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Ed Wood (1994)

by on 2011/10/31

“Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”

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If not for the film Ed Wood, my favourite Tim Burton work, hands-down, would be Vincent. In the dawning of his career, Burton met Vincent Price (Laura), in the twilight of his own. The two of them formed a well-known bond, the elder statesman and the artistic young Turk. That early project was an animated poem read aloud by its flattered subject.

It is natural Burton would tell the tale of Ed Wood (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Another indie upstart from a generation before, he too found a kinship in an early silver screen idol, Dracula’s star, Bela Lugosi. In fact, it strikes me as rather less surprising Burton would be involved than Lugosi and Price never appearing in a feature together.

(And, no, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein doesn’t count.)

As described in Burton’s biopic, the fledgling director Ed Wood (Edward Scissorhands’ Johnny Depp) meets Bela Lugosi (Mission: Impossible’s Martin Landau) as an errand boy in Hollywood. Their relationship hinges as much on loneliness as mutual admiration. Through Lugosi, Wood finds a vehicle by which to market his dreams. Through Wood, Lugosi feels returned to relevance.

As the two ascend their rickety, humble ladder of infamy, they each balance their own polar states. On one hand, Wood compares himself to the legendary Orson Welles (Citizen Kane). On the other, he finds profundity in stock footage. Lugosi stubbornly clutches at pride, all the while being destroyed by addiction.

This pair of tragic figures are never quite reduced to pathetic. On the contrary. Their enthusiasm and intensity suggest a kind of heroism. At least, they may not curtail their own — or each other’s — fates, but they make the passage bearable.

The actors’ chemistry energizes their great portrayals. Depp radiates a nearly inexhaustible enthusiasm, relentless yet laid back, and only rarely put to the test. He doesn’t simply try to see the good in everything; he seems unaware there is anything else. If the real Ed Wood ever struggled with angst, it’s barely hinted at here.

Landau shows a different approach, a fierce indignant wilfulness, undimmed for his 74 years. When slighted for his lack of recent success, or compared to Boris Karloff, he snaps and snarls with the energy of an ageless primal beast. Little surprise Landau won an Oscar for embodying the familiar Lugosi, though hardly resembling him physically himself.

The production itself attempts a similar verisimilitude. I could have wished for a grainier stock, but the high contrast black and white is a rare treat nowadays. The sets, props, and visual effects all evoke the era, with special attention paid to lighting, deep focus, and canted angles.

Similarly, the musical score sounds like a product of the very same time. Eschewing his more frequent collaborator Danny Elfman’s crazed circus bombastics, Burton relies on Howard Shore to bring the retro back. And bring it back he does, enlisting a traditional orchestra, complete with bongo drums, organ, and theremin. We even get a generous cameo from the late lounge legend Korla Pandit.

Plus, I love how they worked in Swan Lake as a musical reference to Dracula.

Yes, it’s just that self-aware, but it’s also unconfined by the truth. A fantasy as much as a biography, Ed Wood — and indeed Ed Wood himself — never makes the mistake of trying to be “bad”. In this case, it’s not incompetent, just a portrait of someone widely thought to be. A gentle, generous, sympathetic portrait . . . and “incompetent” is such an ugly term. Can we settle on “easily-distracted optimist” instead?

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Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

127 minutes

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