Ed Wood (1994)

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Based on the real-life story of Edward D. Wood Jr., the independent, DIY filmmaker who is widely considered to have made some of the worst movies of all time.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) sees himself as the poor man’s Orson Welles, making numerous low-no budget genre films on tight schedules, in addition to acting, directing, and producing his own projects.

Born in Poughkeespie, New York, Wood insists he had a happy small-town childhood, surrounded by comic books, classic horror and sci-fi films, and other nostalgic media that inspired him to be a filmmaker. However, Wood’s mother always wanted a girl, so she dressed him up in girl’s clothing frequently, which affected his psyche as an adult. Wood is therefore a heterosexual cross-dresser, often commenting about how he likes the way angora sweaters feel on his skin. He also mentions that, as a Marine corporal in World War II, he was petrified of getting injured even more so than getting killed, given his penchant for wearing women’s clothing under his uniform.

Despite his quirks and strange traits, Wood’s relentless optimism keeps him going through multiple career disappointments. His actress wife, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), helps him at various stages of his filmmaking processes, and Wood also enlists the services of cynical exploitation film producer George Weiss (Mike Starr).

By chance, Wood strikes up a friendship with his boyhood hero, horror film legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Long considered washed-up — and even presumed dead — by film industry executives, Lugosi still has plenty of talent and ends up acting in several of Wood’s most notorious films, including Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Wood’s campy, error-filled movies draw a small cult following. He seldom does more than one take, as many of his films are made on extremely small budgets, rarely taking more than two weeks to shoot. Despite the lack of respect from his Hollywood peers, Wood perseveres and draws more attention from various people in the industry. However, Wood also deals with financial troubles and relationship drama, and his partnership with Lugosi is put in jeopardy due to the veteran actor’s drug problems. Can Mr. Wood triumph and become an unlikely success story?

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This film biography takes a comedy-drama approach and succeeds all the more for it. The real Ed Wood (1924-1978) died a penniless alcoholic at the age of 54 after failing to attract any notable attention — either positive or negative — post-Plan 9 From Outer Space, which is now widely considered to be one of the worst films ever made. Despite his many ups and downs and obvious lack of filmmaking skills, the real Wood had an extremely fascinating life story. Although he died in relative obscurity, Wood’s life and career were re-examined in 1992, when writer Rudolph Grey penned the biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr. 

The movie itself was penned by the writing team of Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski when they were both students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. They eventually decided to make the film in order to avoid typecasting after some initial success with children’s movies. Alexander and Karaszewski pitched the script to Tim Burton, a young director/producer who was fresh off two huge successes — the 1990 version of Batman and Edward Scissorhands.

Burton and Denise Di Novi agreed to produce Ed Wood for Columbia Pictures; but the project’s director, Michael Lehmann, had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. Burton decided to direct the film himself, but Columbia butted heads with him when he decided to shoot Ed Wood in black-and-white. Eventually, the script was shipped off to Disney, who made the film through their Touchstone Pictures subsidiary.

At the time, Depp was in a career rut, trying to avoid typecasting as a 30-year-old rising star. But when Burton approached him about playing Wood, Depp was instantly intrigued. “The role gave me a chance to stretch out and have some fun,” Depp recalled, adding that working with a legend like Landau helped him renew his passion for acting. In order to prepare for his role, Depp studied Jack Haley’s performance as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

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Ed Wood is an excellent film, featuring extraordinary acting from Depp (in his second collaboration with Burton) and Landau, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Bela Lugosi. The movie explores Wood’s weirdness and his utter lack of talent, but also shows his odd charm and humanity.

The relationship between Wood and Lugosi is a major highlight. Written off by Hollywood as a has-been, the gruff, no-nonsense Lugosi still takes an interest in Wood, and their friendship results in some of the film’s most memorable moments. Wood’s relationship with Dolores, his first wife, also takes center-stage at several times. In addition to Landau and Depp’s outstanding performances, the movie is frequently lifted by its excellent supporting cast, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, and Jeffrey Jones.

Ed Wood was released in 1994 to critical acclaim, with particular praise for the acting and directing. However, despite earning two Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Makeup), the movie flopped at the box office, earning a mere $5.9 million on an $18 million budget.

Burton is an excellent director, and Ed Wood has outstanding costume and production design, but the film can sometimes feel unfocused or inconsistent in tone. This can be common in biopic films, considering that one is trying to cram in lots of information, drama, and comedy into a two-hour runtime. With that being said, Ed Wood is very well-made and does almost exactly what I expected it to do. I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re interested in Depp’s early ’90s work.

Grade: B+

  • Directed by Tim Burton
  • Produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi
  • Written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
  • Based on the book “Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr.” by Rudolph Grey
  • Director of Photography — Stefan Czapsky
  • Music by Howard Shore
  • Editor — Chris Lebenzon
  • Starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, Jeffery Jones, Juliet Landau, George Steele, Ned Bellamy, Max Casella, Vincent D’Onofrio
  • Rated R for some strong language.

TRIVIA

  • The movie cost more to make ($18 million) than all of the real Ed Wood’s movies combined.
  • Kathy Wood, Ed’s widow, once visited the set and asked to meet Johnny Depp. That day, they were filming a scene where Wood would look really messed up, which made Burton nervous for what Kathy would think of the movie. When Depp exited his trailer, she said, “That’s my Eddie.”
  • Tim Burton’s second collaboration with Johnny Depp, after Edward Scissorhands. Also the first Burton movie in which his frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman, did not compose the score.
  • Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi — the first time any actor had won an Oscar for playing another actor.
  • Bela Lugosi Jr. loved the movie, but objected to his father’s speech in the film; according to the younger Lugosi, his father never used profanity.
  • The real Dolores Fuller enjoyed Depp’s performance and Burton’s direction, but was displeased with her portrayal in the film. Particularly, she objected to the circumstances of her and Wood’s initial breakup (she left him primarily because of his alcoholism, which is not depicted in the film).
  • In addition to Jack Haley’s performance in The Wizard of Oz, Depp said he was influenced by the films of Ronald Reagan and Casey Kasem. Depp also commented that he had previously been introduced to Wood’s films through director John Waters.
  • In the film, Lugosi dismisses Boris Karloff’s role of Frankenstein’s monster as “all make-up and grunting.” In real life, Lugosi himself was offered the part and turned it down because it didn’t have any speaking lines and required too much make-up.
  • One source claims that one of the reasons that Burton chose to shoot in black-and-white was that he had no idea how Bela Lugosi should be filmed in color, as all of the actor’s own films were in black-and-white. In order to accommodate the black-and-white film stock, Landau’s makeup was done in a deliberately contrasted way, with parts of his face nearly painted white.
  • Landau did not want his portrayal of Lugosi to be over-the-top, saying that “Lugosi was theatrical, but I never wanted the audience to feel I was an actor chewing the scenery… I felt it had to be Lugosi’s theatricality, not mine.” In order to imitate Lugosi’s voice and mannerisms, Landau watched approximately 35 Lugosi movies and purchased Hungarian language tapes.
  • Burton’s first collaboration with editor Chris Lebenzon and his second with costume designer Colleen Atwood.
  • Out of his entire filmography, Burton has said that this movie is his personal favorite.
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