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ED WOOD (1994)

Following Batman Returns, Tim Burton returned to smaller filmmaking with his next directorial project.


The real Ed Wood

The script for the film was based on the life of the filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. who, as everyone should know by now, directed what are commonly thought of as some of the worst movies ever made, including the classic Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

Off-screen Wood's life was just as interesting - he was a cross dresser who wore women's undergarments in World War II. Wood and his films were almost forgotten at the time of his death, and it wasn't until the Golden Turkey Awards highlighted the "unique" quality of his films that Wood finally found the fame that eluded him in life.

The biographical film was going to be directed by Michael Lehmann initially, but then producer Denise DiNovi took the project to Burton to see if he wanted to lend his support. Burton, who was actually in Wood's hometown of Poughkeepsie reading a book about the filmmaker, “Nightmare of Ecstasy”, was so enthusiastic he decided to direct it himself. Lehmann agreed to step aside if Burton made it his next project, and he retained executive producer credit on the film.

Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tailored their script to Burton, which could have backfired disastrously if he had rejected it. One of the main ways they did this was by playing up the relationship between Wood and Bela Lugosi to parallel that between Burton and Vincent Price.

As the writers say in their introduction to the book edition of the screenplay, "Both Ed and Tim had worshipped the respective horror stars when they were young boys. Then they had met the actors and finally gotten to work with them at the end of their lives. This gave our movie an emotional foundation which we felt Tim would empathise." The writers, who had written the ill received (at least critically) film Problem Child were quite amused that they were collaborating with Lehmann (who had directed the infamous flop Hudson Hawk) on a film about the worst filmmaker of all time.

Burton was a fan of Ed Wood before it became hip to mock him. He recalls seeing Plan 9 From Outer Space growing up and thinking that, since the film makes references to Burbank, the cemetery in the film was the one he lived near. Burton clearly felt an affinity with the filmmaker, since many of his own films had been less than favourably received by critics. Hence the film would be a celebration of, rather than a mockery of Wood's career.

The film had a small budget of $18 million (though still about 200 times the budget of any of Wood's movies) and was originally going to be released by Columbia pictures. Burton was also set to direct the gothic horror film Mary Reilly for the studio (with Winona Ryder playing Dr. Jekyll’s maid) and he suspected they were only interested in Ed Wood so they could get him to direct the more commercial movie.

However, when Burton decided he wanted to film Ed Wood in black and white to match the monochrome world of Wood and Lugosi's films, the studio insisted he shoot color for the international markets and transfer it to black and white for the domestic release (which would have looked "like shit" in Burton's words). Burton stuck to his guns and the studio refused to finance the film. Burton abandoned Columbia, and Mary Reilly, and took Ed Wood to Touchstone.

It was somewhat absurd that Disney, which had restrained his creativity early in his career, was now the only studio willing to release his films. As Burton commented at a press conference in 1993, he felt like he was "in some sort of parallel universe". Mary Reilly was later released in 1996 with Julia Roberts in the starring role. It flopped.

Despite these problems (Ed Wood was the hardest of any of Burton's films to get off the ground), the actual production went fairly smoothly. The cast included familiar faces such as Johnny Depp and Jeffrey Jones, as well as new actors eager to work with Burton like Martin Landau, Bill Murray and Lisa Marie, Burton's girlfriend at the time.

As lightning strikes the Touchstone logo the film begins. Following an introduction from Criswell in a scary house, the main titles feature elements taken from Wood's own movies. The actor's names on gravestone was used in the opening of Plan 9 From Outer Space, the flying saucers were also in that movie and the octopus is taken from Bride of the Monster (1955).

Finally the camera tracks down through a miniature of Hollywood (squeezing together various landmarks that are miles apart in reality), ending on a live action shot of Ed Wood and actor Bunny Breckinridge outside the Casual Company theatre. The storyline (all based on 'sworn testimony') wisely restricts itself to covering Edward Wood, Jr. in the making of his three most infamous films.
Ed worries that, at 30, his opportunity to make it as a filmmaker is rapidly vanishing (Orson Welles was only 26 when he made Citizen Kane). This is something all struggling artists can relate to. When Ed learns that there is a film being made about real life sex change sensation Christine Jorgensen he pitches himself as the perfect director for the project, for reasons that will soon become apparent.
This is the beginning of his career in Hollywood, as Ed gathers around him a bizarre collection of characters and proceeds to shoot his films. The most important meeting is with Bela Lugosi, the ageing horror star that Ed encounters in a coffin he's trying out for his latest touring production of Dracula. After telling Bela that he's "much scarier in real life", the two soon quickly bond over how much scarier the old horror movies were.

Ed excitedly tells everyone that he can now get Bela to star in his films, but they all seem disinterested. Ed later gets to watch White Zombie (1932) with Bela (a real geek moment), but the former is annoyed at the well-endowed host Vampira constantly interrupting the film.

The film Glen or Glenda (1953) soon gets underway with Bela appearing as the puppet master who will "pull the strings!".

There's a hilarious moment where one of Ed's actors asks for Bela's autograph and makes the mistake of saying Bela was Boris Karloff's sidekick in one film.

