Abominable Showman

If the life of filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., were fiction, set down more or less as Wood's cronies tell it, it would be hailed as the great Hollywood satire. It would seem like a creation of Nathanael West, had he survived until the Fifties, or of Tom Robbins, had he been writing back then. But Wood's outrageous story, though it has undoubtedly been embroidered in the years since his death and subsequent status as a minor Tinseltown legend, is a true one. He actually led a chaotic, frustrated, obsessed, shabbily surreal existence.

For this reason alone, even if Tim Burton's Ed Wood hadn't been a good movie, I'd have been tickled pink as angora that it was made at all. There's something splendid about the idea of a high-profile, critically lauded, prodigiously gifted director such as Burton choosing to spend his clout, money, time, and talent making a biopic of Wood, a director who never was any of the above.

What Wood did have, along with a heavy fetish and an almost delusional confidence in his own potential, was an intense passion for cinema as a medium of personal expression. This is what sets him apart from the other makers of grade-Z exploitation films of his time (and now), and this is what Burton and Johnny Depp, who plays the title role, respond to in their subject.

As you might have guessed, I can pretend to little objectivity on the subject of Wood, since I've been a long-time fan. His Plan 9 From Outer Space, for no critically defensible reason, has been among my favorite movies since I first saw it on late-night Canadian TV in the Seventies, the signal hazy from its long trip across Lake Erie. With a touch of haughtiness, I must boast that I discovered Wood's movies all by myself, without help from fanzines or the snide "tributes" of brothers Michael and Harry Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards.

But with all the distance I can manage, I really think that Ed Wood is both one of the funniest movies of the year and a surprisingly convincing, noncampy chronicle of the man's life and times. Shot in glorious black-and-white by Stefan Czapsky (of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line), Burton's unabashedly affectionate, ironically sentimental film traces the "salad years" of Wood's career -- from 1953, when he made his notorious debut feature, Glen or Glenda? to 1959, with the opening of Plan 9 From Outer Space, his magnum opus.

For the uninitiated, Edward D. Wood, Jr., was a nice fellow from Poughkeepsie, New York, a decorated combat veteran of the South Pacific theater in World War II. He had two great obsessions in life: to write and direct movies, and to wear women's clothing, especially angora (he claimed to have hit the beach during the invasion of Tarawa with a pink bra and panties under his Marine uniform). After the war he found his way to Hollywood, where he labored for years at studio odd jobs while unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a playwright. Wood at last talked his way into a directing job on an exploitation film inspired by Christine Jorgensen's real-life sex-change story. In Wood's hands, the film, Glen or Glenda? (also known as I Changed My Sex), lost track of most of its sex-change theme and became, principally, an "expressionistic" paean to the joys and tribulations of cross-dressing, a subject much dearer to Wood's enthusiastically male and heterosexual (but angora-loving) heart.

Glen or Glenda? featured an appearance by the great horror star Bela Lugosi (as a sort of godlike chorus figure), with whom Wood became close friends. Lugosi was on his last legs by the time he and Wood met -- forgotten by Hollywood, impoverished and emaciated by morphine addiction, alcoholism, and endless road tours of the stage version of Dracula. But the old campaigner was eager and worked cheap, and his name still had value. He starred in another Wood film, a horror yarn called Bride of the Monster (1955).

Wood worked independently, raising pittances from backers -- a meatpacker put up the money for Bride of the Monster on condition that his son play the romantic lead -- as well as the loyal members of his repertory company. At times his business gimmicks were unsavory: He built the plot of Plan 9 around a few minutes of silent footage he had shot of Lugosi shortly before the actor's death, and then gave him star billing in the advertising. (A double, face hidden by a cape and nearly a foot taller, filled in for Lugosi in the late actor's subsequent scenes.)

Wood's tale becomes less funny after Plan 9, where Burton wisely ends his account. He made another horror film or two and a couple of "nudie" troubled-youth melodramas. Then, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Wood eked out a subsistence for himself and his wife by writing dozens of porno novels, and scripting, directing, and occasionally acting in low-grade skin flicks and industrials.

By 1978, alcoholism and extreme poverty had made Wood an old man at 54, and he died, penniless and evicted, at the home of the familiar character actor Peter Coe, his drinking buddy. That same month New York City's Thalia Theatre began regular midnight shows of Glen or Glenda? and interest in the director by buffs of marginal films began to develop. Wood missed his own renaissance by a hair.

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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