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Ed Wood (Special Edition) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 19 October 2004

Ed Wood

Touchstone Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, G.D. Spradlin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bill Murray, Mike Starr, Lisa Marie, George “The Animal” Steele
director: Tim Burton
film release year: 1994
DVD release year: 2004
film rating: Four-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture rating: Four Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

“Ed Wood” has been teetering on the brink of DVD release for a couple of years. It was originally set to be released earlier this year—review copies were mailed out—but then a documentary (really unnecessary) had to be removed, and the disc was rescheduled. But it’s out there now.

One of the best movies of 1994, “Ed Wood” must be included in the small handful of good movies about movies. Above all, this sweet, funny film depicts just how much some people love making movies, how the simple act of being on a movie set can be intensely exciting in ways that nothing else can be if you love movies enough. And boy howdy, did Edward D. Wood Jr., in his best years, love making movies. I suspect Tim Burton loves the act of creation, too, since I don't think anyone who didn't could capture the joy of filmmaking the way Burton does in “Ed Wood.” This is one of Burton’s best movies, a wonderful tribute to a man who is remembered now because HIS movies were so terrible.

Burton was the perfect choice as director of this movie, not just because of his boundless sympathy and love for the eccentric, but because his own close friendship with the late Vincent Price was mirrored by Ed Wood's friendship with Bela Lugosi, played here with great empathy, kindness and skill by Martin Landau During production, Landau joked that it'd be ironic if he finally won an Oscar because he's the only guy in town who looks like Bela Lugosi—and then he did just that—but the truth is that this is the best performance of Landau's impressive career. Perhaps he understood Lugosi: Landau's own career has had several inexplicable backslides from time to time. He recovered from them; Lugosi didn't. In any event, thanks to his wonderful, funny and wise performance, and Rick Baker's astonishing makeup, he is so very much like Lugosi that at times it's downright eerie. He deserved the Oscar.

In a way, it's beside the point that Ed's movies were terrible, because to him, the finished product didn't really matter—it was the process and having created, that were so deeply delightful to him. The beatific, almost dementedly joyful, look that suffuses Ed's face as he directs such amazing movies as “Glen or Glenda,” “Bride of the Monster” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is almost literally sublime: he's transposed, ecstatic, over the act of making films. Yes, he looks a little cracked, but it's the mania of creation that sweeps him away. Shadows where there shouldn't be? So what? Look! I'm directing Bela Lugosi! I'm making a movie!

Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood as a sunny, indefatigable optimist with a few disconcerting character traits: he drinks too much, and he's a transvestite (though not gay). But Depp doesn't make Ed's optimism unthinking; he works at being so cheerful and never-say-die; when Loretta King (Juliet Landau) tells him she'll invest in his movie if she can be the star, Ed, who knows his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) assumes she'll play the lead, crumbles for just a moment—his eyes roll back and his face falls—but he recovers himself gallantly and promises Loretta the lead in “Bride of the Monster” since he needs the money so badly.

When he fears he's losing control of his magnum opus, “Plan 9,” Ed, in full drag, flounces off to Musso & Frank's to drown his sorrows in booze, and runs into an amazing inspiration, the only other man in Hollywood who writes, produces, directs and stars in his own films, Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio, in an absolutely uncanny impersonation). Given tremendous inspiration by Welles' words, again Ed regains his sunny optimism. The real Ed descended into alcoholism and failure, dying a broken man in 1978, but the movie ends on a cheerful, upbeat note, as well it should. Ed Wood's life might be about failure, but “Ed Wood,” the movie about him, is about achieving one's dreams. Ed's dream was to make movies as much his way as possible—and he did it.

Ed was one of those kinds of people on the fringe of Hollywood that everyone living in Los Angeles runs into sooner or later; unlike most of them, he actually did make movies—memorable ones, too. Ed's movies weren't simply bad in anything like a conventional manner; they were extravagantly terrible, and yet had a wacky, consistent viewpoint. Ed really had a vision, cracked and bizarre though it was, and in his most distinctive movies, the vision really comes through. His most conventional movie, “Night of the Ghouls,” made after the period depicted in “Ed Wood,” is probably his best made—but it's also his least interesting precisely because it is so conventional. Ed was at his bizarre best when he had a Message to deliver, a point of view to offer; “Ed Wood” is about the making of Ed's best-remembered, most often seen and most vivid movies, fortunately.

