Friday, November 19, 2010

ED WOOD (1994): Film About the “Worst” Film Director

ED WOOD: Film About the “Worst” Film Director

I would have a difficult time calling anyone a “failure” that was doing exactly what he wanted.  Ed Wood liked to make films.  That he populated his films with characters that were space aliens, zombies and husbands who enjoyed wearing their wives’ Andorra sweaters, speaks as much to Wood’s sense of fun as to his eccentricity.  When the American Film Institute (AFI) released its listing of the one-hundred greatest movies of all time, it included Star Wars, King Kong, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Duck Soup and Frankenstein.  When speaking of sci-fi or horror film insanity, what makes these movies any less crazy than those that Ed Wood produced?  And for that matter, I would rather watch Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 From Outer Space than The Graduate, Amadeus, The Sound of Music, Tootsie or Dances with Wolves (all movies selected by the AFI committee).  What Ed Wood lacked as a director to make his movies any better was a larger budget.  That does not make his movies any worse than multi-million dollar melodramas.
The movie, Ed Wood, portrays Wood as a naïve and guileless filmmaker forced by budget restraints to make his movies quickly and who never understood the intricate details as to how to make a movie right.  Most of the scenes in his movies were filmed in one take.  Most of the dialogue sounds wooden if not campy.  Wood was willing to allow anyone to star in his movies if it meant being provided with more financial backing.  He even changed the name of his masterpiece film, Grave Robbers from Outer Space to Plan 9 From Outer Space, to preserve the financing from a Los Angeles Church.  Ed Wood portrayed Wood under the delusion that Plan 9 From Outer Space was somehow on par with Citizen Kane.  Wood even meets Orson Welles at one point in a scene in a restaurant, and Welles tells the star struck Wood to never compromise on his movie ideals.
I had never taken the opportunity to watch any of Ed Wood’s films before watching the movie, Ed Wood.  Obviously, the movies were low budget and never meant to be taken seriously.  Those who call his films “unintentionally funny” must be deluding themselves to think that Ed Wood actually had no sense of humor.  A moviemaker does not throw in all sorts of creatures on screen in all sorts of absurd circumstances without poking fun back at the critics.  Yet that’s not the same thing as saying the films are bad or merit no respect.  Ed Wood devoted his life to films to the point of almost going broke.  Ed Wood ably portrays a man who would not do anything else than what he was doing.  We will never know if he could have done it better with a little extra cash, but my guess is that he would have improved upon his films.  He could have hired more than one real named actor to play in his films.  Obviously, the special effects that he had to improvise upon right there on the set would have been improved upon.
The movie, Ed Wood, released in 1994 stars Johnny Depp as Ed Wood, Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge (a early star who desired a sex change operation), Lisa Marie as Vampira, Jeffrey Jones as Crizwell (the psychic), George “The Animal” Steele (a professional wrestler) as Tor Johnson (another professional wrestler) and Patricia Arquette as Ed Wood’s later wife.  All of these characters have their issues, almost all of them are publicity seekers and/or hucksters, all are desperate for a little extra cash, and all are willing to help Ed Wood make his movies.  The movie takes us through the making of Ed Wood’s great trilogy of films, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space.  More importantly, it traces Ed Wood’s close relationship to former film great, Bela Lugosi.  Lugosi was close to the end of his life, living in a hovel of a home, addicted to morphine and badly in debt.  Ed Wood gives the washed up Lugosi parts in his movies and helps have him admitted to a mental hospital so that he can get off of the drugs.  (Whether Ed Wood in actuality was trying to help out Lugosi or to exploit him to bring publicity upon Wood’s own films is a matter of debate.  Lugosi’s son complained that Wood was exactly doing that, though it doesn’t appear that anyone in Lugosi’s family was willing to help him out, either.)
Director, Tim Burton, filmed Ed Wood in black and white to give it the feel of a period piece.  His casting of Landau as Lugosi was perfect, though Depp was disappointing in his quirkiness.  Depp as Wood comes across as a bit too well meaning and inept rather than sinister or opportunistic in his efforts to create publicity for himself.  (In this, I think he gets the character of Ed Wood wrong because Wood somehow managed to get his films released.)  The remainder of the cast is able if not memorable in their roles.  Yet the relationship of Lugosi and Wood is well portrayed.  If it’s true that Lugosi was able to get himself off of his addiction to drugs towards the end of his life (as apparently may have been the case), then his relationship with Ed Wood was a positive one.  Lugosi otherwise would have died a lonely man.
In my opinion, the AFI and its compilation of movie recommendations has done more damage to the film industry than Ed Wood could ever have done by design.  To believe that a committee can ever arrive at a listing of movies that is not greatly comprised of mediocre films is to misunderstand how committees are formed.  Four out of every five individuals want to “go with the flow” and be like everyone else, and so four out of every five members on a committee are going to select banality for their favorite movies.  I’ll take a likeable eccentric like Ed Wood any day (even if he was incompetent) over anyone making a piece of formula crap.  So, even if director Tim Burton didn’t get the motives quite right as to why Ed Wood made his films, at least he paints a sympathetic and comic portrait of the man.

November 30, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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