Dream factory seconds

Mythologizing Hollywood hallucinations

Published: Jun 09 2015, 01:01:am

Friday, October 7, 1994.
ED WOOD. Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Based on incidents in the life of Edward Davis Wood, Jr. Music by Howard Shore. Directed by Tim Burton. Running time: 124 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning "occasional very coarse and suggestive language."
    Director Tim (Batman) Burton's fantasy-biography is a wonderfully idiosyncratic vision that strikes all the right emotional and intellectual notes. A true dream-weaver, this master of modern myth imparts a sure touch to the (almost) true story of Edward Davis Wood, Jr., a talent-challenged filmmaker undaunted by the overwhelming odds facing fringe artists in 1950s Hollywood.
    Some filmgoers will love it for the performances. Industry touts are already proclaiming Martin Landau an Academy Award front-runner for his heart-rending portrayal of the drug-addicted Bela Lugosi.
    Landau is part of a first-rate cast that includes Jeffrey Jones as the sonorous psychic Criswell, Sarah Jessica Parker as Wood's girlfriend, and truly awful leading lady, Dolores Fuller, Bill Murray as wistful, would-be transsexual "Bunny" Breckinridge, and Patricia Arquette as tolerant Kathy O'Hara, Wood's eventual true love.
    Wood, best known as the writer-director of the "world's worst movie," 1959's Plan 9 From Outer Space, is played to perfection by Johnny Depp. He disappears so thoroughly into the character — a broad, relentlessly upbeat interpretation combining Ronald Reagan with a generic game show host — that I had to remind myself that he's the same actor who had the title role in Burton's previous film fantasy, Edward Scissorhands.
    Some will love it for its film lore. Drawing upon his gift for dark romanticism, Burton offers us the best movie about the movies since Robert Altman's The Player.
    Though Ed Wood operated well outside the Hollywood mainstream, he and his colleagues shared the same dreams as the high-priced help in the major studios. Cult film fans will delight in the way screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski connect the characters' lives with the (attempted) art of Wood's midnight hits Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9.
    Burton presents Wood's story in the style of the man's own black-and-white features. Though we're well aware that the real Wood led a tragic, even tortured life, Burton's genius is to give him the dignity of his own eternal optimism and show us the transforming power of the movies on ordinary human lives.
    Or, as in the case of heterosexual cross-dresser Wood and his looney tunes entourage, on some not so ordinary (but still very human) lives. Filmgoers already familiar with Wood's work will smile when Dolores frets over her missing pink angora sweater.
    What I loved is the way Burton's heartfelt homage to Wood ends up being a bittersweet tribute to Lugosi. The relationship between the never-say-die director and the sick-and-dying performer is at the heart of his period fantasy.
    Lugosi, old, worn down and cast aside by the "real" world, is grateful to share in the contagious enthusiasms of the ingenuous, harmlessly bent young man. Burton builds on this to create a moment of unforgettable dramatic intensity in which Wood helps his friend commit to rehabilitation.
    "My name is Bela Lugosi," the old vampire says. "I have been a drug addict for 20 years. I need help."
    With love and flawless craft, Tim Burton captures the elusive reality of the Hollywood hallucination. As a result, they're now talking about a star on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame for a man named Ed Wood.
    *    *    *
LOSER: LOOK UP THE word in your Filmgoers Companion, and you'll see a picture of Edward Davis Wood, Jr.
    During his lifetime, success eluded this all-American auteur. Critics, if they paid any attention at all, rejected his vision and heaped ridicule upon his independently-made and distributed movies.
    Only death (in November, 1978) spared Wood the humiliation of seeing himself named "the worst director of all time." (That particular superlative was bestowed upon him in the form of a "life achievement award" in the Medved brothers' 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards.)
    A fringe figure in the film business, Wood didn't live to see his 1959 feature Plan 9 From Outer Space become a cult favourite. Nor could he take any comfort from the fact that critics like Vincent Canby were lamenting Hollywood's rejection of cinematic visionaries.
    In July, 1981, Wood's notorious 1953 feature Glen Or Glenda (variously known as I Changed My Sex; Transvestite; and I Led Two Lives) had its first public showing in Vancouver. It was one of three films on a "World's Worst Movies" bill at the Ridge Theatre.
