Tim Burton has slid into a strange limbo between respect and disdain, but once upon a time there was a boy that truly had things to say. While most of his films lay in the land between blockbusters making tons of money (Batman) and movies that wound up with large budgets and huge box office success despite being weird as hell (Edward Scissorhands), he had one instance that landed as the film that felt more adult than his other fare and simultaneously more bonkers than ever.
I’m talking, of course, about Ed Wood.
1994 was just giving birth to the types of films we have today. Batman had come out five years earlier and laid the foundation for what would eventually be the exhausting discourse on comic book films that I get to sigh at on a regular basis. It guaranteed Tim Burton the money to make whatever the hell he wanted for the rest of his life, leading to endless amounts of teenagers in stripey Hot Topic garb and an aesthetic I’m sure most of us are bored with. Burton himself seems exhausted with his own oeuvre, his latest film Dumbo coming off as a thinly-veiled critique of his own career and the relationship he has with studios. In 1994 he took a shot on a hero of his, one that had some strange parallels with his own Hollywood career.
Edward D. Wood, Jr. was an American filmmaker that is responsible for some of the most horrid and wondrous schlock ever to grace the big screen. He often appears on lists discussing the worst filmmakers ever, his movies destroyed by people looking to tear things apart for their own entertainment. They are true and utter garbage, but the stories behind them give everything a charm and sweetness that didn’t always come through onscreen. This was a man making films with the people he loved solely because it was what he wanted to do with his time. By hook or by crook, Ed Wood cobbled together his makeshift family to have fun while creating weird entertainment that often made no sense. He would work with Bunny Breckenridge, son of a wealthy and well-connected family. Wood developed a friendship with Maila Nurmi (also known as Vampira) and Tor Johnson, people working in other entertainment industries that fell in with his fantastical endeavors. His greatest working relationship was with Bela Lugosi, the man who portrayed Dracula and a massive morphine addict that would have a complicated friendship with Wood till his death in 1956. This last friendship is, perhaps, the one that drew Burton to the film in the first place.
Burton was enamored with Vincent Price, titling his first short Vincent and even scoring the man himself to perform narration. Their work would go on together as they spent time together. Vincent Price would go one to make his last onscreen appearance in Edward Scissorhands as the title character’s father. I’ve found the link between Wood and Burton pretty blatant, and learning more just leads me to find the parallels strong. Hell, Lugosi’s last onscreen appearance is in the film Plan 9 from Outer Space in archival footage that Wood shot because…well, he thought it might come in handy one day.
The film spends a lot of time on this friendship and the weird way that Wood’s sincerity infected everyone in his life. It would have been easy to portray the man as an idiotic goofus that is unaware of the world around him, but Burton took a lot of care to make a biopic that showed him as a twitchy and apprehensive man, one that could be wonderful and kind to everyone he worked with but in private had doubts about his ability to truly succeed. It’s endearing, a human being hoping for a win, and while he never truly pulls it off the idea of the picture seems to be that feeling successful on your own is the greatest win.
I don’t want to paint this as a happy-go-lucky hugfest because it damn sure isn’t. Lugosi deals with horrific drug addiction, Wood is despised by his girlfriend as he is a transvestite, and multiple people openly destroy his visions. He’s sitting in an angora sweater waxing poetic about his struggle to do so much as tell stories, all while surrounded by classic movie posters depicting the people he idolizes. It’s more complicated, but it’s also sweet to the people even as they flounder through their lives.
There’s a chilling line from Chiswell (Jeffrey Jones) that still leaves me conflicted. Ed, disappointed by finding out that psychics aren’t real, is all of reassured and even motivated by the words, “It’s all about razzle-dazzle. Appearances. If you look well, talk well, people will swallow anything.” I’ve thought long and hard about that line and all of the connotations it has for the life I’ve seen around me growing up. To this day I’m bombarded by people I do and don’t respect, all of them utilizing this same mindset for both good and ill. Not going to dwell on it further than that, just thought it was worth noting.
No matter how you feel about Ed Wood’s films, Burton’s biopic of his life is sincere and takes the sting out of watching a bad movie. I didn’t really enjoy doing the background work to fully grasp this film, but it really helped me find what Burton saw in Wood. He wasn’t a good filmmaker and he wasn’t a good writer and he seems to have been less than a wonderful human being at times. Despite these things he served as the backbone for a family of misfits that all found love and happiness together as they cobbled together some of the wildest insanity to ever be seen. This whole thing is sweet and comforting, real in ways while taking complete liberties. I love it, every minute, and it’s a soothing balm during the current climate. Give it a whirl. Why not? I know it’s most likely the one Tim Burton movie most of you haven’t seen.