“It’s not a monster movie. It’s a supernatural thriller” – Johnny Depp, Ed Wood (1994)
Like many fans of all things spooky, I have loved Tim Burton’s work since childhood. Therefore, I was appalled when I found out he had directed a biopic I had never seen before: Ed Wood (1994), about disgraced film director Edward D. Wood Jr., director of the cult favorite Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). I love watching biopics. Most of the time, I do not care who the subject is. I just love the way biopics apply storytelling techniques and rhetorical situation (time, place, cultural influence, etc.). I was beyond excited to find out Burton had directed a biopic. Thankfully…it was exactly how I expected a Burton-directed biopic to be.
The titular character, Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), is an aspiring film director in 1950s Hollywood. All of his attempts at the entertainment industry have been unsuccessful, but his determination to leave his mark on the world never wanes. The movie begins on press night of his latest excursion: a stage play about World War II soldiers. After a minuscule audience and negative reviews from critics, Ed questions why he is still not successful. His girlfriend, Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) pushes him to learn from his failures and keep trying.
Following another unsuccessful meeting with a Hollywood producer in which Ed confesses his deepest secret (more on that later), he spontaneously meets one of his film heroes: Bela Lugosi (Martin Landeau), who famously played Dracula in the 1930s Universal monster movies. They quickly connect over their love of classic horror films. Ed is surprised to hear that Bela has not worked in several years. He intends to produce a film in which Bela can perform again and share his legendary talent. Ed also learns about Bela’s struggle with drug addiction and money problems. With even more on the line than before, Ed takes every opportunity to get support for the bizarre horror and science fiction movies he has written.
The friendship between Ed and Bela grows as Ed remains optimistic about his directorial dreams. He decides to tell Dolores about the secret he has carried his whole life: he enjoys wearing women’s clothing. He states that he simply feels comfortable in women’s clothes and that it does not reflect his sexuality or identity. This revelation puts a strain on their relationship, but Ed no longer tries to hide who he is. Despite the setbacks in his professional and personal life, Ed pushes forward. With the help of Bela, horror movie host Vampira (Lisa Marie), and a cast of unorthodox actors and crew members, Ed gets closer and closer to achieving his dream.
Some films just work better as black-and-white, and Ed Wood is one of them. Not only does it work with the time period of the story, but it also further focuses the vibrancy of the characters. The movie opens with a “midnight movie”-type presentation, which is a motif that reappears throughout the film. Burton’s awareness of this cultural staple in horror and science fiction cinema shows he knows where this story fits. Vampira’s role in Ed Wood’s life is one of my favorite aspects of this film. She famously appeared in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and I was glad to see her portrayed in so many scenes in addition to her part in that.
Martin Landeau won an Academy Award for his portrayal of horror legend Bela Lugosi. Anyone who has seen his performance will agree it was well-deserved. Lugosi’s real-life story is not glamorous, and this film did well in doing that justice while preserving Lugosi’s humanity and personality. As a Lugosi fan myself and a lover of the classic Universal monsters in general, I was impressed with the accuracy of this role.
Edward D. Wood Jr. was never considered a Hollywood success, and the ridicule from his peers continued well after his death. With Ed Wood, however, Tim Burton gave Ed a refined image and film lovers an opportunity to see the passionate man behind the bad movies. We may not know for sure how Ed Wood was in real life, but Johnny Depp played him with infectious kindness, hope, and love of stories. As someone who loves film and dreams of being a part of that magic someday, Ed Wood is my kind of inspirational film.
Until next time,