Consider the strangeness that was Ed Wood. The real mystery is not his movies, but the fact that he existed at all. A hyper charismatic, open transvestite filmmaker active in the 1950’s, Wood was famous for his ability to shoot an entire movie in a single day, his near encyclopedic knowledge of film—he was an immense admirer of Orson Welles before his reputation was restored—and for his utterly singular vision.
The fact that the films he made, which include “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space” are considered among the worst movies ever made only makes him more fascinating, and Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic “Ed Wood” paints this magnificent outsider in a way he deserves: with love and admiration.
To date, Burton’s sole film without a single supernatural element—until his new film, “Big Eyes,” which reunites him with this film’s screenwriters, opens this Christmas—Ed Wood ranks among the upper echelon of Burton’s work, and could easily be argued to be his best.
By shooting in gorgeous black and white, with lighting meant to evoke film noir, Burton paints Wood not as a talentless hack but as someone wonderfully naïve, dedicated to preserving his vision despite a near total lack of skill in writing, directing, and—in the unique case of “Glen or Glenda”—acting.
Though the script paints Wood well, it would not be possible for us to like or sympathize with Wood—who likes bad art?—without an actor up to the task, and Burton found one in his frequent partner Johnny Depp.
Depp’s performance as Wood in this movie is a marvel, and the fact that he was not even nominated for an Oscar is a travesty. Depp portrays Wood with an off-kilter edge, but not with disrespect; his Wood is first and foremost a real person, albeit one given to stealing his girlfriends’ Angora sweaters and gesturing like a mime. Adopting a high, airy voice and clad in a pencil mustache, Depp plays Wood as a crusading adventure through Hollywood, bringing to mind someone like Errol Flynn or Charles Laughton, or indeed his beloved Orson Welles.
Supporting Depp are a variety of people, from a drag queen played by a wonderfully deadpan Bill Murray and a psychic most famous for being wrong, played by Jeffrey Jones, among others. But the true carrier of the stable is Martin Landau’s portrayal of Bela Lugosi, the legendary actor most famous for his portrayal of Dracula. In an Oscar winning performance, Landau plays Lugosi as a humorous but sad man, delighted by Wood’s attention, but despairing in the abandonment of his wife and his continuing addiction to opiates. While Depp provides the heart of the film, Landau provides the soul, investing a sense of tragedy in the film, reminding us that no matter how good of a time everyone was having, these were films that had no chance of being remembered in anything but infamy.
But Wood lives on. When most terrible filmmakers are forgotten, his have a unique artistryabout them. “Visions, Ed, are worth fighting for,” Orson Welles tells him at the film’s end. And it is true. Bravo, Mr. Wood. Bravo.