Thursday, April 8, 2010
TEFB REVISITS: ED WOOD
Blogger: Mark Pezzula
Movie: Ed Wood
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker
I'd like to get a column started here on The Everything Film Blog called "TEFB Revists." "TEFB Revists" will be occasional blogs written by myself and the other TEFB contributors that will give us a chance to revisit (natch!) a film that we haven't seen in awhile but would like to write about. It's a column that's meant to examine films without rose tinted glasses on. Some will hold up. Some won't. Some films get better with age, some age like Courtney Love. It's fascinating for me to come back to film that I haven't viewed in quite some time and be able to watch it in the context of the filmmakers subsequent works, previous works I hadn't seen, and what I've learned about film criticism and filmmaking since my last viewing. So, without further ado, here is the first entry in what I hope to be the ongoing column, TEFB Revisits.
I consider the spring/summer of 1996 as the period in my life that most influenced my die-hard interest in film. I was ending my softmore year of high-school, and during the few weeks of Regents examinations, when test times fluxuated and days off from school were numerous and welcomed, I would spend hours watching rented films (from the local independent video store Super Video) and familiarizing myself with different styles, genres, and names of filmmakers while my parents worked. Interview With the Vampire. Four Weddings and a Funeral. Reservoir Dogs. Blue Velvet. Among countless others, these were films I grabbed off the shelves, whether because I liked the box art, I had read about them somewhere, or I had heard about them through cultural ozmosis. This was the spring/summer I learned, without realizing it, that in order to have a firm grasp on the art of filmmaking, you have to be open to every kind of film.
One film that struck me in particular was the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration Ed Wood (their second). I was slightly familiar with Burton (through his Batman and Edward Scissorhands work, and also with Depp (through Scissorhands and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) but had no concept of the talent either possessed or that both were considered hot properties in Hollywood. Back then I barely knew what a director did, and as long as an actor looked cool I thought a fantastic job was done. I had absolutely no idea who Ed Wood was before the film was released, but when I saw the trailer and noticed he had something to do with making movies and the film was in black and white (that intrigued me for some reason) I was sold. After I watched the movie (on VHS - remember those, old folk?) I was hooked.
The first aspect of the film that got me hung up on it 14 years ago was the performance by Depp. As portrayed by the actor, Ed Wood has an infectious zeal that I couldn't help but be overjoyed by. Depp's facial expressions as the hapless but determined director actually had an influence on the way I would command my face to react to certain situations, and sometimes I would try to mimic Depp's cadence in the film (still do). My 15 year old mind was also hooked on the quotability of the script - Depp, Bill Murray, Martin Landau, and some of the supporting characters have lines that are pretty much ingrained in my vocabulary. I also took to the black and white and minimalist style of the film, which was purposefully shot to look like a film from the 1950's. That was interesting to me. I had never seen a modern film made to look...old before.
Ed Wood tells the story of the worst director in the world. It's a biopic, and the real Edward D. Wood Jr. made countless films that are largely considered terrible but watchable. He is considered to have made the worst movie of all time - Plan 9 From Outerspace (note: in all honesty, it's bad, but not the worst ever), and from the film gained a cult following and a hero to filmmakers who don't have much talent, but have a lot of heart.
The film begins with an introduction by Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) who, in an ode to Wood's films, pops out of a coffin to ask us "can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood Jr.?" Then, after a fun opening credits sequence involving the camera tracking through a graveyard with the cast and crew names on tombstones (done up in the style of a '50's horror film and that plays to what is certainly one of Howard Shore's best scores), the camera settles on Wood, pacing outside of a Hollywood theater, desperate to get the press to his latest play. When he brings his cast and crew to a diner after the production and lets them read the first review, we first see the optimism inherintly ingrained in Wood. Although his work is panned, the director chooses to focus on the one positive thing the reviewer had to say about it: the costumes were realistic. "I've read worse reviews. I've read reviews where they didn't even mention the costumes!", exclaims Wood.
