Movies You Might Have Missed: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood

Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi and Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in Tim Burton's 'Ed Wood'
Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi and Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in Tim Burton's 'Ed Wood'

The Disaster Artist, an endearing tale of friendship about the making of The Room, a film generally considered one of the worst ever made, was one of the surprise hits of last year. Praised for its unique style and genuine warmth, the Oscar contender was not without precedent. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) lovingly tells the story of one of the worst directors in the history of the medium and his friendship with Bela Lugosi, the man who immortalised Dracula on screen.

Burton has said he was drawn to the story because Wood’s relationship with Lugosi reminded him of his own friendship with Vincent Price late in the actor’s life. The decision to shoot in black and white saw Columbia Pictures drop the project and Walt Disney Studios step in and, though the film was a box office bomb, Burton can feel vindicated. Ed Wood celebrates the spirit of its subject’s 1950s exploitation pictures in both its tone and the stylised performances of its leads, not least Johnny Depp in the title role and the great Martin Landau as Lugosi (a performance for which the latter won his only Academy Award).

It is easy to see why Burton would feel drawn to the man who made Plan 9 from Outer Space, another contender for the worst film in history. Wood might not have been a talented filmmaker but what comes through in his own work and this biopic is an undeniable love of cinema. In Depp’s hands, the character is a wide-eyed optimist who believes every take is perfect, regardless of the most obvious blunders. He feels a kinship with Orson Welles because both are outsiders determined to realise their idiosyncratic vision without quite seeing the obvious differences between the two auteurs.

The most remarkable aspect of Ed Wood is how much of it is drawn directly from life. The director’s decision to have his wife’s chiropractor stand-in for the recently deceased Lugosi in Plan 9 while holding a cape over his face might seem too good to be true but, in this case, the truth is stranger than fiction. As with The Room, does it really matter that Ed Wood’s movies are not exactly high art? Decades after they were made, they continue to enchant audiences all over the world and that’s surely as much as any artist can hope for. Ed Wood is an affectionate homage that introduced a whole new generation to the work of a truly unique filmmaker and for that we should be grateful.

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