Monday, September 30, 2019

25 Years Ago Today: Ed Wood (1994)

"Greetings, my friends! You are interested in the unknown. The mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing you the full story of what happened. We are giving you all the evidence based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, places. My friends, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood Jr.?"

-- Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) narrates the opening of Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994)

It would have been abundantly easy to make the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) a mean-spirited film about the so-called "worst director of all time."  It would have been safe -- and it would have gone mostly unquestioned -- if director Tim Burton had created a film version of Wood's life that aped the mocking tone of books such as the Medveds' popular Golden Turkey Awards

But Burton does not select that easy, familiar route here. 

Instead of crafting a film about someone who -- by accepted and widely-held standards -- made incredibly "bad" movies, Burton creates a film about someone who was inspired by and actually in love with the movie-making process. 

In other words, Tim Burton's Ed Wood is not about those characteristics and talents that separated Ed Wood from Orson Welles.  It's about the qualities those legendary cinema talents have in common. 

And that simple conceit makes Ed Wood not merely a heartfelt, emotional story of artistic endurance, but, in some sense, an inspirational tale about overcoming obstacles (including the entrenched obstacles of Tinsel Town...) and the primacy of pursuing one's own vision. 

Naturally, this film is not strictly "true," since Ed Wood never really met Orson Welles, and since details of Bela Lugosi's career and life have been altered to some degree for dramatic purposes.  And yet Ed Wood feels emotionally true because Burton sees in Wood an indomitable figure -- an eternal optimist -- who despite the mocking of the masses and the disinterest of  Hollywood power did precisely what he desired...and is remembered and even loved for it.

Like so many Tim Burton films, Ed Wood concerns a protagonist who is far afield from what society-at-large terms "the norm."   However, Wood's response to his own apparent "strangeness" is not isolation, resentment or even bitterness.  Instead, as the film reveals beautifully, Ed Wood creates a "bubble" of acceptance for those "hunted" and "despised" individuals who don't conform, either socially or sexually to society's rules or standards.   Importantly, Ed's world of film making is one entirely without harsh judgement...or judgement of any kind for that matter

In fact, Burton views that very absence of judgement as the critical key to an understanding of the film's lead character. 

Off-the-set, Ed judges no one's individual strangeness, and on set, he does not judge at all when an actor knocks over a cardboard tombstone, bumbles his lines of dialogue, or otherwise missteps during a take.   It is not in Ed's nature to pass judgement on others, according to Burton, only to enthusiastically support the world he and his friends now share.  The director thus paints a picture of a man who was more interested in the act of film making than, necessarily, the results of that process.

Filmed in crisp black-and-white, Ed Wood is a fairy tale about one man's triumph over a world that systematically shuns him.  Accordingly, the film is visually represented as a collision between cruel, harsh Tinsel Town and the individual fantasy worlds of Wood's unique imagination.  Burton does not shy away from harshness or ugliness in expressing this conjunction of spheres.  The needle tracks on Bela Lugosi's arm speak of a terrible world and a terrible personal surrender. 

And the ubiquitous white "Hollywood" sign looms over the film in a powerful way too: a constant shadow and explicit reminder  of the crushing "weight" of silver screen dreams.  And yet, contrarily, in some very lovely two-shots, Burton expresses well how there can be friendship and companionship  "outside" the normal world, if only one is willing to forgo "judgement."

In showcasing a special friendship -- the friendship of Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood -- Burton creates in Ed Wood "a tender, midnight-madness parable about a determined moviemaker."  And yet it's more than that colorful description too.  In some manner, Burton's film is actually about how to cope with the reality of Hollywood.  You can't change a monolith.  No, you must change how you see (and treat) the industry, and through that trajectory navigate your own path to an individual version of success. 

In the final analysis, that's the lesson of Ed Wood.  Be your own man; have your own vision...and stick to your goals tenaciously.  Despite Eddie's hardships in the film, Ed Wood is uplifting because Burton suggests the character is nothing less than indomitable.

"Ed, this isn't the real world. You've surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdos."

