April 2, 2005
Tim Burton, ,
Starring: ohnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, G.D. Spradlin, Vincent D'Onofrio, Bill Murray, Mike Starr, Max Casella, Lisa Marie, ,
Ed Wood (1994) is a gloriously atmospheric, black and white love letter to cinema. Tim Burton understands that for the devoted cineaste, the best moments in life have often been spent in a darkened movie theatre being enveloped by a film and becoming one with the environment it creates for two hours. Watching a movie is a form of escape from the harsh realities of the real world and Ed Wood argues that making films can also do the same thing. No one understands and appreciates this devotion to cinema more than Burton. From Beetlejuice (1988) to Mars Attacks! (1996), his films are lovingly crafted homages to the horror and science fiction B-movies that the director enjoyed in his childhood. With Ed Wood, Burton indulges this obsession completely by telling the story of a man who loved to create and watch movies.
Ed Wood spans the six year period in which the infamously touted “worse filmmaker in the world” made his most celebrated movies. Starting with the autobiographical Glen or Glenda (1953) and climaxing with the release of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Burton’s film eschews the traditional biopic format for a looser, more impressionistic take on Wood’s life. Burton opts for a more intimate character study of the director and his small but dedicated crew. He never puts these people down, but rather celebrates their intense love of making films.
Ed Wood is a perfect blend of the filmmaker’s unique visual style and his pre-occupation with outsiders. Wood fits in with other Burton protagonists, like Pee-Wee Herman, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, who do not fit into normal mainstream society but struggle to achieve their dreams anyway.
With this in mind, it seems only fitting that Burton cast Johnny Depp as Wood. It was the second time that the two had worked together (the first being Edward Scissorhands) and further reinforced the belief by many film critics that Depp was actually Burton’s cinematic alter-ego. Depp portrays Wood as a naïve dreamer who loves the movies. He even gets ideas for movies from discarded stock footage that a stagehand runs for him. “Why if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie out of this stock footage,” he says dramatically constructing an absurd tale from a montage of completely unrelated footage that could only come from his brain. There is something contagious about this approach that makes you root for Wood to succeed—even if you are aware of the director’s eventual downward spiral into poverty and obscurity.
Martin Landau constructs a Bela Lugosi that is a gruff, grumpy old man who spits out obscenities when provoked. He’s the jaded counterpoint to Wood’s youthful optimism. At one point he says, “this business, this town, it chews you up, then spits you out. I’m just an ex-bogeyman.” He underlines perfectly one of the most important unwritten rules that governs Hollywood: you’re only good as your last movie.
And yet, Lugosi also talks about what’s wrong with modern horror films: “they don’t want the classic horror films anymore. Today, it’s all giant bugs. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers. Who would believe such nonsense?” For Lugosi, the older films were “mythic, they had poetry.” Even though he is talking about horror films of the ’50s, Lugosi could easily be talking about the horror films of today where subtlety and imagination has been replaced by sterile, state-of-the-art special effects and formulaic stories. The clunky effects of these older movies, with their rubber-suited monsters and fake blood, have a certain texture to them that you can almost touch. There is something comforting about this because you know that it’s real. Computer effects, for the most part, lack any real textures and are too perfect looking—they lack any kind of personality.
If Ed Wood is a loving homage to movies, it is all the more fitting that Orson Welles, the patron saint of cinema, is celebrated throughout. From the obvious touches, like the poster of Citizen Kane (1941) that hangs in Wood’s office, to the use of deep focus photography (where the fore, middle and background are all in focus) and low angle perspective shots favoured by Welles, his presence is felt everywhere. This culminates in a meeting between the auteur and Wood at Musso and Frank Grill, a famous West Coast eatery. With his stocky build and deep voice, Vincent D’Onofrio bears an uncanny resemblance to Welles.
There is a three minute music video directed by Tim Burton that features Howard Shore’s atmospheric score with a strange, yet sexy interpretative dance by a Vampira look-alike (Lisa Marie?) mixed with clips from the movie. The clip has an almost Lynchian vibe to it with its dabblings in surrealism.
“Let’s Shoot This F#*%@r!” is a 14-minute featurette introduced by a cheeky Johnny Depp dressed in drag. What follows is a montage of behind-the-scenes footage of certain scenes being filmed and Burton directing his actors.
“The Theremin” is a look at this unique musical instrument whose signature sound was used in countless science fiction and horror films over the years. Ed Wood’s composer, Howard Shore, provides a brief history of the instrument and its creator. Also included is a brief demonstration on how it works.
“Making Bela” examines how Rick Baker transformed Martin Landau into Bela Lugosi. The actor talks about his take on Lugosi while Baker speaks about how he got the gig and his approach to Landau’s make-up.
Production designer Tom Duffield examines the challenges of making a black and white film in “Pie Plates Over Hollywood.” He also talks about how he achieved the retro ‘50s look and his goal of aping the flat look of Wood’s movies.
There is also a theatrical trailer.
The best and most substantial extra on the disc is an audio commentary with Tim Burton, Martin Landau, the film’s screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, director of photography Stefan Czapsky and costume designer Colleen Atwood. Landau introduces the commentary and all of its participants affecting Bela Lugosi’s accent and voice, which is a nice touch and gets one in the spirit of the movie. Burton speaks eloquently about why he identifies with Wood and what draws him to the man and his movies. Not surprisingly he and the writers dominate the track as the director talks about films’ themes while the writers go into detail about how it was made. This is an excellent commentary with a lot of detail and insights. This is a must-listen for any fan of the movie.
Finally, there are five deleted scenes that include an insightful bit where Ed has dinner with Tor and his family. Best of all is Bill Murray singing “Que Sera Sera” with a mariachi band.
Ed Wood has endured. It went on to win two Academy Awards (one for Landau’s performance and one for Rick Baker’s make-up) and a slew of critics’ awards. The movie has also become a favourite of film buffs everywhere, which is rather fitting considering that this is exactly its target audience. Sadly, Burton went on to make Planet of the Apes (2001), a paint-by-numbers action film with expensive computer effects that lacked any of Burton’s distinctive personality—the complete antithesis to Ed Wood. Hopefully, he has not become completely absorbed by the Hollywood system and that there is still some of the spirit of Ed Wood left in him.