In one of the movie's funniest scenes, we see Ed directing Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) in a scene from “Bride of the Monster.” It's being shot MOS (without sound), so Ed can call out directions to the actors. First Lugosi enters the narrow hallway set; “look depressed, Bela” Ed says. Lugosi dutifully buries his face in his hands. “Not that depressed, Bela. Now go out the door.” Lugosi look around, sees the other door, and exits. Then Tor Johnson, a huge, bald Swedish wrestler, playing Lobo, Bela's assistant, goes through the same routine, colliding with the wall as he leaves. “Great! Print it!” cries Ed happily. One of the perplexed crew points out that Johnson ran into the wall. Ed pauses for a microsecond, then cheerfully declares that is a problem Lobo would face every day of his life. On to the next scene!

Earlier, shooting his first scene for his first (completed) feature, “Glen or Glenda,” Ed, in full Angora-clad drag, looks in a store window. The shot is badly composed, and you can't tell what's going on, but Ed's so enchanted to have actually begun shooting a movie that all that is of no concern. (What is of concern is that police car at the corner. “We don't have a permit!” Ed yells. “Grab the equipment and run!”--and they all do.)

By all accounts, Ed was just this buoyant, and something of a pied piper. Actors like Paul Marco (played by Max Casella) and Conrad Brooks (Brent Hinkley) turned up in many of Ed's films; so did established actor Lyle Talbot (not depicted in “Ed Wood”), simply because they liked Ed, and his enormous enthusiasm fired their own. I had several opportunities to meet Ed in the late 1960s and early 70s; I deeply regret not having taken advantage of them; I suspect I would have liked him.

The movie has fun with Ed's transvestitism, but it's not so much a joke as just another interesting odd thing about Ed Wood. Depp dresses in drag more publicly, perhaps, than the real Ed Wood usually did, and does look great in the Angora sweaters and skirts. But the movie isn't about a transvestite—it’s about this specific man, a cheerful, affectionate man determined to make movies.“

Ed didn't care that Dolores is one of the worst actresses of all time (though an interestingly eccentric songwriter; she later wrote Elvis' “Rock-a-Hula Baby,” for example); she was his girlfriend, and he loved having her in “Glen or Glenda.” Some of his friends, like would-be transsexual Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray, of all people) were even weirder than he is. “I don't judge people,” Ed says in the movie; “if I did, I wouldn't have any friends at all.” Ed is carried along by his dauntless enthusiasm and his complete lack of talent and taste; if he had had any talent or taste, he probably couldn't have shot these movies in the four to six days it took to make them. He would have been stopped dead by the awesomely awful sets for “Bride of the Monster” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (lovingly, painstakingly recreated for “Ed Wood”), or the terrible acting, if not by his own weird scripts. Instead he's a tower of strength and determination, and having the time of his all too short life.

There are inaccuracies and omissions, to be sure; Bela Lugosi's last wife isn't mentioned; the scenes with Bela Ed shot that turned up in “Plan 9” were for a vampire movie; there were many more people at Lugosi's funeral than shown here; Tor Johnson had been making movies off and on since the early 1930s; the premiere of “Plan 9” didn't take place at the glorious Pantages Theater in Hollywood, but rather at a tiny theater in a Los Angeles suburb. Various people important in the lives of Ed and Bela aren't depicted at all, such as Forrest J Ackerman, Samuel Z. Arkoff and Alex Gordon. Bela rarely had anything unkind to say about Boris Karloff, and he didn't use profanity. But none of the errors matter; the movie is not a documentary, after all, but a movie biography (and in fact is far, far more accurate than most, particularly those about show business personalities)--the movie is about the joy of creation, and that Burton depicts with truth and his own joy.

This was the first of three movies about real-life eccentrics written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the others being “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon.” More recently, they’ve returned to the comedy they were known for earlier in their career, with “Agent Cody Banks.”

The production is damned near perfect. The casting, especially of Jeffrey Jones as the blithely bogus television psychic Criswell, is dead-on accurate, with people clearly chosen for their real resemblance to the real-life characters, which explains Bill Murray: he does look like Bunny Breckinridge and, incidentally, is just fine in the role. Lisa Marie is in the movie mostly because she was Tim Burton's girlfriend, but she's precisely right as TV horror hostess Vampira. (I don't know why Vampira's real name, Maila Nurmi, is never mentioned in the film; the real Nurmi, still alive, cooperated with the shooting, and she and Lisa Marie bought lingerie together.) Mike Starr is amusingly broad and blustering as the below poverty-row-level producer George Weiss, who ends up regretting the day he gave Ed Wood the go-ahead to make “Glen or Glenda“

The movie recreates the seedy side of 1950s Hollywood with great fidelity, with great black and white cinematography by Stefan Czapsky. It's glossy and silvery in the manner of the great black and white movies of the past—although Czapsky also recreates the lousy photography of Ed Wood's own films. When I visited the set of “Ed Wood,” they had recently completed shooting the “Bride of the Monster” sequences, and I was astonished and delighted to notice that the had created a kind of storyboard out of stills from the original film, in order to recreate it precisely.

The sets by production designer Tom Duffield are also perfectly well realized; not only does he recreate even such original-Wood blunders like the painted-on stone walls of Lugosi's “Bride” cellar and the rug-covered graveyard in “Plan 9,” but he gets the real stuff accurate--and heightened. The seedy little apartments Ed lived in, the dull tract house where Lugosi lives, the back streets of Hollywood--and the glamour of the Brown Derby, too. It's a very handsome movie, and very authentic as well.

Howard Shore has had a strange career as a composer; he was the musical director for the first five years of “Saturday Night Live,” composed the scores for several David Cronenberg films (including “The Fly” and “Dead Ringers”), and for films as dissimilar as “After Hours,” “She-Devil,” “Big” and “Silence of the Lambs.” “Ed Wood” is imaginatively scored; the title music sounds like it was played by an orchestra small enough that Ed Wood himself could have afforded it, but some of the rest of the film has a full orchestral score.

Other movies about making low-budget films have mostly been sardonic at best, or contemptuous at worst. But Tim Burton loves these people; he respects them on their own level, but also recognizes that their level is pretty low. He sees courage for what it can be at times: aging, drug-addicted Bela Lugosi climbing into the arms of a fake octopus and thrashing around wildly to make it look as though he's struggling with the inert prop is bravery personified—and he's also pretty damned funny at the same time. Burton is fully aware that these people are doing outlandish, amusing things, but he manages the difficult feat of keeping them funny—but never denigrates their efforts.

All that is about two-thirds of the appeal of “Ed Wood:” Ed's wildly misplaced but everlasting enthusiasm, the seedy edges of Hollywood they work in, and the making of these awful movies. The other third is the friendship between Ed and the elderly Lugosi, and it's this aspect of the film that makes “Ed Wood” into something remarkable. It's a kind of love story, and about the kind of caring that can happen between people who've been shut out by society. Lugosi is Ed's favorite movie star in the first place, and he's dazzled by the good luck that leads to them meeting—but while he never loses the awe he feels for Lugosi the star, he grows to respect the sad old man. Lugosi is deeply pleased to be making movies again, but more than that, he grows very fond of Eddie, whose enthusiasm fires him up again. It's not a father-son relationship, because often it's Bela who is dependent upon Ed, as when the old Hungarian voluntarily undergoes drug rehabilitation treatment. (He seems to have been the first celebrity who openly admitted having a drug problem; he became addicted to morphine when it was prescribed as a painkiller for him 20 years earlier.)

The relationship between the wide-eyed, naive Ed and the cynical, faded old star is tender, funny and ultimately very moving. If you grow up loving movies, the people you love as children remain the greatest celebrities for you, always; we can all relate to Ed's flipping out when he first meets Bela, because there's someone like that for all of us: a glowing, imperishable icon of our youths, someone we'd die to speak to, even now. (For me, it was Roy Rogers.) But “Ed Wood” goes beyond that, of course, since poor old Bela comes to depend on Ed and his movies. (The film doesn't mention “The Black Sleep,” a movie Lugosi made for someone else around this time.)

