Jul 6, 2011

24FPS Top 100: No. 58

58: ED WOOD (1994)
DIR: Tim Burton
Why is it on the list?
Ed Wood is a wonderful piece of filmmaking about a terrible filmmaker, and that's largely because both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp (who, of course, stars as Ed) seem to hold Edward D Wood, Jr in great affection, meaning that the film comes across as sympathetic to Wood both as a man and as an artist (this is perhaps also why the film avoids Wood's sad decline and relatively early passing).

There are several interesting films to be made about Ed Wood, but Burton wisely focuses on the period surrounding the making of his key films Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space (which revived Wood's name shortly after his death when it was named the worst film ever made), his friendship with Bela Lugosi (an Oscar winning Martin Landau) and his relationships with first actress Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) and then his wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette), as well as his transvestism. It's a lot to cover, but Burton does it in breezily entertaining fashion, helped along by Depp's incredibly appealing performance as Wood. There is only one short reel of footage of Ed Wood directing, on the set of early short The Streets of Laredo, he comes across as a kid in a candy store, excited by the whole process, and that's exactly how Depp plays him; as a man whose boundless enthusiasm for movies both gives him the mean to work in the industry, and leads to the often shoddy quality of his work (though I maintain that Plan 9, some silly technical errors notwithstanding, has some extremely compelling images in it). However, Depp also digs deep into the character, exploring the reasons that Wood surrounds himself with oddballs, his sexuality (and his remarkably straightforward attitude towards it, and most importantly his friendship with Lugosi. The scenes Depp and Landau share create a real bond between Wood and Lugosi, and though each is exploiting the other there is warmth there too (even if only briefly in the case of Landau's irascible addict Lugosi.

Landau's Oscar was perhaps a surprise (most people, including the man himself, thinking that Samuel L Jackson would win for Pulp Fiction, but he doesn't let the exceptional, subtle, prosthetic make up do the work for him. Landau entirely disappears, and Bela Lugosi comes back to life in front of us. His performance is by turns droll, caustic, and heartbreaking, and he fully deserved his award.

Shooting in black and white, Burton lovingly recreates Hollywood's late 1950's poverty row. The period detail is spot on, and Burton exhibits an understanding of composition that his subject never really showed evidence of having on a consistent basis. The lighting is beautiful here, particularly in a noirish scene in which a dragged up Ed meets his hero, Orson Welles, in a bar, and Burton recreates many of Ed's most memorable images, sometimes capturing them better than the original auteur ever could (the scene from Glen or Glenda in which Dolores Fuller hands Ed her angora sweater here achieves the emotion that Ed was likely aiming for).

As well as being beautiful, and an engaging character study, Ed Wood is a consistently funny film - you can't make a film about people this odd and have it not be funny. Ed's enthusiasm, can do attitude and relentless focus on the positive provides many laughs, as do cameos from the likes of Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie (Burton's then girlfriend, playing Vampira) and Bill Murray (hilariously deadpan as transsexual Plan 9 player Bunny Breckinridge).

Most of all though, for me, Ed Wood is a love letter to cinema, and to people who love cinema, as Ed Wood undoubtedly did. It does a great service in bringing at least some of Ed's remarkable story to light, but it more than stands alone, as one of the great American studio films of the 90's, and surely Tim Burton's finest hour. Double bill it with Plan 9.

Standout Scenes

Wood shoots his magnum opus in this hilarious scene.

Wood deals with an irascible (and drunk) Bela Lugosi, and an octopus with no motor.

Memorable Lines
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: I like to dress in women's clothing.
Georgie Weiss: You're a fruit?
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: No, not at all. I love women. Wearing their clothes makes me feel closer to them.
Georgie Weiss: You're not a fruit?
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: No, I'm all man. I even fought in W.W.2. Of course, I was wearing women's undergarments under my uniform.

Dolores Fuller: Ed, what's *my* motivation?
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: You're the file clerk. You're running into the next room and you run into Janet.
Dolores Fuller: But are we good friends or is she just a casual acquaintance?
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Dolores, I have five days to complete this picture. Don't get goofy on me.

Edward D. Wood, Jr.: And cut! Print. We're moving on. That was perfect.
Ed Reynolds: Perfect? Mr. Wood, do you know anything about the art of film production?
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Well, I like to think so.
Ed Reynolds: That cardboard headstone tipped over. This graveyard is obviously phony.
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Nobody will ever notice that. Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It's about the big picture.
Ed Reynolds: The big picture?
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Yes.
Ed Reynolds: Then how 'bout when the policemen arrived in daylight, but now it's suddenly night?
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: What do you know? Haven't you heard of suspension of disbelief?

Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Why if I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what's causing them, but it's upsetting all the buffalo. So, the military are called in to solve the mystery.
Editor on Studio Lot: You forgot the octopus.
Edward D. Wood, Jr.: No, no, I'm saving that for my big underwater climax.

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