In 1980 , two years after Ed Wood‘s alcohol related death at 54, film critic Michael Medved and his brother published “The Golden Turkey Awards” and gave Wood the award of being “The Worst Director of All Time” and naming his film Plan 9 From Outer Space “The Worst Film of All Time.” The forever constipated Mr. Medved must had the biggest bowel movement of his life when he discovered that he and his brother unintentionally put the wheels in motion for the cult celebrity status of Wood who, to Medved, was little more than an object of derision.
Quite simply, Ed Wood was an outsider artist, whose medium was film. He managed to create two highly personalized “masterpieces” of naive surrealism; Glen or Glenda (1953) and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) with “star” Bela Lugosi, who was clearly at the end of his tether.
In between these two films Wood made Bride of the Monster (1955) , also starring Lugosi (the only one of the three Wood films in which Lugosi actually ‘starred’), but that film was more of a concession to the genre and lacked the pronounced Woodian weirdness found in either Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Fourteen years after Wood’s cult status rocketed out of the pages of Medved’s book, Tim Burton produced his valentine to Eddie. Clearly, Ed Wood was as personal a film for Burton as Glen and Plan 9 had been for Wood. Burton faced immense difficulty in mounting the project and was given what, for him, was a small budget. Artistically, the endeavor paid off and even did so financially, in time, although it took Touchstone years to realize the film’s cult potential for the DVD market.
In 1994 Tim Burton was the perfect artist to bring Ed’s story to the screen. Burton, recognizing a fellow auteur and genuine oddball, treated Wood, not with derision, but with the respect he deserved. Before Ed Wood, Burton, although trained at Disney, was still an outsider with Hollywood backing, which makes him (in that regard) a kindred spirit to Stanley Kubrick. Burton’s first big budget feature effort had been Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), a zany Caligari-esque journey in craoyla colors. The success of that film lead to bigger successes. Beetlejuice (1988) and the epic Batman (1989) followed. Both of those films starred Burton’s greatest collaborator, Michael Keaton. Edward Sissorhands (1990) was a beautifully elegiac, quirky, flawed film. It was also Burton’s first film with future collaborator Johnny Depp. Batman Returns (1992) was a more personal vision of the Dark Knight in which Charles Dickens yuletide season goes straight to a superhero burlesque hell. That film remains, to this day, the greatest film incarnation of a comic book character.
Of course, Ed Wood followed, but something happened to Burton after this film. Mars Attacks (1996) was Burton’s attempt to make an Ed Wood-like film, but he didn’t learn the George Stevens lesson. Steven had made his Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and it is one the most frustrating misfires in cinema history, featuring a sublime performance from Max Von Sydow as Christ and a damned fine one from the much put upon Charlton Heston as the Baptist. These performances and the cinematography (Lloyd Griggs and William Mellor) are sabotaged by Stevens decision to insert cameos from a plethora of big named stars, such as John Wayne as a roman soldier. Stevens defended this marketing decision by claiming that “no one will notice in twenty years.” It’s been over forty years and it is still a blatantly distracting example in which marketing trumps art. Burton repeated this mistake, treated Woodian weirdness like the Bible, and it was a major distraction. Audiences and critics responded coolly.
After that, Burton’s genuine penchant for weirdness was sacrificed for tinseled weirdness, not only apparent in all the films which have followed, but also in his personal and aesthetic preferences. Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp are hopelessly polished when compared to the likes of genuine, internalized eccentrics such as Paul Reubens, Lisa Marie and Michael Keaton. Depp’s current, most popular work may well be with Burton, but his best work remains with other directors, such as Jim Jarmusch in Dead Man (1995) and Sally Potter in The Man Who Cried (2000). Those two directors were able to draw much more wistful, more nuanced, fully fleshed out performances from Depp. Under Burton, Depp has become far too grandiose and obvious.
This was not yet the case when the two collaborated for Ed Wood. The renegade spirit was still in full force and Burton had the cast, crew and enthusiasm to do it justice. Much has been written about Martin Landau’s performance, and the accolades are deserving. Landau had done prior excellent character work in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker (1988) and Woody Allen‘s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), both of which garnered him Academy Award nominations. Landau would top both of these films, giving the performance of his life, as Lugosi in Ed Wood. Even the Academy realized it and finally honored Landau’s work.
Bill Murray as Bunny Breckenridge, Patricia Arquette as Kathy Wood, Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, Mike Starr as Georgie Weiss, Lisa Marie as Vampira, George Steele as Tor Johnson, and Juliette Landau as Loretta King are equally superb and followed Burton, Depp and Landau’s lead in giving the freaks full dignity due. Even the casting of Sarah Jessica Parker works since the actress proved to be just as witless, over-inflated and annoying as her character, Delores Fuller.
The film itself is, naturally, a mix of fact and fiction. Wisely, Burton does not cover Wood’s films preceeding and following Lugosi, because Ed Wood is about Ed’s relationships with his fellow misfits. The world they share together is as unique and special to them as the island of misfit toys is to a Charlie in the Box. Even Parker, as Delores, realizes it and tells Eddie, “This is not the real world. You have surrounded yourself with a gang of misfits and dope addicts.” She is right, of course and, thankfully, banishes herself from the Woodian universe to forever disappear in that thick as peanut butter fog of deserved suburban obscurity.
Wood and the Plan 9 company did get baptized in a Baptist church to pacify Wood’s religious backers, they did steal the rubber octopus for Bride of the Monster, and they did forget to steal the motor. However, Ed’s with meeting Orson Welles, his idol, never happened, but it is a hilarious, well done scene. Unlike the movie, Lugosi’s funeral was actually well attended ( secretly paid for by Frank Sinatra), but these are really inconsequential points. With Ed Wood, Tim Burton cemented the legend of a fellow misfit and only Burton, in that time and place, could do it.
Half a century has passed since the premiere of Plan 9 From Outer Space and we are still discussing it and its creator. That is for a reason. Countless bad movies have come, gone, and remain forgotten. There is nothing special about a bad movie, unless it is full of personality. Ed Wood briefly was able to inject himself into a few special films, before he began to drown in his rejection. With Plan 9 From outer Space and Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood and his art are totally inseparable. Ed Wood’s films are art. Attempted descriptions such as “bad”, “good”, ” camp”, “unintentional” are rendered superfluous, and this is how it should be, because Ed Wood forces his audience into a completely subjective experience. Tim Burton pays Wood the highest compliment by following suit. Ed Wood Jr. will be remembered long after the successful and bland Ron Howards of this world are forgotten.
Tim Burton will be remembered, as well, for that period—the time of Burton’s most honest and individual films—in which he still was able to connect with the misfits and had the ability and clout to make Hollywood and audiences connect as well. Later, he dropped the Ed Wood ball forever. Tim Burton is no longer a misfit, a renegade spirit, or a visionary. Today, he would not recognize or bond with Edward D. Wood, Jr. Ed Wood was Tim Burton’s actual swansong and, although a box office disappointment, it too will be remembered long after Burton’s “more successful” films have vanished. Undoubtedly, Burton will continue to make a plethora of commercial successes; and even if it seems he shot his final wad with Ed Wood, that is still is far more than many ever get the opportunity to do.