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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Ed Wood (1994)

Director: Tim Burton
Star: Johnny Depp
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Ed Wood was always going to be a favourite of mine. I'm a confirmed Tim Burton fan, however much I wish he'd add an edge of danger to his stylised creations. I'm a Johnny Depp fan and was long before the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise made that fashionable. Most importantly I'm an Ed Wood fan, just as I'm a fan of much outsider art, whether the medium be writing, painting, music or film. He was certainly an artist, in his way, merely one who saw something else on the screen when he was done than most of the rest of us did. When Rob Zombie kicked off the TCM Underground series of cult films on Turner Classic Movies with a double bill of Ed Wood movies, he said that however inept his movies get, they have a sincerity about them that shines above everything else. That sincerity is often the key factor that turns a bad movie into a so bad it's good movie, and it's the key factor that sets Wood above most of his competitors.

There's no getting away from the fact that a film like Plan 9 from Outer Space is utterly inept. It's hard to understand how such a film could be begun, let alone finished, and how nobody seemed to care about the glaring inconsistencies that pervade it. Yet it's still magnetic viewing. I've seen it many times, on TV, DVD and even in a colorised 35mm version on the big screen. I'm sure that I'll see it again and again and I'll enjoy it just as much next time and the time after that. However I can't say the same for anything made by people like Coleman Francis, Larry Buchanan or Jerry Warren. Without sincerity, their films become merely bad movies and it's just not as much fun to sit through them. When I watch Francis's The Beast of Yucca Flats, another science fiction/horror movie released two years after Plan 9 from Outer Space, with Wood regular Tor Johnson in the lead role, I'm not enjoying the cheese, I'm trying to fathom just how inept Coleman Francis was.

Another reason that Ed Wood movies are generally so much fun (and Coleman Francis movies generally aren't) is the cast of characters who populated them. Wood may have hired hasbeens, though that's a terribly unfair and subjectively inaccurate term to use, but Francis usually hired people who had never been anybody to begin with, like his family. Many of the characters that congregated around Wood could accurately be described as outsider artists too and they're often fascinating in themselves: psychics, transvestites, wrestlers, horror hosts, former stars. Their dynamic nature also provides the reason why producing a biopic about Ed Wood makes sense where a biopic about Coleman Francis would be an utter waste of time. Wood's clique of regulars are unmatched in their cult appeal until perhaps the era of John Waters, and indeed some of them have been the recipients of the biopic treatment themselves.

Burton's film concentrates entirely on the period when Wood made three films with Bela Lugosi, even though Wood led a fascinating life both before and after this period. The timeframe makes sense when you consider the similarities between two relationships: the one between Wood and Lugosi that is focused on here and the one between Tim Burton and Vincent Price, who at the time they met was also an elderly screen legend known mostly for his horror features. 'Meeting Vincent had an incredible impact on me,' Burton has said, 'the same impact Ed must have felt meeting and working with his idol.' As this film bombed at the box office and recouped less than a third of its costs, any thought of a prequel or sequel would be insane from the perspective of a major studio, but perhaps one day someone might make them nonetheless, someone working with the same sort of budget and the same sort of infectious zeal Wood had.

The story kicks in at the point Wood gets his big break as a film director, due to a confluence of circumstances: the idea that he could make an entire movie from stock footage, his meeting and befriending Bela Lugosi and a small studio's inability to get the film rights to make the story of Christine Jorgensen. He makes Glen or Glenda instead, a intensely autobiographical story in which he also starred, under the pseudonym of Daniel Davis, alongside his girlfriend at the time, Dolores Fuller, who was unaware of his transvestism. Even though this was a low budget mess of a movie that was subsequently 'enhanced' by the producer with additional softcore porn scenes, Wood was intensely proud of writing, directing and starring in it, just as his idol, Orson Welles, had done with Citizen Kane. Needless to say, Glen or Glenda was hardly the picture Citizen Kane was but it set Wood on the track to future fame at the other end of the scale to his idol.
He proceeds on anyway, because, regardless of the quality of the work he produces, he proves that an infectious energy and a blind optimism are sometimes all that's needed. Jim Morton later suggested that, 'Lesser men, if forced to make movies under the conditions Wood faced, would have thrown up their hands in defeat,' and we watch this in action through the characterisation of Johnny Depp, who is impossible not to watch. He presumably nailed the spirit of the man, given that Wood's wife Kathy visited the set and gave her approval. 'That's my Eddie,' she said. Depp has Wood always smiling through sheer optimism, believing things like Warner Brothers would be interested in his work. He mouths the lines of his actors as they act because he's so into the moment. He cuts everything on the first take because it's all perfect and if it isn't, then nobody would notice anyway, or it all makes sense on some level of reality only he can see.

Depp is well known for his inspirations and this time round he constructed his characterisation out of 'the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, the enthusiasm of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and Casey Kasem.' Beyond Reagan's optimism and Kasem's confidence, he also studied the acting of Mickey Rooney to pick up that unbridled energy, and Wood certainly needed it. For Bride of the Atom, he gets stuck with a colourblind cinematographer, a non-actress who gets the female lead role because he believes she's going to finance the picture and a non-actor who's 'a little slow' who gets the male lead because his father actually does. Offscreen, merely living his life is just as traumatic as trying to get his film made, because the drama never ends. Fuller breaks up with him because she can't deal with his fetishes and his friends, and Lugosi, who has a serious addiction to morphine, attempts to enlist him in a double suicide attempt.

