Directed by #TimBurton
Film review by Nathanial Eker
The live BFI podcast Soundtracking with Tim Burton concludes with a screening (on 35mm no less) handpicked by Burton himself. Ed Wood, a film that the director acknowledges failed to achieve the mainstream success of his other pictures, remains the greatest indicator of the filmmaker’s status as a modern auteur, and is still his most personal work yet. Despite this perceived commercial failure, Ed Wood represents the artistic pinnacle of both Burton and Johnny Depp’s careers. Though as a biopic its tendency to only flirt with the truth may be somewhat problematic, its narrative and themes are so wonderfully compelling that it barely matters.
Ed Wood (Depp) is a thirty-year-old quirk who loves two things; the art of film and dressing in women’s clothing. Unfortunately for him, despite a seemingly endless tank of optimism, he lacks that filmic eye for detail. However, after meeting washed up horror legend Bela Lugosi (Landau), Wood endeavours to write, direct, produce, and star in his own movies, to fulfil his destiny as a born filmmaker. What follows is a loose adaptation of the production cycles of Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Atom (later changed to Bride of the Monster), and of course, the iconic Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Despite being based on real events, Ed Wood amusingly feels like the most autobiographical of Burton’s pictures. Indeed, while presenting at the BFI, he claims ‘if you want to understand who I am as a filmmaker, this is the film to watch.’ Far from the BDSM inspired costumes of Batman Returns, or the German expressionist aesthetic of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the film is grounded in a semblance of reality, albeit one heightened by pantomimic characters and loose historical accuracy. This isn’t to say it’s devoid of the indicative Burton narrative and stylistic iconography, far from it. The gorgeous black and white cinematography blended with the 1950s costumes gives it a welcome coating of film noir. The character of Wood is also classic Burton; a strange loner who dares to be different and is thus continuously punished by a society that fails to understand him.
However, it’s that understanding of Burton’s interpretation of Wood that makes the film so vibrantly compelling. Regardless of how true the portrayal is to his in-real-life personality, the avatar created demonstrates the archetypical hopeful idealist; an embodiment of the American dream. The film might seem to mock Wood by admonishing his one-take mentality and questionable production antics (octopus theft and some less than kosher financial negotiations). However, there is an overarching aether of respect present throughout, if not from those around him, then by his filmic framing. Burton acknowledges the immense difficulties of getting even the worst film made, thus the enduring passion of Wood, even against great odds is what ultimately stays with us.
An enormous amount of the character’s galvanising likability lies in the outstanding performance by Johnny Depp. Long before media controversies or an eternally tired portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow, Ed Wood captures Depp at his best. His youthful energy is eminently endearing, offering the quintessential underdog protagonist that is rooted for from the minute we meet him. Equally ground-breaking is the performance of Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, who brings a haunted air of bitterness, matched by a sympathetic hope that he’ll one day return to his former vampiric glory. To say that Landau and Depp have electric chemistry is a horrific understatement. The supporting cast is also shockingly strong. Burton makes three dimensional characters of players with only a handful of lines, who often manage to offer as much personality as Wood himself. Bill Murray as the wonderfully flamboyant Bunny Breckinridge and Vincent D’Onofrio as a frighteningly spot on Orson Welles remain highlights.
Interestingly, Ed Wood lacks what one might call an essential element of the Burton formula: Danny Elfman. In his place, famed composer Howard Shore steps up and offers a different musical aesthetic; one that entirely gels with the verisimilitude of the sci-fi – horror influenced mise-en-scené. The unnerving, atomic age inspired title track perfectly braces us for a less than standard tale of creative endeavour. However, it is the reuse and repurposing of music synonymous with the players themselves that truly creates a poignant musical landscape. The theme of Glen or Glenda becomes a leitmotif for the romance between Ed and Cathy, ironically working far more effectively in this capacity. However, the most unapologetically nostalgic movement is reborn as a leitmotif for Lugosi, as Shore reworks elements of Swan Lake (the title music of Dracula), to craft a hauntingly melancholic theme that encapsulates Lugosi’s tragic descent into addiction, while simultaneously paying tribute to his most iconic role.
Ed Wood remains a captivating experience that has me falling deeper in love with it upon every viewing. The perfect cast, the moody aesthetic, the inspiring themes, and the gorgeously intuitive soundtrack culminate in a beautiful encapsulation of the struggling American filmmaker. While many will admonish the embellished elements of the film’s plot, what Burton transforms Wood into, however true or untrue, becomes an exemplar inspiration for all would-be filmmakers, or indeed anyone pursuing a dream; ‘visions are worth fighting for.’