Thursday, March 1, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Ed Wood (1994)

I have been nostalgic lately for a version of Tim Burton I no longer think exists.  Burton was once a reverent and ingenious director full of ideas and great creativity; these days, as he plods through remake after re-adaptation after re imagining, Burton is a parody of himself.  And it wasn't that long ago when he was at the height of his powers, the mid nineties, where his creative juices were flowing.  This is where he directed Ed Wood, his masterpiece.  While it may not have been an "original" film in the true sense, it was a biopic about one of the strangest and most bizarre people to ever float around the fringe of Hollywood.  It is a film tailor-made for the themes Burton explores in his better work, and a fully-realized and intricate character study about a great number of characters.  To say the least.

Ed Wood's only real strength as a filmmaker was his love for film.  As a technician of the craft, Wood was atrocious, horrible on a level which goes beyond simple badness to a level that flirts with genius in some warped universe.  His most famous film was Plan 9 From Outer Space, where silver plates dangling from wire substituted as UFOs and door frames shook when bumped into.  Wood, played by Johnny Depp, is an insufferable stage hand and low-rent filmmaker when we first see him, living with his helpless girlfriend, Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker), and dreaming of one day getting his own shot at making a film.  Wood travels in a certain circle of lowlifes, losers, and burnouts of the Hollywood scene all shuffling and scamming their way into whatever living they can find.  Bill Murray is perhaps the most entertaining of the rogues gallery, as Bunny Breckinridge the infamous queen.  Jeffrey Jones plays Criswell, a magician whose only trick is convincing people he actually has any tricks. When Wood finally gets his big break, working for a low-rent exploitation film producer, naturally he employs his wacky circle of friends to star.

The most important and touching relationship in the film is between Wood and Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau (who would win the Academy Award).  Wood sees Lugosi and is smitten with the idea of the former star, long out of the spotlight and deep in the throws of alcoholism and drug use that would eventually kill him.  Wood still idolizes Lugosi as the Dracula of his youth and wants him to star in his next film.  Landau plays Lugosi as a bitter old man, sometimes funny, but often quite sad.  Lugosi resents Boris Karloff for becoming famous after playing Frankenstein, he is alone and sour and he naturally latches on to Ed as a mentor.  But the relationship soon evolves into a caretaker role for Ed, as he tends to what becomes an ailing father of the craft he loves so dearly.  Landau is nothing short of brilliant in his role.

Shot in crisp and clean black and white, Ed Wood captures the mood and the energy of Hollywood in the fifties, when wannabes like Wood could walk into shoddy production companies, pitch their ideas and get some money to throw whatever they could together.  It was a time where epics dominated the mainstream of Hollywood, but corny science fiction and horror films filled seats in matinees and date night.  Johnny Depp has great energy as Wood, who was an open cross dresser, regularly wearing his girlfriend's Angora sweaters on set to help him relax.  All of the performances fill a certain need for the quirkiness of the picture, including Vincent D'Onofrio in an inspired cameo as Orson Welles. 

Ed Wood makes you long for a different version of Tim Burton.  Not this director who takes already formed material and just throws in weirdness for the sake of weirdness in order to easily identify the film as a Burton vehicle.  He is best when he takes his themes of alienated and quirky characters and manages to create a believable world around said characters.  Look at Beetlejuice, Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands, and of course Ed Wood to see where Tim Burton shines as a true, brilliant filmmaker.