Bela then launches into an expletive-laded assault on the English actor who played Frankenstein and was always more successful than Lugosi in Hollywood.


An iconic moment recreated from Glen or Glenda

 

 

There's a genuine glee to Depp's performance as he pitches ideas to an unimpressed executive, including Dr. Acula.

When Ed calls him up later to ask him what he thought of Glen or Glenda, the executive tells him it's the worst movie he ever saw. "Really?" Ed replies with typical enthusiasm. "Well, my next one will be better."


Unlike today's TV psychics, Criswell makes outlandish predictions that are completely made up
 


Bride of the Monster
(as the film will eventually be called) starts shooting and there are more technical problems. Ed finds out that his cameraman is colorblind and Tor has trouble even getting through a doorway without hitting the frame.

However, Ed is happy to leave this in as in real life, "Lobo would have to struggle with that problem every day".

 


Ada Tai and Arlene Tai appear briefly in this scene and would have bigger roles in
Burton's later Big Fish


The film goes back into production and Ed feels so bad about making Bela sit in a cold lake at night wrestling a rubber octopus that he writes a new dialogue scene for him (one of the few examples of competent writing in Ed's career).

There's a disturbing scene of Bela tied down and screaming while he is in the hospital after Ed convinces him to go into rehab.

The film comments on the downside of celebrity, with Bela hounded by press after he checks into rehab. Though this is more of a modern theme than a genuine 1950's one, there was a picture of Lugosi in rehab as he was one of the first celebrities to go public with that kind of problem. No doubt Depp, who has had his own run-ins with the media, enjoyed hurling reporters away in that scene.

While waiting in the hospital Ed meets the sweet-natured Kathy, who goes on a date with Ed to a carnival. The spook house carnival ride is wonderfully designed, featuring Edvard Munch style ghost trains.

When the spook house ride breaks down, Ed takes the opportunity to confess his cross-dressing secret to her. Kathy accepts it without any question, a sign of true love.


Bela gets kicked out of hospital because he has no insurance (thank goodness that's no longer a problem in America) and Ed takes him home.

Bela is eager to make another movie and Ed films a touching scene of Bela leaving his house and pausing to smell the flowers.

The usual gang accompanies Ed to the Bride of the Monster premiere, with the addition of Vampira. The audience riot and a kid grabs Vampira's boobies, forcing them to flee.

Bela does his classic speech on a street corner ("I have no home") and it's the last we see of him. Ed adopts his dogs and treasures the last footage of the actor.

The cast even gets baptised to ensure funding for Wood's next film
 
The Baptists funding Plan 9 From Outer Space are unhappy with the amateurish production, which includes the unintelligible Tor having tons of dialogue and wobbling gravestones. They even get their choir director to play the hero, causing Ed to utter the infamous line, "These baptists are stupid, stupid, stupid!"
When he changes into woman's clothes to relax and the Baptists are horrified, it's the final straw for Ed. He flees to the refuge of a bar. There, still in drag, he meets his hero Orson Welles. Vincent D'Onfrio is an astonishing likeness of Welles in the fictional encounter (though the voice was provided by Pinky and the Brain voice actor Maurice LaMarche).

Thanks to some inspirational words from Welles ("Visions are worth fighting for") Ed returns to set ready to complete his “masterpiece”. There follows a montage of classic scenes from the movie being filmed.

After the premiere of Plan 9 (a triumphant occasion that never occured in real life) Ed decides to marry Kathy.

Following a reverse of the opening Hollywood shot, the end captions reveal the fate of the characters in real life. Of the more interesting histories, we learn that Vampira unsuccessfully sued the very similar TV star Elvira for stealing her act, and Paul Marco was the president of his own fan club.

Turning to the cast, Johnny Depp is very entertaining, this time playing an extroverted outsider instead of an introverted one. Some found his performance slightly one-note, but Depp's gleeful optimism is perfect for the role, and he also shows a more human side in some of his quieter scenes with Bela. Among his inspirations for the role were reportedly Ronald Reagan, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and TV's Casey Kasem.

Sarah Jessica Parker is convincing as the "worst actress ever", though the real Dolores Fuller was much more supportive of Ed than was shown in the film. Bill Murray brings laughs as Ed's trans-sexual friend, Bunny who keeps talking about a sex change operation that he never actually has. The actor was so committed to the role he even waxed his body hair (despite the fact his body was not visible in the film). Lisa Marie (in her first of four feature film collaborations with Burton) does a not bad impression of horror-queen Vampira.

Loretta King (played by Landau's daughter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer actress Juliet Landau) is an amusing character who steals a role in Bride of the Monster from Dolores by giving the false impression she can fund the whole film. She also rather strangely claims she is allergic to all liquids.

Best of all is Martin Landau as drug-addicted Lugosi. Despite bearing little physical resemblance to Lugosi (his face is long compared to Lugosi's round face) he totally transforms himself, becoming the Hungarian actor down on his luck. At least he looks more like Lugosi than the chiropractor Wood used to double for Lugosi in Plan 9.

