Tim Burton’s 1994 film, Ed Wood, is a magical little movie that shows the director’s obvious love for the craft of cinema. Detailing the eccentric and sometimes pathetic attempts of real-life director Ed Wood (Johnny Depp, in one of his finest performances), the movie is a love letter to do-it-yourself movie-making.
Despite its stellar cast of actors and wonderful directorial flourishes, one particular performance stands out above all the rest: Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, the actor who first portrayed Dracula on the silver screen.
Landau, a Hollywood legend who won an Academy Award for this performance, imbues Lugosi with a few rough edges, but also a realistic sentimentality. The audience feels sorry for this aging actor knocking on death’s door. He’s been forgotten by the studios that employed him for so many years. He’s been relegated to a small house and monthly checks from the government. He’s a drug addict and so depressed that he goes coffin shopping as he waits for his own death.
Helping Lugosi deal with his final years is Wood, a cross-dressing, always-smiling film director who can’t seem to break into the big leagues. His horror efforts are truly horrible, and no one seems to appreciate the blood and tears he willingly offers for each project.
Burton, himself a skilled director, has a great deal of respect for both Wood and Lugosi. He doesn’t treat them as crazed oddballs, but rather as sympathetic characters who deserve appreciation, if not adulation.
The movie follows Wood, who had a penchant for wearing Angora sweaters, from his first foray into directing (the controversial Glen or Glenda?) all the way to what many believe is Wood’s magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Lugosi gives his final cinematic performance in the alien-invasion story, which critics have dubbed the worst movie of all time.
What Burton’s film shows is that Wood believed Plan 9 was art from the very beginning. He built the movie around Lugosi’s performance after the legendary actor had already died. Seeing Vampira rise from the grave and watching his friends portray aliens and police officers was satisfying to the third-rate director. He was in his element, happy to see his vision come to life.
Depp helps humanize Wood, not making him a simple caricature. This early performance from the actor is one of his best. He seems genuinely interested in making people smile and never judges any of his friends for their choices. In some ways, his kind ways was his artistic downfall. With not a shred of judgment coming from his lips, he couldn’t tell a bad performance from a good one.
Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette and Bill Murray all turn up in supporting roles. But the movie is largely owned by Depp and Landua. When they are on screen, commiserating about the old times, laughing about their shared sorry states, Ed Wood comes alive.
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script is nicely layered with several quiet moments for the actors to shine. There’s one scene where Wood and Lugosi are watching an old horror movie, and the dialogue between them is like a conversation between two film buffs, proving that Ed Wood, both the real-life person and Burton’s cinematic testament, is ready-made for lovers of film.
Burton hit a career high with this small movie about small-time artists with big ambitions. Wood must be happy with his legacy now.By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on the book, Nightmare of Ecstasy, by Rudolph Grey
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Martin Landua, Bill Murray and Patricia Arquette
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated R for some strong language
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