February’s Love Bites: ED WOOD (1994)

uZg0csIWyJoZuNjQxg2gnbKwRyMLove comes in many forms (heh heh): the love for a partner, a parent’s love for their children, a patriot’s love for their country, that sticky awkward love that can get you arrested if it’s done in public places. And in this season of love, we should embrace all (legal) forms of it.

Tim Burton’s ED WOOD (1994) gave us several forms, not least of which was one man’s love for the art of filmmaking, and how that love blinded him to his own, shall we say, imperfections?

Some might question how Tim Burton’s ED WOOD (1994) can be included in my mini-season about the Month of Love. But in fact, this film is full of love: the love between a man and woman, the love between friends, the love of movies and movie making, the love of a nice Angora sweater…

Edward D. Wood Jr. has been called The Worst Film Director Of All Time. This is not true. I’m sure Scott would agree with my assessment that there are many filmmakers out there whose output would suggest they direct as if on opium, operate their cameras with their feet and write scripts with all the dexterity of Michael J. Fox tap dancing. I doubt if works like BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955) OR PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) are really that much worse than most of their contemporaries. If anyone today could approach the mantle of Ed Wood, it’d be Tommy Wiseau, whose magnum opus THE ROOM is a fever dream of bad dialogue, direction, editing and acting, all of which Tommy takes upon himself, which at least is a decent gesture on his part, accepting all the terrible blame…

But THE ROOM is for another day. Now we speak of Ed Wood. Or rather, ED WOOD.

"Think about it: a whole franchise about a drunken pirate!"

“Think about it: a whole franchise about a drunken pirate!”

It’s 1952 Hollywood, and young WW2 veteran Ed Wood (Johnny Depp, DARK SHADOWS, you bastard) wants to make movies, though so far the closest he’s come is hauling around props and reading Variety about upcoming projects, like the scramble to buy the rights to the life story of Christine Jorgensen, the first person to become widely known in the US for having a sex change. Reading that George Weiss (Mike Starr) of Screen Classics Productions is in the running to film it, Ed is inspired to visit the man and pitch why he’d be perfect to direct it.

"No, I'm NOT Batman!"

“No, I’m NOT Batman!”

And why? Because Ed is a transvestite, has always loved the feel of women’s clothing against his skin, and even wore women’s undergarments under his uniform while he stormed the beaches in World War II (“I wasn’t afraid of being killed, but I was terrified of being wounded, and the medics finding out what I had on underneath”). This being 1950s America, he has been strictly closeted (thank God that wouldn’t happen now. Mmmm…), and even his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker, MARS ATTACKS) is unaware of his predilections (though she’s starting to wonder why her sweaters seem so stretched).

To his credit (at least for the time), Weiss doesn’t criticise him, but still turns his offer down, needing a director with experience. Later, Ed happens by chance to run into the legendary Bela Lugosi (Martin landau), buying a coffin, stating that he plans of taking the play of Dracula on the road(although this is never touched upon again in the film, suggesting a more somber reason for the purchase). Bela is old, crabby and long past the days when he still headlined movies, but still responds to Ed’s unbridled enthusiasm at meeting a real Hollywood “star”, and soon they become friends, getting together on Halloween to watch his old movies on TV; and though Ed isn’t so naive that he doesn’t recognise what the needle tracks on Bela’s arm mean, he remains non-judgemental.

Well, at least he got a nice smoking jacket out of it...

Well, at least he got a nice smoking jacket out of it…

It’s this relationship that spurs Ed to return to Weiss and ask for the directing role, bringing something new to the table: a “star”, in Bela. Weiss relents, but later regrets it as Ed’s resulting work, GLEN OR GLENDA, becomes a semi-autobiographical account of a man struggling with transvestism, while Bela acts as the omniscient narrator of the film, spouting non-sequitors (“Pull da strings! PULL DA STRINGS! A story *must* be told!”) and throwing in stock footage of explosions and bison stampedes. Bela doesn’t exactly embrace the weirdness of it all, but he’s grateful for the cheque.

Unable to get a permanent job with any studio based on GLEN OR GLENDA, Dolores convinces him to finance his next film, BRIDE OF THE ATOM, independently, and a chance meeting with TV psychic The Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones, FERRIS BUELLER’s nemesis), a fan of GLEN OR GLENDA, advises him on selling himself better through bullshit, which of course is how he managed to get a job as a TV psychic (I remember reading one of Criswell’s “predictions” back in the 70s, where he predicted that by 1988, Utah would become America’s first fully homosexual state – did it happen?).

Hail, hail, the gang's all here!

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here!

BRIDE OF THE ATOM eventually becomes BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, but the circle of unconventional friends, including Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steel), TV hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie, THE LORDS OF SALEM) and eccentric gay socialite Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray, and do I have to namecheck any of *his* films?), Ed has gathered, and his own revelation of his transvestism, is too much for Dolores (the fact that he also gave up the lead in the picture to a woman who offered him backing for it didn’t help). She leaves him (the real Dolores Fuller went on to a career writing songs for Elvis Presley). Bela ends up in rehab, where Ed visits him, meeting Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette), who’s visiting her father at the same hospital. They strike up a friendship, and eventually begin dating.

But as Bela recovers and Ed works towards his next opus, GRAVE ROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE, later to be titled PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, making more and more concessions to backers and actors, the stress gets too much for him. Will we ever see what might be his greatest film ever?

Still looks better than a lot of Asylum movies...

Still looks better than a lot of Asylum movies…

Anyone looking for a totally factual biopic with ED WOOD will be disappointed. It’s been pointed out, for instance, that the real Bela Lugosi never swore the way the movie Lugosi did, that Dolores Fuller didn’t leave Ed because of the transvestitism but his alcoholism and was more supportive of him than the film presented, and Bela didn’t die alone, but remarried a year before his death.

But Burton acknowledged that he probably portrayed Wood and his crew in an exaggeratedly sympathetic way, stating he did not want to ridicule people who had already been ridiculed for a good deal of their life. Burton decided not to depict the darker side of Wood’s life, and wanted to make the film through Wood’s eyes.

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor had seen better days...

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor had seen better days…

In this, he succeeded, and this is probably one of my favourite of Burton’s movies (ironic, given that he never intended to direct it, but just produce it), made long before he ended up a parody of himself, shot in pure black and white, and all from Ed’s point of view. As for Depp, he captured Ed’s unbridled, unflappable enthusiasm, as well as his talents for schlock writing, acting, editing and directing.

And Landau deserved the Best Supporting Oscar he got for his portrayal of Lugosi, and the friendship between Bela and Ed is the real love story in this film, two souls who found and supported each other as best they could (Burton took inspiration from this from his own relationship with Vincent Price). This support is reflected in their troupe of players as a whole, oddballs who accepted each other without question and created an enclave of individuality amidst the conformity of fedora-behatted Fifties America.

Where's our sequel,Ed? WHERE'S PLAN TEN?

Where’s our sequel,Ed? WHERE’S PLAN TEN?

ED WOOD is an immensely quotable, immensely enjoyable tribute to a man who has a footnote of notoriety in film history (as well as a horror icon in Lugosi). And I for one am glad to be able to have a Tim Burton movie on Anythinghorror that isn’t DARK SHADOWS. If you haven’t seen it, see it (ED WOOD, that is, not DARK SHADOWS. DARK SHADOWS is only there to help you induce vomiting). The trailer is below

Deggsy’s Summary:

Director: Tim Burton

Plot: 5 out of 5 stars

Gore: 0 out of 10 skulls

Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains

Reviewed by Deggsy. PULL DA STRINGS!

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