He did extensive research on Lugosi and his films, and it definitely paid off. Landau didn't just learn how to talk like a Hungarian; he talked like one trying NOT to sound Hungarian. The makeup by Rick Baker subtly transforms Landau into Lugosi without calling attention to itself. The makeup had to be more theatrical to work in black and white.

Ed and Bela have an almost symbiotic relationship and this combination of them needing each other financially yet also becoming close friends keeps the relationship more interesting than a simple buddy movie.

With Ed Wood Burton showed he could direct a "realistic" film (or at least more realistic than his previous ones) while still retaining his quirky edge. The direction of the large ensemble cast was also a great achievement for Burton.

The beautiful black and white visuals make this almost like a biopic made in the style of Ed Wood himself. It's impossible to imagine the film in color, so perfect is the monochromatic design.

The attention to 1950's detail is magnificent, especially in the recreation of Wood's creaky sets. There aren't as many obvious Burtonesque sets as in his other films, though the house in the prologue has a nice spooky design.

Production designer Tom Duffield (who previously served as art director on Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns) created the sets in color despite the monochromatic cinematography, and flying saucer shapes were cleverly hidden in the backgrounds.

There were several scenes removed from both the script and the rough cut of the film. While entertaining in themselves they would have slowed down the pace and distracted from the central relationship between Wood and Lugosi.

Ed Wood would be the first of Burton’s feature films not to feature a score by Danny Elfman. The two reportedly had a falling out after Nightmare that has never been fully explained. To replace Elfman, Burton chose Howard Shore, who has composed the scores for many films by one of Burton's favourite filmmakers, David Cronenberg.

Howard Shore's score is fun and suits the film well. It may not have as immediately a memorable theme as the usual Elfman scores, but it helps to give the film a different feel. It even references some of his creepier scores, such as The Silence of the Lambs, during the darker parts of the film.

Burton's second film about a guy called Ed is one of the closest to the director's heart. It examines his artistic sensibilities on a much more direct level, dealing as it does with another filmmaker. Burton clearly feel a kinship with Wood, and if the film has a message it's that it's better to have a passion for creating something and fail, then to have no passion at all.

The fact that Ed Wood's first film has a poster before there's even a script is obviously something Burton can relate to having worked on big budget films that went into production without a finished script.

While true to the "spirit" of Wood and his films (in the same way Burton's Batman was true to the spirit of the comics without being that accurate to the actual events) the script takes a number of liberties with the true story.

As already mentioned, the real Dolores was not the talentless bitch she is portrayed as by Parker, and Lugosi was in fact married at the time he appeared in Wood's films, not the lonely recluse he is shown as. He also didn’t hate Karloff as portrayed in the film. In fact Bela Lugosi, Jr. objected to the way his father was portrayed in the film, especially the use of bad language.

The meeting between Wood and Orson Welles never happened (as far as anyone knows) and Welles was not forced to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican in Touch of Evil - Heston actually helped Welles get the directing job on that film. These changes were necessary to simplify the story and make the confrontation between Wood and those who don't get his films more overt. As Burton himself has said, even the book “Nightmare of Ecstasy” which chronicles Wood's career features many conflicting reports from different people, meaning there is no one true story.

Trivia time! Burton and Lisa Marie's real life Chihuahua Poppy played one of Bela's dogs. The dog had been found on the streets of Tokyo and would also appear in one more Burton film, Mars Attacks! Two actors from Wood’s own films also appear in Burton’s biopic. Conrad Brooks plays a bartender and Gregory Walcott has a cameo as a potential backer.

While some would argue that Wood was undeserving of such a respectful biopic, Burton and his writers made a much better film by not going the easy route of parody. In fact, Wood was ahead of his time with some of his ideas, it's just a shame that he never allowed bad filmmaking to get in his way. Overall, it's one of Burton's most accomplished films, even if it doesn't quite have the emotional power of Edward Scissorhands. One almost wishes that Wood had lived to see it.

Ed Wood was given a limited release more accustomed to an art house film than one of Burton's movies. With a lack of support for what was admittedly a difficult film to market, few moviegoers found the film in theaters. Despite earning under $6 million in total in the U.S. (less than most other Burton films made in their first weekend) it won Burton the best reviews of his career, as well as two Oscars, for Landau’s performance and Baker’s makeup.


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1995 saw the release of the third Batman film, Batman Forever. Although Batman Returns was an artistic triumph, the perceived disappointment with the film led to Joel Schumacher taking over the franchise. Burton actually considered making the third film but then Warner Bros. hinted that they no longer supported his directorial vision ("Don't you want to do a smaller movie?" they suggested).

Schumacher was a more commercial director who wouldn't object to essential blockbuster ingredients like a pop-friendly soundtrack and a frankly nonsensical title (as Burton later said, "Batman Forever, that sounds like a tattoo that somebody would get when they're on drugs").

We can only dream of how Burton would have closed the trilogy. He was still credited as one of the producers on the third film, but by his own admission his only involvement was to show up and eat free donuts. But I’ll speak more about that in the chapter on superheroes (Batman Forever, not the free donuts).

Burton's next directorial effort after Ed Wood would come closer to a 1950's B-movie than many critics were comfortable with.

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