Ed Wood tells the story of a young artist on hopeful but rocky ascent.  Although Ed (Johnny Depp) has assembled an entourage of colorful actors, including girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) to support his work, he's bedeviled by bad reviews and a lack of interest by the public at large. 

When Wood's new play, Casual Company opens in L.A., it is met with disinterest and negativity, but Ed is able to see the silver lining around every cloud.  When a famous movie critic comments positively on the Army costumes that appear in the play, Ed trumpets his production's "realism."

Soon, Ed learns that Screen Classics is preparing a movie based on the sex change of Christine Jorgensen.  Because of his own fetish for angora and women's clothing, Ed pitches himself as director for the project.  At first he is rebuffed, but then, serendipitously, Ed meets Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), the former screen Dracula who has not worked in years.  Ed returns to Screen Classics and pitches Bela as a participant in the sex change picture, and history is made.  Before long, Ed shoots Glen or Glenda, an autobiographical film about men who "feel comfortable" in women's clothes.

After Glen or Glenda bombs, Ed dives into his next project, Bride of the Atom (soon to be titled Bride of the Monster).  He casts wrestler Tor Johnson (George Steele) as the monstrous henchman Lobo, and Lugosi as a villainous mad scientist.  Loretta King (Juliet Landau) becomes his lead actress when she intimates (falsely...) that she has the money and inclination to support the production, a fact which alienates Dolores.  While they make Bride of the Atom, Bela and Ed deepen their friendship, and Ed learns that Bela is a morphine addict.  After the film is completed, Ed helps Bela check into rehab.

Following the disappointing reception of Bride of the Monster, Bela passes away, leaving a despondent Ed.  But with a small film reel consisting of footage of Bela that he shot before the actor passed away, Ed realizes he possesses "the acorn" of a great tree.  With funding secured from a fundamentalist Baptist church, Ed plans to resurrect Lugosi on screen one last time for his magnum opus: Plan 9 from Outer Space.  Committed to making a final film "for Bela," Wood pulls together his friends, including Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), the great Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), Vampira (Lisa Marie) and Tor Johnson.

Finally, countenancing interference from the baptists on the set, Ed stands to lose everything until a fateful chance encounter with Orson Welles...

"Eddie is the only fella in town who doesn't judge people."

In Ed Wood, screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski, the audience meets a number of outsiders and misfits who discover a sense of belonging in the movie-making world that Wood creates. 

Primary among these characters is the great (if prideful and foul-mouthed...) Bela Lugosi, who has been shunned by Hollywood because of his drug addiction.  Lugosi lives in a tiny house, in near-poverty, and hopes to somehow turn everything around; to return to greatness.  

"Eddie, I'm obsolete," he tells Wood.  "I have nothing to live for."   He also notes that no one in Hollywood "gives two fucks for Bela."  This is the tragedy of Lugosi.  He has gone from being a movie star to less than zero, and this is a story we see played out again and again in Hollywood, across the decades.

By participating in Wood's films, Lugosi once more feels good about himself; that he is doing again, the very thing he loves. The dark side of this equation, which Ed Wood hints at but doesn't delve into, is the specter of exploitation.  Was Wood merely "using" Lugosi to get his films made? 

That question has been raised many times, but in terms of the film itself, it's clear that Wood is on the side of the angels, and that he cares deeply for Bela and Bela's well-being.  In fact, it is widely reported that Burton's mentor/student relationship with the late Vincent Price helped him to identify and understand the Wood/Lugosi friendship.  Those of us who have been fortunate enough to interact with "famous" personalities in the industry understand very well the nature of the film's central friendship.  A relationship that begins as hero worship becomes one, very shortly, in which we start to detect the foibles and flaws of a real human being.  Someone who is an icon becomes exposed as a "real" human being, and as time goes on, we see that this is exactly as it should be.  Out of that realization of common humanity comes a new, deeper form of friendship, one eminently more meaningful and "real" than celebrity worship.   Ed Wood captures this type of relationship beautifully, and in sometimes haunting terms.

