens to give hagiography a good name, one that transforms Wood’s often sad life into an upbeat crowd-pleaser with a whole lot of sugar, star power, and Hollywood magic. Wood died broke, drunk, and relatively unknown, a flamboyant, joyous weirdo who spent his career on the sordid fringes of the film business. The movie that bears his name, on the other hand, was helmed by one of the top directors of the day at the height of his creative powers (Tim Burton), received great reviews, won a fervent cult following, and deservedly earned one of the highest honors in film when Martin Landau, who recently passed away at 89, won Best Supporting Actor for his heartbreaking, career-defining performance as Bela Lugosi.

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Ed Wood transforms Wood’s sad life into an upbeat crowd-pleaser with a whole lot of suger, star power, and Hollywood magic.

Like so many of the films we’ve covered for this column, Ed Wood begins with a character breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. In this case, it’s Jeffrey Jones’ Criswell, a bogus psychic who, employing the wooden language of the movie’s subject, informs us that what we are about to experience “the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood Jr.” Then, the film proceeds with an exquisite, Tales From the Crypt-style opening credit sequence (the cast’s names adorn gravestones, particularly morbid to revisit in the wake of Landau’s recent death) that closes with wonderfully homemade Ray Harryhausen-style recreations of some of the famously terrible, amateurish special effects in Wood’s movies, like a fearsome sea monster and the notorious paper-plate UFOs from Plan 9 From Outer Space.

We’re not just watching a movie about Ed Wood, in other words. We’re watching a movie set inside Ed Wood World, one that seems to take place as much within the starry fantasies and ambitions of its subject as it does in a real world neither he nor the movie seems particularly interested in. Why would they be, when the carnivalesque world of show business is so much more colorful and interesting than dreary old reality?

Ed Wood is a strange, glorious beast. It’s an A-list Hollywood tribute to the ultimate Z-list filmmaker that spends millions to recreate movies that cost thousands and features a glittering array of top talent doing convincing impersonations of the egregiously untalented. In addition to Landau and Jones, the cast includes Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Vincent D’Onofrio, Mike Starr, wrestler George “The Animal” Steele, Landau’s daughter Juliet Landau as an actress untalented even by Ed Wood standards, and, of course, Johnny Depp as the infamous filmmaker himself.

The biopic, shot in gorgeous black and white by Stefan Czapsky, follows a young and hungry Ed Wood as he struggles to produce the movies that would come to define his reputation. That journey starts with the making of Glen or Glenda?, which began life as a cheap attempt to exploit trans pioneer Christine Jorgensen’s fame with a motion picture to be titled I Changed My Sex, until Wood decided to make it about his own predilection for transvestism.

Wood’s cross-dressing is played for laughs throughout Ed Wood, particularly when juxtaposed with his more conventionally masculine history as a veteran unafraid to constantly reference his service, but the movie doesn’t judge Wood for any of his idiosyncrasies. If anything, it celebrates Wood’s radical individualism and his earnest embrace of fellow misfits.

Drag queen and actor Bunny Breckinridge’s desire for a cut-rate sex change operation in Mexico is similarly played for comedy, but Bill Murray lends the character a wounded, battered dignity and ingratiating sweetness. The lives, personas, and careers of the people in Wood’s weird orbit may be ridiculous, but we’re invited to sympathize and feel for these characters all the same. Heck, we’re invited to sympathize with them specifically because they’re such wonderfully absurd human beings.

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

It celebrates Wood’s radical individualism and his earnest embrace of fellow misfits.

At times, Ed Wood resembles one of those heist flicks where a charismatic leader recruits a team of eccentric professionals uniquely qualified to pull off a big job. Only, in this case, Wood, the ringmaster of his own private circus, enlists people who are singularly terrible to do even worse work for him in what can only very generously be deemed movies.

Wood’s crazy repertory company was largely made up of oddballs and eccentrics on the very fringes of society and the movie business, like Vampira, a sort of proto-Elvira (she even sued Elvira unsuccessfully for ripping off her act) who delivered terrible one-liners in a bored monotone as the host of a campy horror movie program. But his most legendary collaborator was, at one point, a genuine movie star and box office attraction: Bela Lugosi, who rose to fame as the sexy, mysterious star of the classic 1931 horror film Dracula before entering a long, drug-fueled downward spiral that lasted decades.

The chemistry between Depp and Landau in the film is electric. Landau plays Lugosi as a vain and narcissistic man, deeply wounded by the fickle nature of fame and show business. At the outset of the film, he appears ready to curl up and die; we’re even introduced to him inspecting coffins, for either a touring production of Dracula or his own private use. Landau captures Lugosi’s spiritual exhaustion and world-weariness so poignantly that it’s almost difficult to believe that the actor, who breathes so much soul and cracked dignity into Lugosi, would continue to work for another 23 years.

