Monday, January 23, 2012

31. ED WOOD (1994)

The more you know about this subject, the more reasons you may have to resent this picture, but few films do a better job than Tim Burton's biopic of writer-director-producer-actor Edward D. Wood, Jr. of showing that art is a lie which tells the truth. The script by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander follows a loose general outline of the facts, while coloring (in luscious black-and-white) wildly outside those lines, but their exaggerations and sheer inventions serve to say something, more assertively than facts ever could, about the romance of Old Hollywood and the bitterness experienced by anyone who loses something or someone in their blind pursuit of a personal vision.

For once in his career, Burton mostly leaves his own overbearing sense of design out of it, bringing only a love for the subject matter and a steady sense of craft to a film that's otherwise truer to Wood's own sensibilities. Johnny Depp isn't anything like the Ed Wood known to purists from his own work, and one supposes he's there to connect Burton himself to the material, but Martin Landau succeeds grandly in capturing the essence of Bela Lugosi -- and in a larger sense, the indignities that sometimes befall any actor intent upon working -- despite being apparently untrue to the Lugosi who really was. Other performances are no less truthful if somewhat left of on-target: Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, Patricia Arquette as Kathy O'Hara (so touching when she presents Ed with a pair of black booties for recovering drug addict Bela "to go with his cape"), Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge, Max Casella as Paul "Kelton the Cop" Marco, Juliette Landau as Loretta King (setting off all manner of hilariously ignored alarms as she stresses her allergies to all liquids), Vincent D'Onofrio in an unlikely cameo as Orson Welles, and particularly Lisa Marie as Vampira, whose flatline delivery and ostentatious outward image aren't quite Maila Nurmi but say something profound about a type of young woman unique to Los Angeles today and yet virtually alien in 1955. It's unfortunate that this fine actress (so gloriously pantomimic in MARS ATTACKS!) has disappeared from films since her break-up with Burton about a decade ago. No other film paints such an amusingly varied landscape of the kinds of people you'd want to work with, be crazy to work with, and have to work with to make your cockeyed dreams come even halfway true.

General audiences may find a lot to laugh about (or at) in ED WOOD, but the more experience one has of the real Hollywood, of its hopefuls and its hangers-on, and the more friends one has lost after a period of shared dreams, only to see them live on in bit parts on THE LATE LATE SHOW, this movie says something about the beauty and squalor of the film industry that not even SUNSET BLVD. quite gets its ironic fist around. And when the final words "THE END - FILMED IN HOLLYWOOD U.S.A." fill the screen, the heart simultaneously swells with pride and flinches from the sting.

Viewed on Showtime HD.


  1. I have no idea what Lisa Marie's been up to in the decade since her last screen appearance in Burton's ill-advised remake of Planet of the Apes but she'll soon be seen starring in Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem which should be coming out sometime this year.

  2. You've nailed it, Tim. Having read about Wood, Tor, Criswell, and Lugosi back in the late 1970s, I think "Ed Wood" would be memorable enough in how it gratifies a kind of fanboy/boyhood longing for a glimpse beyond the film frames of Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan Nine...but Martin Landau's iconic performance just burns up the whole movie. "Now, no one gives two f*cks for Bela!"