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April 23, 2009

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Movie Review – Ed Wood (1994)

by NIR SHALEV

ed_wood

Edward D. Wood Jr. is commonly credited as the worst film director of all time. Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) are two of his most popular (bad) films, but neither is as popular as the semi-autobiographical Glen or Glenda (1953). Wood starred in it and spoke to the world of his angora fetish and of his comfort in cross-dressing. Due to a lack of runs in theaters audiences had not found out about his great secret.

Ed Wood was a writer and director who wrote schlock, sold it for cheap, and directed it for even cheaper. As a director he was grossly untalented, lacking any education in the fundamentals of filmmaking and as a writer he wrote screenplays about mutations, monsters, and UFOs. In the early years of the grindhouse cinema Ed Wood presented America with low-budget, forgettable pictures that showcased terrible special effects and acting. He also tried to sell those horror film screenplays to producers who were looking for good dramas with known actors. Ed Wood had no talent as a director, no imagination as a writer, and no knowledge as to how to finance a movie.

He was in love with every shot from every one of his films and he had memorized every single line of dialogue he ever spoke, even from back in his early days in theater. He announced “action” and “cut” almost under the same breath and usually it was intended for the cameraman. The actors, to Wood, were always perfect and they never needed to study their characters, and like aforementioned, every shot was perfect. Ed Wood never shot more than one “take.”

Director Tim Burton may not have been a fan of Wood’s work, but he found his life and enthusiasm for the job to be interesting enough subjects to inspire a biopic, Ed Wood.

Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood to the tee; he wears his persona casually like Ed Wood wore angora to comfort himself when he was nervous. Depp speaks with a voice like that of a nerd, dresses in leisure suits, and wears a thin mustache. Whenever he unveils his cross-dressing secret to others it he says it very casually like it’s an everyday thing. And most reply with curiosity as to whether he’s gay or “a fruit.” Depp, as Wood casually replies, “No, I’m very fond of the ladies” and wears a casual smile.

Martin Landau received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar statue for portraying Bela Lugosi in his twilight years. Addicted to morphine for decades and suffering from senility Bela continued to act in lesser films for money and for the feel of who he used to be. Paradoxically, after performing he’d hit a sort of depression and would resort to abusing his body with morphine again and again. And when his funds were depleted he’d call up Ed and ask for help.

A major part of the film is Ed Wood’s relationship with Bela. The film has them meet in a coffin store as Bela is trying to find one that is comfortable. Angrily he claims that there’s not enough arm room in one. Whenever Ed Wood approaches a producer and mentions the name “Bela Lugosi” they reply with a remark similar to “Isn’t he dead?” Wood replies with, “No, he’s very much alive,” and he is stunned at the question. But Wood hears the question asked too often afterward and eventually grows tired of hearing it asked. Bela worked with Ed from 1955 to 1959, appearing in 3 of his movies.

Ed Wood is shot in glorious black and white but without all the gloss of a Hollywood studio project. Burton uses the black and white cinematography to evoke the barebones aesthetic of Ed Wood’s cheap films and the era in which they were made. On comparing black and white films from the 40’s and 50’s to this one would notice that the directing style is similar, in the way that the camera is always still and that the compositions look great; dolly tracks are also used to maneuver the camera around the Hollywood back lots of L.A. showcasing the playground and era that Ed Wood had worked in.

The makeup on the actors’ faces is heavily evident as a) homage as to how “fake” movies are in general and b) how fake Ed Wood’s movies were. Pock marks are seen even on female faces and the generic wrinkles appear everywhere. The lighting is of very harsh tones creating dark shadows everywhere, superimposing the feel of a “fake” world; a veil that has been pulled over our eyes and made our favorite film stars gorgeous and indispensable.

Burton invokes a feel of the ordinary when showcasing Wood and his troupe shooting mostly within studios. These oddballs accepted each other completely creating the sense of normalcy even as they make a movie like Glen or Glenda. The crew and cast work together comfortably except for Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), who finds Wood more and more repulsive as their relationship develops. Apparently she had found out his “secret” just after reading his completed screenplay for Glen or Glenda. When she left him another woman took the role of girlfriend, Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette). Other peculiar characters in this film include Ed Wood’s good pal and eccentric gay socialite Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray) and the famous faux psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones).

After the eventual failure of Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood looked to financiers from all around the state. He would do anything to raise money to keep making his movies, like scamming oil-rich cowboys. At one point he and his troupe actually get baptized at a Baptist church just so he could milk the church for cash.

There is a scene in the third act that showcases with alarming detail the “reproduction” of Plan 9 from Outer Space. At one point, Wood loses his cool and runs out to the nearest pub only to bump into Orson Welles, his idol. The actor playing Welles is Vincent D’Onofrio with voiceover work by Maurice LaMarche. The resemblance is uncanny and the voice is astonishingly similar. THAT is how passionate Tim Burton is when it comes to recreating the past without glorifying everything. And for trivia’s sake, the encounter is entirely fictitious.

This is not just a biopic on a peculiar character; this is a competent 50’s period piece. Women only wear dresses and men have their hair stiffly combed and wear suits and fedoras. This film also mentions the so called “Atomic Age” and it incorporates the creepy UFO music as a big part of its soundtrack, made popular by Wood’s UFO movies and others. Taboos are rearing their ugly heads and Hollywood is a nasty system of producers, contracts, and “talent.”

Optimism is all that Ed Wood has to live on and it’s a miracle that he managed to survive (in the business) for as long as he did. His movies are now remembered as “hilarious” as opposed to “creepy” or “frightening” and a cult following has developed for Glen or Glenda and Plan 9. Ed Wood’s films distinguish what filmmaking should be about in the sense that they are opposing what makes good movies good. We can see that the backgrounds are fake and that the actors lack enthusiasm so we can learn from his movies how to make good ones. Maybe a selection of his films should be shown in film history classes just before showing Citizen Kane.

Read more from Movie Reviews, Nir Shalev
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 24 2009

    EXCELLENT review…and you’ve given me an idea!!!!!

  2. Miriam
    Apr 27 2009

    The black and white photography was used to very good effect unlike the Coen brothers faux noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which should have been shot in glorious black and white but was only bleached and looked all wrong.

  3. Nir Shalev
    Apr 28 2009

    You’re right about “The Man Who Wasn’t There” but you have to admit that Billy-Bob Thornton really looked like a charactcer from the 50’s.

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