Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Ed Wood (1994)

Director: Tim Burton                                       Writers: Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski
Film Score: Howard Shore                             Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Murray

Ed Wood is just a brilliant film. Ironic, considering that the director himself has resided at the top of worst film lists since his death in 1978. But screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were at a crossroads in their careers after having the kind of success with their film Problem Child that kept them from getting other, more serious, work. So they set out to write a screenplay about one of their favorite auteurs, Edward D. Wood Jr. Of course Wood is well known to most horror film buffs for his shockingly bad Plan 9 from Outer Space, arguably the worst feature film ever made. The other aspect of Wood’s career, however, and the one that the writers focused on, was his relationship with an ageing Bela Lugosi. In trying to see if they could get their idea to the screen, the pair first wrote a treatment, and then attempted to get Tim Burton’s name attached to it somehow in order to increase their chances of success. What happened next was something they never could have imagined. Burton loved the treatment and wanted to make it his next film. The problem? Alexander and Karaszewski didn’t have an actual screenplay. Had they put Burton off for a year to write it, they feared he might never get back to it. But they knew they had six weeks while Burton was doing post-production on his current film, so the two locked themselves in Alexander’s apartment and churned out an overlong screenplay that they couldn’t figure out how to cut. But it didn’t matter. Burton wanted to shoot it as is and immediately set about casting.

To no one’s surprise, the director’s choice of leading man was Johnny Depp, but the actor actually brings so much to the role that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing it. Even more important, however, was who to cast to play Lugosi. Again, it was Burton who thought screen veteran Martin Landau would be perfect for the role, as much for his considerable talent as for the arc of his career, which early on had him working for Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest, and by the end found him mired in television on Gilligan’s Island with the Harlem Globetrotters. It turned out to be a genius move, and was acknowledged as such when Landau won the Oscar for best supporting actor. The rest of Ed Wood's posse is played by a great group of stars. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Wood’s girlfriend, and the only one to even suggest that maybe Wood’s films aren’t as good as he thinks they are. Bill Murray is tremendous as Wood’s friend, the wannabe transvestite Bunny Breckinridge, while Jeffrey Jones plays the not-so-Amazing Criswell. Lisa Marie Smith appears as TV host Vampira, and Patricia Arquette is Wood’s later wife Kathy. Also appearing in small roles are Rance Howard, G.D. Spradlin, and Vincent D’Onofrio, as well as a host of terrific character actors in supporting roles.

The film begins with Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, sitting up in a coffin and intoning a variation on his speech from Plan 9, but making it about Wood instead. The credits roll over a stormy night in Hollywood, and when they finish Depp is seen pacing outside a theater as his wartime play The Casual Company premiers. His play, however, is no better than his films would be and receives dreadful reviews. By day, Depp works as a studio flunky delivering props and dreams of the day when he can make films of his own. Always with his ear to the ground, he hears of a producer who had promotional materials printed for a film called I Changed My Sex but no film. Since Depp is a cross-dresser he gets himself assigned as director—after meeting Bela Lugosi and shoehorning him into the production—and proceeds to film Glen or Glenda? which is not about sex change at all. So the distributor hates it, a film exec he sends it to thinks it’s a joke, and meanwhile he develops a relationship with Lugosi that not only includes putting him in every picture he makes, but running out to his suburban ranch house whenever the former Dracula runs out of drugs or decides to kill himself. When Depp gets the backing he needs from Juliet Landau to make Bride of the Monster he launches into the picture and only finds out later that there was no money. But somehow he keeps on going, his can-do attitude and a delusional belief in his own abilities all he needs to stay ahead of his creditors and remain a legend in his own mind.

When veteran makeup artist Rick Baker was having trouble with the color of Martin Landau’s makeup, Burton went up to the monitor and turned the color off and everyone knew then it had to be filmed in black and white. Alexander and Karaszewski were ecstatic because of how incredibly artistic they knew it would be, but also rightly assumed that they would lose a huge chunk of their audience, which they did. But while the film was a box office flop in 1994, and took another decade to come out on DVD, it has since been recognized for the masterwork it is and has earned well-deserved critical praise ever since. The black and white photography, for one, was masterfully carried out by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who had to go to great lengths to get the lighting just right in numerous scenes. And the story itself, while mercifully not camp, maintains an impossibly fine balance between the overwhelming love it has for its characters—especially Lugosi—and sort of being a little like an Ed Wood film itself. The crowning touch is Howard Shore’s perfect film score, one that emulates some of the stock music that Wood used in his films, a lighthearted fifties sci-fi ethos, and the humorous underpinning of much of the actual story. Tim Burton is far from my favorite director. I’ve actually hated the few films of his I’ve seen and happily ignored the rest. But Ed Wood is in a class by itself and is one of my favorite films of all time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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