Importantly, the Bela/ Wood  relationship is tinged with tragedy in Ed Wood from their first fateful meeting.  When Wood initially encounters the faded star of Dracula, he sees him in a store for a coffin. 

Therefore, the audience first sees Lugosi in repose, with his arms folded over his chest...apparently already dead. 

This particular composition recurs in the film at least two times: once when Lugosi is in rehab, and once, finally, when he has passed away.  From his first appearance in the film, then, Lugosi is associated on screen with death, and that's very much the point.  Before he meets Eddie, Lugosi is indeed "dead" in terms of his screen career.  He claims he has not worked in four years and that he is obsolete.  Ed "resurrects" Lugosi for his films, just as -- finally -- Eddie resurrects Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space, bringing the actor once more to life for audiences after his death.

The friendship between Lugosi and Wood is very much at the heart of Ed Wood, and both roles are impeccably performed. The late, great Martin Landau earned an Academy Award for his heartfelt, often very funny performance as Lugosi, and rightfully so.  Again, in a notable example of art imitating life, Landau himself had gone through a kind of "career death" in the mid-1980's before a resurgence that saw him headlining in films such as Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1987) and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  Landau is at his expressive best here portraying a man who is not just addicted to morphine, but to movie-making the magic of the silver screen.  It's clear that only one thing makes Lugosi well: the opportunity to practice his art. 

When Lugosi delivers an impassioned speech for Wood's Bride of the Monster, the words are highly self-reflexive.   He says: "Home. I have no home. like an animal -- the jungle is my home! But I will show the world that I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people -- a race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!

In a weird, science-fictional way, this strange speech is very much about identity; about the homes we choose to make, rather than the "homes" from which we came, or which others attempt to assimilate us into.  Lugosi's character here is talking about not merely independence, but about re-shaping the world to his desires and needs.  And in a very real way, that's clearly what Ed has accomplished in his life.  In his film world, Wood has "perfected" his own "race of people," in his entourage, hasn't he?  "Hunted and despised" that entourage may be, but together, the group is doing what it wants to do, and in Eddie's mind, making art; telling "the stories" that he wants to tell.  On Eddie's own terms, he is a success.

Other than Lugosi, other individuals also thrive in Ed's "safe" and non-judgmental world.  Bunny Breckinridge, an openly homosexual man, is accepted without question.  In fact, he is so inspired by Ed's "coming out" in Glen or Glenda that he plans to undergo a long-anticipated sex change operation.  "It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," he says. "But it wasn't until I saw your movie that I realized I have to take action! Goodbye, penis!" 

As silly as that dialogue clearly plays, it does a good job of revealing Ed's positive influence on those around him.  His creation of a "bubble of safety" allows people like Lugosi and Breckinridge to find a safe harbor in an often-cruel town.   Notably, the woman he falls in love with, Kathy, passes the same test.  Ed informs her up front about his cross-dressing habits and she accepts them, no ifs, ands or buts.  Once Eddie knows that Kathy is accepting, little else matters.

Watching Ed Wood, we come to understand and realize the magic of this specific Burton "outsider."

 "How do you do it?"  Bunny asks Wood.   "How do you get all your friends to get baptized, just so you can make a monster movie?" 

In large part, Burton's film is about answering that very important question,  What the director finds is that Ed boasts two qualities that draw people to his cause: passion and optimism. 

In the first case, Eddie believes wholeheartedly in the films he creates, whatever their (obvious) short-comings.  And on the other front, Ed is indomitable in spirit.  The only way to survive in Hollywood (or as a writer, even) is to believe in yourself, and keep trying, no matter what.  Because you will face failures, you will face criticism, and you will deal with acerbic, cruel gatekeepers who want to keep you out of their privileged domains. 

But Eddie never lets those assholes get him down, at least for very long, and the script often references this fact.  When Eddie is told by a studio head that he made "the worst movie ever," his immediate response is "my next one will be better."  

