Abominable Showman

The source credited in Ed Wood for Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's screenplay is Rudolph Grey's 1992 book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, a deadpan, nonmocking work that is probably the best Hollywood biography I've ever read. Alexander and Karaszewski pack as much Wood lore -- and as many of Wood's oddball pals -- into their script as they can, but they concentrate on the touching friendship between the has-been Lugosi and the never-was Wood.

Though there is much good acting in the film (Bill Murray has a fine, dry turn as Wood's friend, the would-be transsexual John "Bunny" Breckinridge), it is in the scenes between Depp and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi that the film commands the attention even of nonbuffs. Depp looks like a pretty boy, but he has shown repeatedly, from Edward Scissorhands to Benny and Joon, that he's a unique comic and pantomimic talent.

Wood is the meatiest part Depp's had in a while. He plays the director broadly, in a parody of the brassy acting style of the Fifties, as a perpetual ecstatic, exploding with mad, unwarranted optimism. His transporting rapture at being in the company of his beloved Bela is sweetly hysterical, and he's blissfully not self-conscious in the drag scenes, which are played for laughs but not milked; there's a sense of laughing with Wood rather than at him.

As for Landau, he may never have been better, and he certainly never has been more enjoyable, than he is as Lugosi. His vocal impersonation is flawless, and even under Rick Baker's startlingly accurate makeup he makes the old trouper a real and likable guy, not a waxwork. I've not been a great fan of Landau in the past, but any actor who can play Bela Lugosi and not give us a caricature deserves, I'd say, to be called consummate.

The film's funniest moments are those in which we hear Lugosi speak mundane remarks in that unmistakable voice. "Oh, for Christ's sake," he wearily mutters at the prospect of wading into a cold pond for the sake of a scene, and it's suddenly clear that the lives of icons have to be led by ordinary human beings.

Unlike Wood, Lugosi truly was a great talent. His acting techniques were brilliant, just antiquated, belonging more to the nineteenth-century stage than to the movies. Landau makes us feel the pain of Lugosi's obsolescence in life. When Lugosi roars obscenities at the mention of his old rival Boris Karloff (whose more realistic and versatile style gave him a richer career than Lugosi), it isn't pathetic; instead it's blisteringly funny, and it's also rather marvelous that this sick, wasted, old man still has his actor's vanity.

Thanks to Landau, Ed Wood amounts to a long-belated tribute to the star, and Lugosi deserves it. But does Wood, the central character, deserve all this attention? It is worth remembering that Wood's work, even by the most lenient artistic standards, was awful. To make the case for Wood as a filmmaker of any importance at all would be foolishly quixotic. And to tell his life story only to mock an eccentric incompetent would be both cruel and a waste of time.

Burton, however, does neither. He grasps what makes it possible to enjoy, even cherish, Wood's films: the tension between their maker's intense need to express himself through cinema and his complete lack of talent. This was manifested most amusingly in his dialogue. Straining for eloquence, Wood achieved a weird syntactical dissonance that could almost be called lyrical.

Wood was not, in spite of the Medved brothers' posthumous sneer, the worst movie director in history (anyone who sees a lot of low-rent horror pictures knows that there were -- and are -- plenty of worse filmmakers). Wood was something unique, and more honorable -- the cinema's most passionately inept real artist. It is from this that Wood's films derive both their comicality and their poignance, and it is this to which Burton tunes in.

No doubt, Burton gives a Capraesque sugarcoating to his hero, and to the squalid lower depths of Hollywood in which Wood labored.

Ed Wood the movie completes Wood as an artist, with Wood supplying the vision, Burton the talent. Maybe Wood's spirit can rest easier in the knowledge that, by living his life rather than by plying his craft, he finally made a good movie.

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