It is this optimism and Edward D. Wood Jr's ever present enthusiastic determination in the face of obstacles (and complete lack of talent) that give the film its heart. While I imagine the real Ed Wood wasn't as effervescent as the film version (apparently the script glosses over Wood's darker period), there's no denying that Depp's portrayal is smile inducing. Wood overcomes angry producers, difficult cast members, indifferent crew members, a critical girlfriend, and shifty financiers, all while acting as if the sun is always out and clouds don't exist. When he finally does snap, the script has him finding comfort in angora sweaters and blond wigs, and Wood's tantrum lasts about as long as it takes for him to take a shot of whiskey.
Throughout the film, Wood's everlasting go-get-'em attitude is balanced by his friendship with the depressed and aging Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in an Academy Award winning performance). Wood first stumbles upon Lugosi as Lugosi is "trying out" coffins in a local funeral home. "It's too constrictive", says Bela, climbing out of the wooden burial box. "I can't even fold my arms in this thing!" Wood, awestruck at the chance to meet his idol, strikes up a conversation with the horror star, and the two become fast friends. It's a touching friendship, and the morose, suicidal Lugosi (who is also addicted to morphine) is Wood's (and the audience's) reality anchor. While Wood seems to spend most of his time on another plane, fearless and convinced that the impossible is possible in Hollywood, Lugosi represents the hard truth: the town can just as easily destroy the creativity and fame that it builds.
That's not to say that the film (with a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) is a cynical, anti-Hollywood screed. In fact, it's the opposite. It takes an 180 degree approach that films like The Player and Wag the Dog take. Ed Wood isn't a film concerned with tossing in as many "inside" Tinseltown jokes as possible. It's actually very much pro-Hollywood. It's a tribute to the films and filmmakers of that era, and a tribute to every filmmaker with the courage to get their vision to the screen by any means necessary, no matter how many misfits they were surrounded by.
Speaking of misfits, Ed Wood is filled with them. The crew Wood surrounds himself with are just as delusional about their successes as their leader, but their every bit as endearing. Bill Murray gets the shaft as Wood's best friend, the openly gay (and would-be gender reclassification candidate) Bunny Breckinridge. Watching the film again recently, I never noticed how much Murray just kind of floats in and out of the picture, with no real purpose. While he's funny (and again, very quotable), the film would be no different had the character of Bunny Breckinridge been cut from the script.
Another underdeveloped (but more necessary) character is Dolores Fuller, Wood's girlfriend. As played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Fuller is a critical, joyless sitcom housewife, who berates Wood when he spills his cross-dressing secret to her. Parker isn't terrible in the role, but she comes across as practically unbearable in some scenes. I suppose she's written that way in order to create more conflict for the mostly unflappable Wood, but it appears the screenwriters turned a well-rounded character into an obstacle for the protagonist.
For all of the short-straws givin to the lesser players, it can't be stressed enough how much this film soars on the work of Depp and Landau. I'd even go so far as to say they're one of the greatest acting match-ups of the 90's, and maybe of the last few decades. They share scenes that go from deeply touching to hilarious and then back again, sometimes within a time frame of a few minutes.
Credit for that must be given to Tim Burton as well. The least stylistic of all of this films, Ed Wood is Burton's crowning achievement. Devoid of all (or most) of what would normally make a Burton film recognizable as such, Ed Wood was Burton's first film that focused on character and not on style. (Some may argue that Edward Scissorhands deals more with character than style. Bullpucky, I say. Scissorhands is chock full of style and little else.) Looking back at the film after being subjected to movie after movie of Burton's artistic fetishes, it's hard to believe Ed Wood has the same director as Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland. After reviewing his filmography, I'm going on record as saying Ed Wood is Tim Burton's only truly great film.
Coming back to the movie all these years later, I was worried that I had rose tinted glasses on whenever I would think of it or talk about it with such high regard. I was happy to be proven wrong. While I noticed things I had not noticed when I was 15 (such as the short-changing of Murray's character and the hurried introduction of third act love-interest Patricia Arquette), the film is still as uplifting and inspiring (without even trying hard) as the first time I saw it. There's a scene towards the end of the film in which Wood takes his new girlfriend Kathy (Patricia Arquette) to a fair. As they walk and Wood beams when talking about pulp comics and movies, Howard Shores score swells and, for a moment, I become 15 again, hooked by the magic of filmmaking. Here is that scene (it occurs at 5:30 in the clip below):
And here's the trailer: