Probably no director — not even Hitchcock — compels more affectionate devotion than does Edward D. Wood, Jr. A cult icon before his time (he died, destitute and alcoholic, in 1978 at the age of 54), Ed Wood wrote and directed some of the most outlandish movies ever made: Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls, and the immortal Plan 9 from Outer Space — a film nobody who’s seen it can talk about without giggling and highly recommending it. Having seen some of Wood’s output, I think his movies are certainly bad, but not really “the worst films ever made” — a condescending label. What sets Wood’s bad movies apart from other bad movies of their time (and there were many in the ’50s) is that they’re so surreal, so earnestly didactic, and so innocently unaware of their own badness that they’re more entertaining than nine out of ten movies made with the necessary time, money, and talent.
If Wood had been a boring man in private life, he might today be a completely obscure figure — like Phil Tucker, director of Robot Monster, a 3-D turkey that’s at least as laughable as Plan 9. Wood, however, had definite quirks. Aside from the above-mentioned alcoholism (which got worse as his post-Plan 9 career bottomed out), Wood enjoyed dressing in women’s clothes, favoring angora in particular. Legend has it that Wood, a decorated World War II vet, was terrified of being shot down: he didn’t want the medics finding the silky underthings he wore under his uniform. Wood was a misfit and an outsider, the classic “misunderstood” figure, and his movies, chowderheaded as they are, argue fervently for tolerance of those who differ from the “norm.” If you look at Wood’s debut, Glen or Glenda?, you’ll laugh your ass off, but you may also be saddened: This ridiculous plea for compassion was genuinely the best he could do; this man with so much on his mind and in his heart had so little talent to express it.
Ed Wood is an ambiguous figure of fun. It’s easy to laugh at his movies, but it’s tough to laugh at him: His is the depressing story of a man whose reach always exceeded his grasp. In Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton, Wood is presented as a go-getter who may have moved heaven and earth to make piddly little movies everyone laughs at, but, hey, at least he got them made. Stylistically, this is the least daring movie Burton has ever made (though his insistence on filming in black and white is courageous); it certainly doesn’t risk the excesses of Wood’s films. Burton sticks with lush, basic, unfussy images throughout. Obviously, he identifies with Wood the obsessed, misunderstood filmmaker, and Wood takes a place in Burton’s gallery of misfits alongside Pee-wee, the hapless ghosts in Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne, Edward Scissorhands, and Jack Skellington. Yet Wood doesn’t really fit in there, either.
As played by Johnny Depp, Wood has a smile for everyone and hardly ever loses his temper. He’s a sweet guy with a deep soul — if only anyone were sensitive enough to see it. This harmless-creative-martyr aspect of Burton’s work — James Dean as van Gogh — almost wrecked Edward Scissorhands, and it drains out much of what should be striking in Ed Wood. This isn’t Depp’s fault. After a string of hazy slacker roles, he comes through with a clear-eyed, firm-handshake performance, and it’s fun to see him so vibrant. Depp doesn’t have Wood’s bland, lumpen Errol Flynn handsomeness; his features are more delicate, and sometimes he uses them to great comic effect — he employs a wonderful fixed grin of nervousness (it’s meant to be a confident, reassuring smile) whenever someone gives Wood a reality slap. Ed Wood has abundant affection for its subject, and Depp is finally trapped by that affection. He can’t make Wood much more than a nice guy.
We know from reading Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy (a collection of anecdotes from Wood’s friends and associates, upon which Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander based their screenplay), and from watching the documentary Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora, that most everyone who knew Wood considered him, yes, a nice guy, but also a little strange and more than a little self-destructive. Burton’s Ed Wood is a sanitized view of Wood’s most fertile period (the mid- to late-’50s), and it’s most enjoyable when Burton recreates the cardboard sets Wood filmed on; the movie at its best is a loving ode to moviemaking fever. Yet from this film, you’d think Wood was only interested in monsters and angora. He also had a sensationalistic streak a mile wide, and some of his lesser-known films, which he either wrote or directed, have titles like Jail Bait and Orgy of the Dead and The Violent Years (about an all-girl gang) and The Sinister Urge (about the evils of pornography). He also, in the squalid twilight of his career, made hardcore porn — see Necromania, available on DVD from Fleshbot. (Or don’t.)
Wood was caught in his own low-rent obsessions; they’re the source of his enduring appeal — his cheesy style is linked to his choice of subject matter — but they also make his movies both funny and sad. His obsessions, which were definitely ’50s-sexist, appear in one form or another in all his films but not particularly in Ed Wood. Burton’s Wood is a gentleman who, we think, would never go on to direct and even appear in chintzy soft-core bondage movies (as the actual Wood did — the footage in Look Back in Angora of a drunk and bloated Wood grovelling on the floor before buxom women is unbearably depressing). Probably with the best and kindest intentions, Burton gives us a Wood who never was. It’s refreshing to see Burton in a relatively upbeat mood, but he picked the wrong story to give an optimistic spin.
Ed Wood does have an outlaw soul, but it has nothing to do with Wood, Burton, or Depp. Scraping for money to fund Glen or Glenda?, Wood meets the legendary Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), now a decrepit, all-but-forgotten morphine addict. Lugosi’s involvement greases the wheels for three Wood movies, only one of which actually used Lugosi as a legitimate character. (Wood shot footage of Lugosi that he eventually used, after Lugosi’s death, for Plan 9; for long shots, Wood used a cloaked chiropractor two feet taller than Lugosi.) Were Wood and Lugosi exploiting each other — Wood for Lugosi’s dimmed star power, Lugosi for a chance to act again (and the money to buy morphine)? To his credit, Burton allows that the Wood-Lugosi relationship began as mutual exploitation, but then he lets it deepen, and their odd friendship — two outcasts clinging to each other — is the real core of Ed Wood.
Raging against Hollywood, his rival Boris Karloff, his age and obsolescence, everything his life has become, Bela Lugosi is a great tragicomic character — the kind of character Burton should have allowed Wood to be. Wisely, Burton lets Martin Landau take over the middle section of the film. Landau gives what I’m tempted to call the performance of his life (though he was equally powerful in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Tucker). In general, he refuses to soften or sentimentalize Lugosi (which may upset Lugosi’s fans); he’s not afraid to be pathetic, abrasive, and hammy. It’s a fully rounded performance, almost Shakespearean in its extremes of emotion and rhetoric (his profane swipes at Karloff are wonderful). The scene of Lugosi delivering his corny Bride of the Monster speech on the sidewalk will go down as a cult-classic movie moment. Landau unleashes the inane monologue, flooding it with conviction and passion that cut right through the mawkishness of the scene (which is meant to sadden us with the irony of Lugosi’s rediscovering his actor’s zeal just before he dies).
Tim Burton has many gifts, but telling the truth isn’t one of them. That’s what makes him a great fantasist. Taking off with invented characters — either his own (Edward Scissorhands) or others’ (Pee-wee, Batman) — Burton can spin webs of metaphor, phantom images that get around our rational minds and plug into our sloppy, masochistic feelings of being alone and misunderstood. Ed Wood doesn’t give him many images to conjure with, and the movie’s tone is wobbly and jokey yet reverent. Wood is probably the first (and, let’s hope, the only) character Burton has ever had to tone down to fit his design. This subject and this director are not a good match, despite the surface similarities, and Wood’s complexity as a person — his messy, contradictory, wild inner life — resists Burton’s efforts to play it safe. Wood himself would have loved Ed Wood. That’s what’s wrong with it.