Meanwhile, Depp plays Wood not just as a sweetheart of a man, but as an angel-faced true believer, a daft innocent out of a Preston Sturges screwball comedy. Something about Wood’s guileless hero worship breaks through Lugosi’s defenses, and he’s rejuvenated by Wood’s child-like faith in him as a performer and as a human being. The world might look at Lugosi and see a has-been and a junkie, but Wood sees a movie star who just needs the right role, and that makes all the difference.

Thanks largely to Landau’s performance, Ed Wood somehow manages to be at once a breezy, even glib comedy and a genuine, haunting tragedy. In lesser hands, the film would have been ruined by the former undermining the latter, or vice versa. That’s not the case here. The comic and tragic elements function in absolute harmony. Working from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Burton and his collaborators found the perfect tone for the film, a surprisingly palatable combination of dreamy, infectious comedy and sobering drama.

The filmmakers also re-contextualized Wood’s words and screenplay dialogue in fascinating, revelatory ways. There’s a glorious, justifiably revered scene where Lugosi performs a histrionic monologue Wood has written for a mad scientist character he wants Lugosi to play. It overflows with defiant rage towards a world that once honored and rewarded him but has now cast him aside and rejected him as a freak, a maniac, a madman.

(Photo by Buena Vista Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Thanks largely to Landau’s performance, Ed Wood manages to be at once a breezy comedy and a haunting tragedy.

Landau takes the clumsy, hyperbolic words his friend has written and makes them ferociously personal. Lugosi is clearly speaking through the character, and even though the words are graceless, the fury behind them comes through all too vividly. The mad scientist’s enraged monologue might not mean anything to anyone other than Wood and Lugosi, but it clearly means the world to them, both as artists and as men.

As it enters its final stretch, Ed Wood focuses on the movie Wood is convinced the world will remember him for: Plan 9 From Outer Space. He’s right, but not in the way he anticipated or hoped. Plan 9 would be recognized as Wood’s magnum opus, but only because it is so exquisitely, unforgettably, enjoyably bad and incompetent, not because it’s an unequivocal masterpiece.

The film closes by informing audiences that two years after Wood’s early death in 1978, he was named worst filmmaker of all time, bringing him “worldwide acclaim” and “a new generation of fans” in the process. I was struck by the film’s curious verbiage. “Acclaim” is a strange word to describe being widely considered the worst practitioner of your craft. Sure, the “Worst Director” title brings notoriety and infamy and a strange, complicated fame, but it does not bring acclaim.

Yet the movie half-ironically, half-sincerely depicts the making of Plan 9 as a triumph, and in a way, it really is. In flagrant defiance of God’s will, the wishes of the Church that unwisely funded the film, a near non-existent budget, special effects that would go down in history for being so transcendently inept, and, in Bela Lugosi, a co-star who was unavailable for re-shoots on account of his subsequent death, Wood and his kooky band of misfits made a movie that would be remembered and watched and celebrated over a half century later. No one can deny that this tiny, weird little film has left an indelible impact on American pop culture.

Ed Wood is a gorgeous valentine to the creative impulse, to dreaming, and to pursuing your dream and your creative vision at all costs. With it, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp — two Hollywood hotshots whose movies would go on to gross billions — channeled the spirit of their lovable subject to create a great movie about the creation of some of trash cinema’s all-time stinkers.

Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

Ovation japan festival facebook TCA Winter 2020 Star Wars Acorn TV kaiju television Freeform Valentine's Day Musicals History The Walking Dead Spike comedies boxoffice scary movies Syfy The Witch spy thriller Ellie Kemper TV One Spectrum Originals Creative Arts Emmys Academy Awards hollywood comic Mary Poppins Returns zero dark thirty mutant Film Arrowverse stop motion teaser adaptation RT History book Stephen King new york Teen italian FX Nat Geo 90s indiana jones DC Comics Cartoon Network Universal Pictures saw 20th Century Fox CMT mockumentary Summer Holidays jurassic park Christmas YouTube Premium Emmys AMC Plus Cannes finale Comedy dark classics archives SDCC doctor who TV movies Sundance Now Rom-Com LGBT independent Lifetime Christmas movies Watching Series Pirates tv talk Mindy Kaling cancelled television political drama RT21 foreign Instagram Live remakes marvel cinematic universe Superheroe San Diego Comic-Con Family TV renewals Disney streaming service Opinion spanish language green book Interview FOX social media Disney Plus TLC worst movies Endgame revenge prank Kids & Family First Reviews screenings Holiday Tomatazos Hallmark Disney+ Disney Plus Crackle El Rey Nominations Toys stand-up comedy mob OneApp halloween tv DC Universe comiccon dogs Tokyo Olympics FXX medical drama cartoon war toy story First Look Nickelodeon vampires Animation Awards gangster laika IFC Films WarnerMedia New York Comic Con Rocketman Comic Book USA Network USA south america game of thrones know your critic Sony Pictures cancelled docudrama travel Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt children's TV Black Mirror 2021 ABC Family 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards new zealand Hallmark Christmas movies rom-coms TV Land Drama 2015 criterion 24 frames movie sopranos Election robots Martial Arts Marvel Television biopic asian-american 2018 dexter Amazon Prime Video Shudder lord of the rings halloween zombie Esquire Comics on TV AMC FX on Hulu Wes Anderson 007 LGBTQ debate A24 cars Ghostbusters CBS Polls and Games police drama BET Awards Bravo Heroines scene in color anthology VH1 video suspense aapi stoner blockbuster romantic comedy concert Elton John Brie Larson mission: impossible MSNBC Universal Mudbound live event Calendar vs. APB TruTV game show Classic Film die hard Exclusive Video spinoff sequels sag awards BAFTA Neflix 4/20 all-time young adult Mary Tyler Moore hidden camera YA Lifetime cooking psychological thriller hispanic Action directors Sneak Peek women elevated horror The CW Epix Image Comics spider-verse DGA worst crime drama Vudu child's play high school CNN TCM royal family VOD harry potter Best and Worst breaking bad pirates of the caribbean Rocky dc Year in Review talk show rt labs critics edition live action what to watch Dark Horse Comics Turner Classic Movies Tumblr Paramount Network adenture Pop GIFs Rock a nightmare on elm street Peacock comic book movies ABC new star wars movies Shondaland transformers composers PlayStation NBA DC streaming service discovery Sundance basketball ghosts blaxploitation godzilla werewolf ratings Red Carpet IMDb TV telelvision 73rd Emmy Awards action-comedy slashers superhero video on demand Amazon Sci-Fi HBO 93rd Oscars canceled TV shows animated IFC HBO Max king kong Trailer The Arrangement international casting boxing Reality NBC festivals feel good emmy awards witnail cults true crime E! 2017 cats politics Cosplay Awards Tour space BBC One ID films Avengers 72 Emmy Awards best spanish technology thriller E3 mcc ITV supernatural cancelled TV shows Funimation news Character Guide Reality Competition toronto docuseries Trophy Talk 71st Emmy Awards batman hispanic heritage month rt archives spider-man superman MCU monster movies Grammys based on movie Tubi football Binge Guide BBC Pride Month Extras ViacomCBS rt labs Thanksgiving strong female leads sports Video Games rotten movies we love ABC Signature Trivia Disney satire DirecTV WGN kids serial killer CBS All Access Pacific Islander Warner Bros. Masterpiece dramedy golden globe awards Paramount Apple TV Plus X-Men Showtime See It Skip It comics kong richard e. Grant TNT Writers Guild of America Chilling Adventures of Sabrina biography golden globes YouTube Red Music YouTube Marvel Studios 45 diversity Captain marvel christmas movies HBO Go posters Television Critics Association reviews Marathons Oscars Super Bowl Quiz black comedy crime thriller singing competition heist movie disaster adventure zombies Apple TV+ twilight Women's History Month President nature Biopics Mystery TV genre Fantasy hist Amazon Studios Legendary cops anime scary science fiction venice quibi Alien legend Tarantino indie TIFF Podcast versus blockbusters TCA canceled SundanceTV The Purge Netflix Christmas movies BBC America art house Starz PaleyFest Horror Hear Us Out TBS Certified Fresh National Geographic Comic-Con@Home 2021 Food Network comic book movie Sundance TV GLAAD award winner romance TCA Awards free movies Black History Month Countdown Spring TV scorecard Hulu Netflix Paramount Plus Fox Searchlight documentary MTV spain Television Academy australia crime 2020 franchise documentaries American Society of Cinematographers Columbia Pictures Star Trek 2016 NYCC Amazon Prime fresh Set visit Lionsgate streaming The Academy reboot deadpool olympics 21st Century Fox A&E Premiere Dates Discovery Channel Fall TV dreamworks historical drama screen actors guild miniseries Infographic japanese justice league CW Seed book adaptation natural history Western comic books Photos sitcom Musical Schedule The Walt Disney Company joker Broadway obituary Travel Channel critic resources crossover popular Emmy Nominations GoT Adult Swim cinemax nfl Walt Disney Pictures series OWN ESPN sequel Apple jamie lee curtis Pet Sematary wonder woman PBS dragons dceu james bond Marvel Britbox Chernobyl unscripted Film Festival theme song Mary poppins TCA 2017 latino Fox News 99% SXSW movies Pixar rotten Box Office VICE black marvel comics slasher Crunchyroll Logo Turner trailers 2019 Disney Channel Country cancelled TV series razzies nbcuniversal universal monsters target critics Winter TV french renewed TV shows psycho period drama name the review binge 1990s king arthur parents Baby Yoda BET Comedy Central Lucasfilm fast and furious chucky Anna Paquin streaming movies Superheroes Pop TV aliens Song of Ice and Fire Winners