Directed by Tim Burton
Ed Wood is the original The Disaster Artist, a movie about a director, who shouldn’t be a director, making possibly the worst movie ever made. Before Tommy Wiseau’s The Room took home that dubious title, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) held the honor. It’s a horror film that brings together zombies, aliens, Vampyra and atomic fears, all wrapped up in a sort of romantic tale and constructed around available archival footage. In Ed Wood the premiere of this film acts as the movie’s climax, the mountain atop of which Wood has climbed.
Despite an undeniable eccentricity, Wood’s arc is a peculiar little journey that follows a familiar rags to riches template. He first shows up as the passionate director of a tiny play with a tiny audience, deep in the shadow under the Hollywood sign. There is only one review of the play, seemingly published in the paper that very night, and despite its outright negativity, all Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) takes away from it is that the review praised the play’s “realism.”
He works with a devoted cast and crew, comprised of his girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) and a series of affectionate oddballs, led by friend Bunny (Bill Murray). Together they are an inspired, hardworking bunch, full of delusion and an understandable insecurity and sensitivity. It quickly becomes clear that this last point is where they differ from Wood. While they have enough self-awareness to sense their own limits and shortcomings, he sees in himself and the world around him nothing but that which is awesome, in the actual sense of the word.
He will assemble one play and three films over the course of this movie, and they will all be terrible. In spite of this he remains ever the optimist, acknowledging that perhaps the last one wasn’t quite so good, but the next one certainly will be. When the premiere of his film Bride of the Monster turns the packed audience into a violent mob, he and Bunny can only remark that it was without a doubt a memorable premiere.
Wood is so in love with every part of filmmaking that he is wholly unable to insist on a second take. We see him watch with adoring eyes as characters stumble over their lines or bump into walls and knock over flimsy tombstones, all while proclaiming that it’s time to move onto the next set up. His cameraman or financial backers will raise an eye and ask if it’s not better to do one more for safety. Wood, however, is either mystified by their rationale or immediately able to justify a certain mistake on the actor’s part, accepting it as part of his intended “realism.”
This normalization of mistakes and limitations becomes strangely endearing when you look at the broader themes of Ed Wood. He himself is an outsider, not just in Hollywood but in his own life. Early in the movie he will reveal to a movie producer, as part of his desperation to direct a film about a crossdresser, that in secret he likes to wear women’s clothing. It wasn’t dying in World War II that scared him, he says, but getting wounded and having the medic learn he was wearing a brassiere underneath his uniform. At first you think this is just his attempt to find any way of convincing the producer he has something to offer the movie, but later on we learn that this is, in fact, quite true.
It’s something he has never told anyone before the producer and will soon reveal to Dolores. She is disturbed, not that it’s a habit, but that he’s so quick to put it in a movie script for all the world to see.
As the movie goes along, Dolores will become an antagonistic voice in Wood’s ear. Though she seemed an eager part of the bunch early on, she will slowly distance herself from him, at one point ruining the mood at the wrap party of Bride of the Monster when she yells at hm and his crew for being freaks who only make bad films. Needless to say she won’t be around much longer, though Wood tries his best to keep her around.
Dolores will be replaced by a new romantic interest, Kathy (Patricia Arquette). On a first date he will tell her about his cross-dressing habit, and she will calmly consider it before simply saying, “okay.” It’s a moment that is both underwhelming and tender in its simplicity.
The heart of Ed Wood, however, is Wood’s relationship with an aging actor named Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). He is famous for playing Frankenstein decades earlier, but now he is an ailing morphine addict who lives off of his unemployment checks. When Wood first recognizes him while out and about, Lugosi is auditioning various coffins and chastising the salesman because it’s not comfortable enough.
Wood is drawn to Lugosi because he’s a movie star, or was, and Wood can use him to help pitch financiers on whatever his next movie may be. He rarely has a story to write, but he always has the parts that he can assemble to put together a film. This might be the aging, washed up movie star, stock footage of creatures and explosions, or just an imaginative title. As he says to Dolores at one point, “the movie’s getting made, that’s all that matters.”
I still can’t quite get a grasp on Wood as a character. He wants so desperately to be Orson Welles, but he doesn’t much care to make a film as good as any that Welles made. Though his films are terrible he has a certain awareness that they are terrible, and yet this never deters him. The next one will always be better.
It might just be that Wood is drawn to the communal nature of filmmaking. He is happiest when he’s on set, and in that zone he is an impenetrable force, nothing can shake him and everything is possible. He works with the same cast and crew, people who, like him, are oddballs and castoffs. They make films, it seems, just to do it, like monks creating intricate designs in the sand only for them to be washed away with the rising current.
The product never seems to matter, even if it does. I’m still not sure.
Getting back to Lugosi, he’s not long for this world, as you might imagine considering how we first met him. He makes a handful of movies with Wood, and though he must’ve first just been a piece of the puzzle to help Wood raise some money, they quickly develop a more sincere friendship. Whenever Lugosi finds himself alone, despondent and, presumably, loaded, it’s “Eddy” whom he reaches out to, like a guardian angel. Every time Eddy shows up.
Shortly before Lugosi’s death, Eddy will film some footage of him outside of his own home, acting only as a character not far removed from Lugosi himself. It comes after the conclusion of their previous film, with Lugosi excited for the next one. With nothing yet on the horizon, Wood films him, claiming it’s second unit footage. It’s made to seem as though he knows Lugosi won’t be around long enough for the next film.
After Lugosi’s death, however, Wood finds a way to assemble a movie around the footage he has shot. He convinces a local church to put up funding for this next film, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, the final film of Bela Lugosi. He will use the limited footage he has and then hire a body double to perform the rest of the character’s scenes.
The lead up to this film provides many of the film’s best moments. It’s delirious, tragic and hilarious, and at the end of it all I’m left wondering what to make of this weird, affectionate movie and main character.
Ed Wood remains an admirable little oddball, but he’s also a bit of a sociopath. He’s an outsider who enjoys creating a community for other outsiders, but at the end of the day he seems only to care about his film, even though he’s not driven (or something) enough to ensure that it’s a good film. I suppose it’s a ‘chicken or the egg’ dilemma. Does Ed Wood want to keep making movies just to provide work and a community for his friends? Or does he want to keep these folks around just long enough to make his next movie? As he’s presented in this movie, Ed Wood himself might not even know.
Up Next: High Life (2018), Bound for Glory (1976), La La Land (2016) [revisited]