ED WOOD - A love letter directed by Tim Burton
Forgotten Gems from Great Directors
The “World’s Worst Director” wrote and directed ten feature films between 1953 and 1970,
made numerous short films and penned over 80 pulp novels.
When Ed Wood died, the hollywood trade papers didn’t bother giving him an obituary. However, one might suspect that kind of neglect wouldn’t have bothered him if he were alive to hear it. For years, Wood had been churning films out solely on the fumes of passion - the only feedback to his consistently horrible movies being criticism. Yet here was a man from Poughkeepsie, New York who had made the leap to Hollywood, directed Bela Lugosi and lived out his dream (however askew that may be.) And while the narratives in his own films may not have amounted to much, the story of the filmmaker himself would in Tim Burton’s 1994 biography, Ed Wood: A love-letter to movies, passion, collaboration and the subjectivity of dreams coming true.
The notion of making a film about Wood first arose to screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and
Scott Alexander (a writing team whose credits include Man on the Moon and Dolemite is My
Name) when they were roommates in college. The two had read Nightmare of Ecstasy, a
biography on Wood and his life, and wrote a treatment for it that eventually made its way to
Tim Burton. Burton wanted to make the film immediately with no changes to the first draft.
His attraction to Wood was multifaceted; he was a longtime fan of the director’s work but it was his unrelenting passion towards his projects that appealed to Burton. “He wrote about his films as if he was making Citizen Kane, you know, whereas other people perceived them as, like, the worst movies ever,” Burton stated.
That observation is the emotional engine that drives the entire film. Shot in stunning black and white by frequent Burton collaborator Stefan Czapsky, the visual language of Ed Wood playfully engages in a dialogue with the classic, campy films of Wood while also seeming to imitate its protagonist’s hero - Orson Welles - in its stark lighting and shot composition.
Johnny Depp’sperformance is among his strongest, portraying an enviable lack of self-awareness at every turn, comedically drunk on his passion and determination that never ceases. The cast is a towering gallery of odd-balls brought to life by Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker and Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi.)
The relationship between Lugosi and Wood is the emotional core of the film. The audience watches as the young Wood, thrilled to be in the presence of his hero, struggles to help the
aging, addicted Lugosi. Landau’s performance is deserving of acclaim, finely walking that interchangeable line between comedy and tragedy, always knowing which to play to engage the audience. It’s because we’re so entertained by his eccentric character that, in turn, it’s so heartbreaking to watch the once shining star fade. Burton cited the two’s relationship as a primary factor for him making the movie as it mirrored his own experience with famed actor, Vincent Price. For a young filmmaker to meet and work with their idol, it doesn’t matter how bad the project turns out; it’s the fact it’s happening in the first place that matters.
When it was released in 1994, 41 years after Wood’s first film, Ed Wood won two Academy
Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Makeup. Its budget ended up costing more than all of
Wood’s films combined. It also garnered some of Burton’s best reviews (92% on Rotten
Tomatoes) and is notably different than other films in the director’s career as it uses its
eccentricity to service emotion and story, not just existing for the sake of being odd.
It’s smaller than Batman, more grounded in reality than Edward Scissorhands, but in a way summarizes Burton’s strengths and the films he makes: If you’re making something because you feel you have to, it doesn’t matter if it’s the worst movie ever made. For you, it’s a triumph it exists.