    That same week, Canby wrote in his Sunday New York Times column about the sad lack of self-obsessed auteurs in the U.S. film industry. "Because of the high cost of filmmaking in this country, because of the need to reach the largest possible audience worldwide, Hollywood has never been particularly receptive to personal cinema," said Canby.
    "It cannot afford filmmakers who pursue the same obsessions from film to film and who sometimes indulge in the kind of autobiographical explorations we expect in European film-makers . . . Very rare is the American director who has the power and mania to explore his own psyche with the grace and occasional mercilessness of a Truffaut . . . or with the poetic and economic abandon of a Fellini . . . ."
    Complex, driven and unfailingly American, Pennsylvania-born Ed Wood possessed a vision that was daftly individual. His personal preoccupation was transvestism.
    A former marine and a Second World War combat veteran, Wood arrived in Los Angeles determined to make some sort of statement on the subject. Not unexpectedly, he was fond of wearing women's clothes. A practising cross-dresser before his war service, he claimed to have made Pacific landings wearing a bra and panties under his uniform.
    Wood's "statement" was Glen Or Glenda, a motion picture unique in the annals of personal cinema. Structured as a docudrama, it featured horror movie has-been Bela Lugosi as its scientist-narrator, and starred Wood himself as the entirely heterosexual Glen, a young man troubled by the need to explain his angora sweater fixation to his fiancee.
    Operating on the edge of the "real" movie business, Wood made more than a dozen shoestring exploitation features. Despite his spectacular failure to "break through," he influenced, and even inspired such acknowledged off-the-wall talents as John (Serial Mom) Waters, David (Twin Peaks) Lynch and Tim (Edward Scissorhands) Burton.
    Though he was a loser, he was no quitter. Several distinctively Wood works are currently available from Rhino Home Video, including:
*      Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (1994). Gary Owens narrates an indispensable, not entirely serious documentary examining the life Wood led and the pictures it produced.
*      Jail Bait (a.k.a. Hidden Face; 1955). Steve (Hercules) Reeves is introduced as a homicide detective in this police thriller. The "director's cut" replaces stock footage of a blackface minstrel show with stock footage of a strip teaser.
*      The Violent Years (1956). Wood wrote the screenplay for this out-of-control high-school girl-gang feature. Former teen movie star Mamie Van Doren offers introductory remarks.
*      Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). The sci-fi classic that needs no introduction.
*      Night of the Ghouls (1959). Plan 9 star Vampira (real name: Maila Nurmi) once sued television horror movie hostess Elvira (real name: Cassandra Peterson) for stealing her schtick. She lost. Elvira introduces this sequel to Wood's own Bride of the Monster.
*      Orgy of the Dead (1965). Plan 9 narrator Criswell (real name: Charles Jared Criswell) stars in this full-colour adaptation of a sexploitational Wood novel. In it, a succession of strippers dance for hell's gatekeeper.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1994. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: The same week the Ed Wood feature went into release, fans of the director's work were petitioning the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, administrators of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to add a star in his honour. Since 1994, both Johnny Depp (1999) and Martin Landau (2001) have been recognized with official sidewalk plaques. Ed Wood fans are still waiting. Those who said Landau would be among the year's Oscar contenders were right. Not only was he nominated (in the supporting actor category) but he won. Landau had the added pleasure of appearing in a successful picture in which his daughter Juliet had a featured role. She would go on to fame as the vampire Drusilla in television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and its spin-off series Angel (2000-2004). As for Depp, Ed Wood was his second feature with Tim Burton. They first worked together on 1990's Edward Scissorhands, an original, somewhat disturbing fantasy about a teen who has scissors for hands. Thereafter, they collaborated on Burton's singular adaptation of the American classic Sleepy Hollow (1999), his Willy Wonka remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and the animated Corpse Bride (also 2005). Depp sang in Burton's screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). He has since appeared in Burton's re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland (2010) and a feature version of television's vampire soap opera Dark Shadows (2012). Johnny Depp is celebrating his 52nd birthday today (June 9) in Australia, where his is filming Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, his fifth turn in the Jack Sparrow role.