Ah, the Pathos and the Cluelessness of ‘Ed Wood’

[18 October 2012]

By Brad Cook

Was Ed Wood the worst director who ever lived? He certainly deserves a spot in the annals of ineptitude, but anyone who has watched enough Mystery Science Theater 3000 could probably rattle off a few others who plumbed similar depths.

What separated Wood from other contenders, though, was his dogged insistence that he was making brilliant movies. No matter what setback he suffered, Wood always insisted he was on the verge of a major breakthrough. He idolized Orson Welles and saw himself as suffering through the same tribulations Welles did; he seemed to truly believe his own Citizen Kane was just around the corner. Oh, and he was a cross-dresser who liked to swipe his girlfriend’s clothes.

Given such a rich background to draw from, it’s not hard to see how director Tim Burton was drawn to the subject. Ed Wood was a man-child in the mold of Mozart, but he was playing all the wrong keys on the piano and thought he was composing brilliant symphonies. This film is a fascinating study in the kind of mindset that’s on display every time American Idol starts a new season. (It’s very likely Wood was a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

The film charts Wood’s career from his first effort, the exploitive transvestite film Glen or Glenda, through his infamous science-fiction movie Plan 9 From Outer Space, which was financed by a Baptist church that required everyone involved in the production to be baptized. The emotional center of the story is Wood’s heartbreaking friendship with Bela Lugosi, who, unlike Wood, knew when he was making a bad film. However, Lugosi was in the last years of his life and was addicted to morphine, so he was reduced to making a few bucks any way he could. Their friendship gives the film a pathos it needs; without it, Ed Wood’s story is simply the tale of a self-deluded director.

Secondary characters starred in many of Wood’s films and prove to be a bit self-deluded themselves as seen through Burton’s lens: wrestler Tor Johnson, horror movie host Vampira, aspiring transsexual Bunny Breckenridge, psychic Criswell, and a few inept crew members. Johnny Depp is, of course, brilliant as Wood, and the acting in the supporting roles is spot-on across the board, especially Bill Murray as Breckenridge—this film, along with 1993’s Groundhog Day, started to solidify his reputation as an actor who could play more than goofy humor.

If you have the previous DVD release of Ed Wood, you may not want to bother with this Blu-ray, unless upgrading to a high-def image and improved audio is important. All of the bonus features were ported over from the 2004 DVD, starting with the commentary with director Tim Burton, actor Martin Landau, co-writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, director of photography Stefan Czapsky, and costume designer Colleen Atwood, who were all interviewed separately and had their thoughts stitched together. In a nice touch, Landau introduces each participant in character as Lugosi.

A quartet of featurettes cover the making of the movie: Let’s Shoot This F#*%@r! is 14 minutes of on-set footage; The Theremin (seven minutes) covers an instrument that was used a lot in ‘50s movie scores and which was of course used for this film; Making Bela (eight minutes) has Landau and make-up artist Rick Baker, who both won Academy Awards for the film, discussing the stunningly realistic recreation of Lugosi; and Pie Plates Over Hollywood (14 minutes) discusses the production design (the title is a reference to the pie plates that Wood used as flying saucers).

Five deleted scenes showcase some intriguing moments, but none of them would have added much to the movie if left in, except perhaps the additional scene with Wood and Lugosi. Finally, we have a goofy music video featuring Howard Shore’s title theme and Tony Basil’s silly choregraphy and the theatrical trailer.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/164399-ed-wood/