Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hulu Flashback: The compassionate farce of Ed Wood

[Back on October 7, 1994, at a time when Johnny Depp was better known for soulful sensitively, not self-satirical swashbuckling, I praised his change-of-pace turn in this under-rated gem.]

Edward D. Wood Jr. -- war veteran, Hollywood fringe-dweller and uncloseted cross-dresser -- wanted to make movies in the worst way. Unfortunately, that is exactly what he did.

Long before the term ''high camp'' conjured up images of anything other than a mountaintop military base, Wood labored indefatigably in the 1950s netherworld of no-budget, fly-by-night film production. Among his most notorious credits: Glen or Glenda, a passionately sincere but largely incoherent defense of transvestism as a way of life; Bride of the Monster, a stark and stupid cheapie-creepie that climaxes with Bela Lugosi battling frantically, albeit none too convincingly, with a rubber octopus; and, most infamously, Plan 9 from Outer Space, the sci-fi howler that deserves a place of dishonor on anyone's Top Ten list of Le Bad Cinema.

Each of these films is of a mind-frying, jaw-dropping awfulness that must be seen to be disbelieved. And yet, at the same time, each clearly is the work of someone who passionately believes in the seriousness of his endeavor, whose intensity of purpose is surely no less than that of the people who made Birth of a Nation or Battleship Potemkin.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, the Batman movies), one of Hollywood's hottest properties, chose to direct Ed Wood, a hugely entertaining and sweetly sympathetic tribute to one of the worst moviemakers -- if not the worst -- who ever darkened a soundstage.

Ed Wood is an extremely funny film, but its humor is not that of the hectoring, cheap-laugh variety. Maybe the mondo-bizarro Burton responded to Wood's misadventures with a kind of ''There but for the grace of God ...'' recognition. Or maybe he simply was taken by the notion that any kind of artistic impulse, even that of someone with all of the ego and ambition but none of the talent of a true artist, is worthy of consideration.

For whatever reason, Burton has managed to make something altogether unique -- a compassionate farce -- that can be enjoyed even by people who never heard of Wood, who would never willingly submit themselves to a Wood work.

And if you are familiar with Wood's slapdash Z-movies, so much the better. You will be prepared to appreciate the astonishing fidelity of Burton's efforts to re-create their look and feel.

Johnny Depp, who was effectively cast as Burton's Edward Scissorhands, gives an atypically exuberant and marvelously crackpot performance as Ed Wood. The most striking thing about his portrayal is the boundless, never-say-die enthusiasm he constantly conveys. Early in the film, while reading a blistering pan of a Los Angeles stage production he directed, Wood focuses on the review's only left-handed compliment. ''See!'' he enthuses. '''The soldiers' costumes are very realistic.' That's positive!''

Much later, Wood remains equally chipper when, shortly before production begins on Plan 9 from Outer Space, he must cope with the inconvenient death of a leading player, Bela Lugosi. Wood decides to use footage of Lugosi he has already filmed, and rely on a stand-in -- a much younger, taller stand-in -- to play Lugosi's role in other scenes.

Sure, this means the other actor will have to keep his face covered with a cloak. But so what? “Filmmaking is not about tiny details!'' he warns a naysayer. ''It's about the big picture!''

The heart of Ed Wood is Wood's symbiotic but genuinely affectionate relationship with Lugosi, played with richly comical crankiness by Martin Landau. When they first meet, Lugosi is a reclusive has-been -- as he puts it, ''just an ex-bogeyman'' -- who hasn't worked in four years, and has been a morphine addict for two decades. Wood uses him to raise the meager financing for his threadbare films, but always treats the burnt-out star with the utmost respect. Lugosi responds with touching gratitude and, when the cameras are rolling, utter professionalism.

Of course, Lugosi can't quite figure out what Wood is doing during the production of Glen or Glenda, a movie in which the hero (played by Wood himself) reveals his fondness for women's clothing to his lovely bride-to-be (played by Wood's off-camera girlfriend, Dolores Fuller, who is in turn played by Sarah Jessica Parker). But that's OK. Nobody else, except Wood, can make much sense of the film, either.

Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski present a shamelessly romanticized view of Wood's life, work and eccentricities. They end their story long before the real-life Wood began to churn out sleazy paperbacks and porno movies while he wasn't drinking himself to death. And the filmmakers even succeed at making Wood's transvestism seem like a harmless, even lovable quirk. The movie is never funnier, or more endearing, than when Wood explains to a low-rent producer that, even though he loves to wear high heels and angora sweaters, he is proudly heterosexual. In fact, he's so wholesome, he fought bravely in World War II. ''Of course,'' he admits, ''I was wearing women's undergarments the whole time.''

In addition to Depp and Parker, who are extremely good, and Landau, who will be an Oscar nominee if there's any justice in the world, Ed Wood also features Jeffrey Jones as the fake mentalist Criswell, Patricia Arquette as Wood's incredibly accepting wife, and Bill Murray as an effeminate hanger-on and transsexual wanna-be. Vincent D'Onofrio is priceless in his brief bit as Orson Welles -- yes, that Orson Welles -- who pops up just long enough to offer Wood some valuable encouragement: ''Visions are worth fighting for.'' Not surprisingly, Wood takes this advice to heart.

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