Furthermore, Lugosi is an intensely colorful character in his own right: his performance as Dracula established an intense stereotype and image that nothing has ever eradicated. The role, which he had originated on stage, was at once Lugosi's triumph and his disaster since he could never really quite convince anyone that he wasn't Dracula, that he could do other things, despite even better performances in very different roles later on (his best? Ygor in “Son of Frankenstein,” a superb performance by any standards). Lugosi was essentially a babe in the woods in terms of making deals in Hollywood; he grabbed any kind of role in almost any kind of movie as long as it was the leading role. He should have headed straight into character roles when the horror movie boom died down around 1935, but he was a vain, proud man, and demanded leading roles. He did take a few character parts, and was good in them (he's fine in a brief scene with Garbo in “Ninotchka”), but he refused to learn English well enough to get along, preferring playing the big star in Los Angeles' Hungarian community. By the 1940s, only low-budget schlockmeisters were really interested in Lugosi.

But Ed Wood remembered Bela's glory years, and he was overjoyed to work with the proud old man. Their friendship gives “Ed Wood” a warmth and wistfulness that no other Tim Burton movie has ever had, and indicates his range is even broader than we've been led to believe until now. It elevates a movie that would have been a delight--but only that--without this element. Together, the paean to the love of making movies (however awful), and this winsome, touching tale of cross-generational friendship, turn “Ed Wood” a DVD you really should not miss.

The disc includes several extras, and each is interesting and worthwhile. In “Let’s Shoot This F#*%@r!”, it’s surprising to see Landau looking but not acting like Lugosi. “The Theremin” features Howard Shore talking about his score, which he describes as a combination of convergence, bebop jazz and Cuban science fiction music. Theremin expert Mark Segal explains the pioneering electronic music instrument, not that I understood him. “Making Bela” is a discussion of the clever makeup—not as extensive as you might expect—required to turn Landau into Lugosi. One handicap is that his chin is much more prominent than Bela’s. Rick Baker, who designed the makeup, reveals that he’s a lifelong Lugosi fan, and would have done the work for free. Not that he actually did, of course. Landau explains that he did not do a Hungarian accent—he did the accent of a man trying NOT to do a Hungarian accent. He adds that he wanted it to be a tribute; at the Oscar telecast where he won his award, he was cut off before he could say that the Oscar goes to him, but its shadow goes to Bela Lugosi.

Unlike with most such cases, here the deleted scenes are good enough that you wish they had been kept in the movie, but it’s probably a little too long as it is. We see Ed and his crew break into a darkened movie studio to steal a prop octopus; Ed goes to dinner at the enthusiastically obese Tor Johnson household. The segment called “Moving Out” (when Dolores left), however, could well have remained on the cutting room floor, and though a scene of Bill Murray wandering dreamily through a slaughterhouse, singing “Que Sera Sera” while followed by his mariachi band is surrealistic, it really doesn’t add anything about Ed Wood.

“Pie Plates Over Hollywood” is misleading—despite long-time claims that the flying saucers in “Plan 9 From Outer Space” were played by pie plates (that’s what we see in “Ed Wood”), they actually were flying saucers. That is, there was a flying saucer model kit available at the time; Ed bought a few and dangled them from wires. However, production designer Tim Duffield provides informative comments about the period details of the movie, and why it was shot in black and white.

The commentary track includes Landau, who hosts, Burton, Alexander and Karaszewski. The writers talk about Ed’s passion and their themes, and mention that Michael Lehman was originally intended to direct. They try to defend the profanities they inaccurately put in Lugosi’s mouth, but it’s a losing battle. Burton was set for “Mary Reilly,” but became so enthusiastic about the “Ed Wood” script that he agreed to shoot it without reservations.

Portions © 1994 by Bill Warren

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital stereo
aspect ratio:
Widescreen (1:1.85)
special features: Deleted scenes, “Let’s Shoot This F#*%@r!” behind the scenes short; “Making Bela,” about turning Martin Landau into Bela Lugosi; “Pie Plates Over Hollywood”—actually about the production design; Featurete on the Theremin; Audio commentary with Tim Burton, Martin Landau, Scott Alexander, Larry Karazewski, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky and costume designer Colleen Atwood. Plus music video and theatrical trailer.
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reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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