Edward D. Wood (Johnny Depp) is scraping and clawing in the Hollywood jungle in the 1950s. The wanna-be writer/director has passion, a lot of ideas, an eccentric personality and an unshakable optimistic drive to get his vision on cinema screens.
It’s his unique combination of characteristics that manages him to get his foot in the door and he succeeds at directing his own feature films, all with his distinctive stamp. Unfortunately, talent in filmmaking is one thing Ed Wood is sorely lacking.
Nevertheless, Wood is able to attract a bizarre caravan of misfits who believe in him and his outlandish cheap monster and sci-fi movies he wants to make. Wood even manages to befriend aging horror icon Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), who is desperate for work and soon becomes a star player in Wood’s cinematic epics – even after he dies!
Wood would eventually find himself bestowed the strange honor of being considered the worst director ever and the man who made the worst movie ever made – the 1959 film Plan 9 From Outer Space, which would garner a cult-like following decades later after his death.
Ed Wood might not have possessed much talent for cinema, but his passion and drive can’t be denied. His story is told through the eyes of director Tim Burton, who manages to make this oddball director someone you want to root for and admire him for accomplishing his goals. Ed Wood’s story becomes an inspirational tale – with Angora sweaters as the wardrobe.
Looking back on Ed Wood, it’s almost unreal Burton ever managed to get the film made. It’s a black and white small budget bio pic about an obscure cult figure. It is certainly not a film any major studio was interested in making at the time and weren’t very encouraged that it would set the box office ablaze.
However, Burton did manage to get the green light for it and expectedly it didn’t become a financial hit. What it did do was receive a wonderful critical response and would go on to score Landua an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It would enjoy a legacy as being often cited as one of Burton’s best films, introduced a new generation to the bizarre world of Ed Wood and became something of a beloved cult hit – a very appropriate status in the world of Ed Wood.
Had Burton not been at the peak in his career following the successes of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns – he had a great successful run – Ed Wood probably never would have happened. It was only due to Burton’s clout, that any studio would acquiesce to his desire to make this film. Today, a film about Ed Wood could more easily be made on some streaming service, but in 1994, a theatrical studio film, with a popular director behind the camera….it’s pretty extraordinary that it exists.
Burton did manage to get the green light for it and expectedly it didn’t become a financial hit. What it did do was receive a wonderful critical response and would go on to score Landua an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. It would enjoy a respected legacy, often being said to be one of Burton’s best films, one of Depp’s most memorable performances and introduced a new generation to the bizarre world of Ed Wood.
Ed Wood is one of the funniest, most sincere films about Hollywood, it’s filled with very good performances from top to bottom and Burton’s unique touch suits the tone. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski frame Wood’s story and his inept films as an inspirational fairy tale.
The pair would later write a very similar film Dolemite Is My Name, about Billy Ray Moore’s unorthodox film career. Actually, that film would make an appropriate double-feature with Ed Wood.
After watching Ed Wood, you no longer think of him as simply some hack director, but someone who had a dream, fought to make it happen and ultimately succeeded – with cardboard headstones, paper flying saucers, a rubber octopus and reels of old stock footage.
In one of their many Burton/Depp collaborations, Depp plays Wood as a fast-talking, smiling wannabe ‘filmmaker’ who is equal parts dreamer and conman. I’ve read that Depp created his performance from a combination of Ronald Reagan, Casey Kasem, a ventriloquist dummy and the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.
However, he came up with his interpretation of Wood, it’s very fun as we watch him schmooze studio execs, lure actors to his projects and shares a drink with fellow director Orson Welles – at least in Burton’s version of the story.
It might not have been exactly how Wood was in reality. But after watching the film and how Depp plays him, it’s the way you wish Wood really was.
While the films focus is on Wood making his art and being unwavering in his pursuit to put his vision onto movie screens, the friendship between him and aging and out of work Dracula icon Bela Lugosi is the emotional heart of the movie.
While half the people in Hollywood won’t hire the washed up actor and the other half think Lugosi died years ago, Wood views him differently. He views him as a legend, who getting him to act in one of his movies and becoming his friend, is the ultimate honor.
Landau won the Oscar for his love letter performance as the elder Lugosi – and he deserved it! While he might not have looked exactly like him, Landau’s performance quickly overshadows any shortcomings he might have in his Lugosi appearance and will soon have you accepting – HE IS BELA LUGOSI!
He manages to capture Lugosi’s voice doing tirades and swearing about Boris Karloff, which is very funny and became quote-worthy lines lone before being used as internet memes.
But Lugosi is also a sad tragic figure. There’s some heartbreaking moments watching his physical decline and drug addiction. All the while performing for Wood in subpar films and feeling bitter he should be acting in better films, like his nemesis Karloff is getting.
Why is it that this goofy Wood is the only one who is taking him seriously? Lugosi has an air of respectability that he believes he’s earned, but under his current situation he has to push that aside and flail around with a fake octopus for Wood.
Depp and Landau are the two main characters, but they’re joined by a cast of oddball supporting characters who fill out Ed Wood’s world.
Wood assembles his motley crew of misfits to bring his dreams alive. Tor Johnson, a mumbling wrestling, Vampira, the sexy, gothic horror host, The Amazing Criswell, the mystical clairvoyant. Longtime Wood fans will be familiar with them.
In addition, Wood has his own love interests. Girlfriends Dolores Fuller, a wannabe actress who’s embarrassed by Wood’s subpar talents and goofy quirks and later Kathy O’Hara, who openly accepts his transvestism and penchant of wearing Angora sweaters.
Jeffrey Jones, Max Casella, Lisa Marie, George ‘The Animal’ Steele, Juliet Landau, Patricia Arquette, Brent Hinkley, Max Casella, Bill Murray Mike Starr, Vincent D’Onofrio and Sarah Jessica Parker, where is one of the few times I actually enjoy her in this.
There are some fun details and stories that the film dramatizes about Ed Wood’s life. Some of the strange incidents from the making of his films and his own eccentricities that have become legend and which has helped secure Wood’s legacy.
There are some quite good recreations of scenes from Plan 9, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster. It’s clear Burton and the filmmakers took great care in trying to be as close as possible recreating for instance the Plan 9 graveyard yet, with wobbly tombstones and all!
How accurate is Ed Wood? Well, long before it was released my friends and I were already well versed in ‘Ed Wood lore’. So, when we went to see it when it was released we spotted some inaccuracies.
It does present Wood’s story as a bit overly optimistic and makes all the characters more sympathetic underdogs than what they really were. Famously, Lugosi’s son criticized some of the portrayal done to his father, saying he never swore and never slept in coffins.
Also, the film fades out a before Wood reached his latter ‘soft porn’ phase of films and conveniently leaves that out. There’s no mention of Orgy of the Dead! Probably smart. It would be kind of difficult to end on a satisfying high not with its inclusion.
There’s always has to be some expected artistic liberties taken with ‘true stories’ or ‘bio pics’ that are brought to the screen. There are some juggling with the timeframe and no, Wood never met Orson Welles.
But I feel it’s negligible since the point of the story of Ed Wood is to make him this blundering anti-hero and dreamer who you want to see succeed at the end of his journey – no matter how cheap and schlocky his dream is he wanted to make.
Ed Wood is a very funny and heartwarming in its own kooky way. It’s one of those films I can reliably revisit and quickly get caught up with all the weird characters and behind the scenes antics of making D-level movies, all the while being accompanied by theremin score. Afterwards it always makes me want to watch a real Ed Wood film.
Yes, Ed Wood is one of Burton’s best films. Wood would be proud!
“CUT! PRINT! WE’RE MOVING ON!!!”