Purists could probably spend a lively weekend detailing the factual errors found in Tim Burton’s comic biopic of 1950s schlockmeister Edward D. Wood, Jr., but these killjoys would be completely missing the point of this affectionate tribute to those perpetual outsiders whose dreams far outstrip their talent.
The heart of this movie comes late in the narrative, in an apocryphal scene where Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) encounters his idol, Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio, voiced by Maurice LaMarche) in a bar. Despite the disparity in their talent, the two filmmakers find a kind of common ground, a certain purity of vision. Certainly, each is an iconic figure in his own way.
The movie covers the production of three of Wood’s more famous cinematic efforts, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and his career-defining turkey, Plan 9 from Outer Space and the genuinely touching friendship between Wood and another idol, Bela Lugosi (Oscar-winning supporting actor Martin Landau). This is the part of the film that departs most sharply from the facts of Wood’s and Lugosi’s lives. The Hungarian actor wasn’t nearly as destitute or lonely as he is portrayed here. At this point, it’s best to view “Eddie” and Bela as characters in a highly fictionalized adaptation of their stories. While the events surrounding the making of these three movies are actually quite accurate, the resemblance between the two central characters and their real-life counterparts is much less rigorous.
As Ed Wood, Johnny Depp plays him with an optimism that seems utterly undefeatable in the face of mere reality. He’s not so much overcoming his limitations as he is blissfully ignorant of them. By the end of the movie, those around him, who are simply trying to be practical and make Wood see how completely futile his filmmaking efforts are, seem like total party poopers and spoilsports. Director Burton even manages to make Wood’s transvestism seem more like a wholesome hobby than a fetish.
While Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi bears little factual resemblance to the actual person, the actor richly deserved his Academy Award for his portray of a man who struggles to maintain some level of dignity when life just seems to heap one indignity after another on top of him.
Several of the big roles are quite enjoyable. Wrestler George “The Animal” Steele and model Lisa Marie are uncanny playing Plan 9 stars Tor Johnson and TV horror host Vampira, respectively. Bill Murray turns in a comically flamboyant performance as openly gay actor and aspiring transsexual Bunny Breckinridge.
Tim Burton’s famous affinity for lovable freaks and outsides probably makes him the ideal filmmaker to tell Ed Wood’s story. I have to wonder, though, if Wood really deserves his mantle as the worst film director of all time. Having just viewed Plan 9 as well, I can certainly attest that the film is, in fact, awful, but there is a certain earnest charm beneath this train wreck of a movie. It’s eagerness to entertain and please gives it a curious appeal, like a cross between the Elephant Man and a cocker spaniel puppy.
Certainly there must have been many movies made with a similar lack of technical aptitude, all deservedly forgotten, shot by cynical, check-cashing hacks without the love and twisted vision that Wood seem to bring to his stunted, malformed craft.