When at the end of the film, Eddie suggests driving to Las Vegas, his girlfriend Kathy (Patricia Arquette) reminds him that it is raining, and that it is a five hour ride to Vegas.  Wood's response is, again, characteristic of his optimism: "It's only a five hour drive and it'll probably stop by the time we get to the desert. Heck, it'll probably stop by the time we get around the corner. Let's go."

Those upbeat words embody Ed Wood as a person and also, not to a small degree,  incidentally, the nature of film making. 

If you're going to let yourself be stopped by a little things like the rain, you'll never make it as a director. 

Orson Welles knew it...and Ed Wood knew it too. They didn't stop making films when confronted with rain, weird casting decisions (Charlton Heston as a Mexican?) or funding problems.  No, they soldiered on, and their films became famous and beloved.

Again, considerations of quality don't necessarily enter the picture here. There are as many people out there, no doubt, who love Plan 9 as there are those who love Citizen Kane.  And, as I wrote above, Ed Wood is much more about the qualities those films and their directors share, not the ones that separate them.

If Ed Wood has any sense of cruelty in it, it likely involves the unsympathetic treatment of the Dolores Fuller character.  In the script, she is the voice of the outside world; of harsh reality.  She calls Ed and his friends "weirdos."  She passes judgement on the movies (calling them "terrible") and she has trouble accepting Eddie for who he is (a cross-dresser). 

This unsympathetic description may not match reality, but it works for the film, because it's absolutely critical that there is an "outside" voice for society encoded in the narrative.  We need to see how Ed is seen by the world at large, and the movie depiction of Fuller is the one who provides that perspective.  There must be a doubter in Eddie's world, and Dolores drew the short straw, I guess, in the script-writing phase.

Ed Wood gives the director of Plan 9 From Outer Space the happy ending his real life plainly did not have.  In real life, Ed Wood died relatively poor while writing pulpy novels and making soft-core nudie/monster flicks.  In Burton's romanticized version of Wood's life, however, Wood finds the adoration of the masses at a well-attended movie premiere, and heads off for brave new horizons with his true love, Kathy. 

"This is the one they'll remember me for," Wood declares triumphantly, of Plan 9 From Outer Space

Of course, Wood was right in this assertion, but not in the way he may have wished to be right. We do remember him for that film today.  But it's because the film is so bad.

And yet, even so ironic a line is not played cheaply by Depp or by Burton. Instead, there's a breathtaking innocence and vulnerability in Depp's line reading.  Wood is happy with what he has accomplished, and uttering a comment that is, to him, accurate.  Burton's film ends with a pounding rain storm outside the premiere-- a sign that Wood's journey is not to remain a smooth one -- but as we leave the film, he is happy and resolute.  He has honored his friend and told his story the way he wanted. He has succeeded.  I absolutely love that this film boasts the audacity to turn the world renowned "worst movie of all time" into, essentially, a high-point for Wood rather than his Waterloo, and that's such an inventive, ingenious way of countenancing this biography.  Where others see failure and derision, Burton shows us success...a valediction.

Burton's films are often extremely colorful and extremely lush, and Ed Wood stands in stark contrast to that normal approach.  The director often holds up misfits and outcasts as heroes or role models too, but in Ed Wood, there's a special alchemy to consider on that front.   The milieu of movie making adds a kind of extra layer of meaning to the tale.

Artists can control their art to some degree, but they can't control the response to it. Hence the insecurity of so many filmmakers, writers and actors. What if we bomb? What if we step up to bat...and strike out?   Ed Wood is very much about that notion; with Tim Burton himself exploring the idea of being an Ed Wood, a talent "hunted" and "despised" for sticking to his own, admittedly-bizarre perspective of the world. 

And for that reason, "this is the one" I'll always remember Tim Burton for. I admire many of his films (namely Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish), but Ed Wood is the one that really gets to me on a deep, emotional level.  It reminds me that failure may be inescapable, even inevitable, but that our response to failure is the thing that separates the real artist from the wannabe or poseur. 

Make the worst movie ever made?  The next one will be better...

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