Eventually, of course, he makes it through to the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space, a film with a history so outlandish that the documentary about it is half an hour longer than the film itself. Shot in 1956 as Grave Robbers from Outer Space, but not released for three years because of distribution problems, it stars Bela Lugosi, even though he had died before production began. He appears through a bizarre mix of existing footage shot for a movie that never happened and through the introduction of Dr Tom Mason, Wood's girlfriend's chiropractor, as a double, with a cape conveniently draped over his face to hide the fact that he had very little resemblance to Lugosi. The cast all had to be baptised, because the film was financed by the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, eager to raise money to make a set of pictures about the twelve apostles. Driven to distraction by the changes they require, Wood shoots some scenes in drag to keep him calm.

Watching all this unfold is surreal, but it's fascinating to watch because it's shot straight rather than with Burton's usual quirky stylisations. Because the film only progresses up to 1959, Burton chose to shoot in black and white, even though Columbia were very wary of such a move and so he switched to Disney, who released what would become Burton's first R rated movie through their Touchstone brand. Depp is magnetic throughout, not just because he's playing the title role and so gets far more screen time than anyone else but largely because he was depressed about the process of filmmaking at the time and saw the part of Ed Wood as a 'chance to stretch out and have some fun.' It turned out to be the right film for him as he later explained that working with Martin Landau 'rejuvenated my love for acting'. Amazingly Landau is one of the less obvious choices for a part here, but he deservedly won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lugosi.

Most of the actors are obvious casting choices. Jeffrey Jones looks and sounds like Criswell, the television psychic who introduced Ed Wood's movies with so much confidence and redundancy. Professional wrestler George 'The Animal' Steele is really the the only possible choice to play professional wrestler Tor Johnson, even though he isn't quite big enough to fill the big Swede's boots. Bill Murray is the spitting image of Bunny Breckinridge and his campiness is a thing of genius, conjured up with subtle movements and rolls of the eyes. Others are inspired choices. Vincent d'Onofrio, one of the most underrated actors of today, is unforgettable as Orson Welles, to whom of course Ed Wood frequently compared himself, even though he appears in only one single scene to inspire Wood to complete Plan 9 from Outer Space and his voice is dubbed by voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who had based the Brain in Pinky and the Brain on Welles.
Landau shines above all these, even above Depp, though I wouldn't go so far as to suggest he steals the film from him. Bela Lugosi would always be a great opportunity for any actor to play, but the old Bela is a dream part. He kickstarted the horror boom of the thirties with his defining take on Dracula, but then turned down the follow up role of Frankenstein's Monster because it wasn't sexy enough. After all, he'd already got married to his third wife and divorced after three days because he'd been having an affair with Clara Bow. How sexy could you get? After that his career sped into rapid decline because he proved to have the worst business sense of any actor except perhaps George Raft or John Travolta who turned down enough great parts to enable Humphrey Bogart and Richard Gere respectively to build entire careers out of. Lugosi, however, didn't turn down films he should have taken; instead he took the ones he shouldn't.

When he appeared in Glen or Glenda he was over seventy and had been a morphine addict for twenty years, soon becoming the first Hollywood star to be admitted to rehab. It had been eight years since he'd made a decent movie, The Body Snatcher, and even then his rival Boris Karloff had by far the better part. All this makes Bela exactly the sort of role that a good actor could make something of and Martin Landau makes it emphatically his own. He was of course a major actor long before Ed Wood, not least for the Mission: Impossible TV series, but I much prefer the older Landau, whether he's in a regular supporting slot in shows like The Evidence or Without a Trace, or in more recent movies like Lovely, Still. I've seen every performance he was up against in 1995 and, while Chazz Palminteri was notable in Bullets Over Broadway, nobody was real competition. His win was the first time any actor won an Oscar for playing another real life actor.

The only real downpoint to the movie is the fact that the script takes so many liberties with the truth, especially as pertains to Lugosi. He was not as antagonistic towards his frequent co-star Boris Karloff as scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski would have us believe. He didn't swear, own a small dog or sleep in a coffin. He recovered fully from his morphine addiction and left the hospital under his own steam. His fourth wife did leave him in 1953, but he married again in 1955 and remained so until his death. He had a son who is notably absent from the film. His funeral was well attended by family and colleagues, Boris Karloff included. Peter Lorre is said to have looked down at Lugosi in his coffin, clad in one of his Dracula capes, and asked Vincent Price, 'Do you think we should put a stake through his heart, just in case?' Inaccuracies aside, Bela Lugosi Jr became friends with Landau after seeing his portrayal of his father.

Other notable departures from the truth include the well received premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space and the meeting between Wood and Welles, neither of which ever happened; the mass baptism required by the church financing the film; and Wood's discovery of Tor Johnson, who was a much experienced actor who had appeared in a string of movies over a couple of decades. Often these departures from the truth end up less as slight inaccuracies and more as outright fabrications to unashamedly distort the truth for the sake of a more cinematic script, but Ed Wood is a strange subject to raise this sort of concern over, because he was notorious for doing precisely the same thing. He was always all about the spirit of a piece, never the detail, so his films are full of glaring errors and plot inconsistencies that nobody except Wood can ignore, the biggest reason that Plan 9 from Outer Space became known as the worst film of all time.

After the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy, an Oscar-winning biopic about impresario George M Cohan, Cohan himself said, 'Great film. Who's it about?' Like Yankee Doodle Dandy, Ed Wood really isn't a biopic, it's an impressionistic take on a point in time in a man's career. Much of Burton's work (and Depp's, for that matter), looks sympathetically at outsiders and this film may be, even more than Edward Scissorhands, his masterpiece on that front. Almost singlehandedly it led to a far more sympathetic reevaluation of Ed Wood and his work, after the Golden Turkey Awards had in 1980 consigned him with the dubious title of the 'Worst Director of All Time'. Now we can enjoy the irony of Ed Wood finally winning an Oscar and appearing in the IMDb Top 250 and speculate on whether it really is true that the title credits cost more to make than every single one of Wood's films put together.

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