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Friday, February 23, 2024

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The Original Disaster Artist: Revisiting Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood”

By Bianca Garner 

On the 7th December 1978, the world lost an auteur and visionary in the form of Edward Davis Wood Jr. He was a penniless alcoholic who had recently been evicted from his Hollywood apartment. Wood was the mastermind behind such cult classics as “Glen or Glenda” (1953), “Jail Bait” (1954), “Bride of the Monster” (1955), “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959)- all films which are notorious for one thing, and one thing only…they’re bad. They are Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” levels of bad. Wood was known for his over-reliance on stock footage, bad special effects, wobbling sets and wooden performances from D-list actors.

Wood may have remained forgotten in the Hollywood history books forever if it hadn’t been for the Golden Turkey awards, he was posthumously awarded the Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time in 1980, renewing public interest in his life and work so much so that Ed Wood became a cult icon and his most well-known film “Plan 9 From Outer Space” received the honor of being labeled “The Citizen Kane of Bad Films.”

Rudolph Grey’s 1992 oral biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood Jr., followed and in 1994 a biopic of his life, titled “Ed Wood” (1994), was released. The film was directed by Tim Burton and starred Burton’s bestie Johnny Depp as Wood, and will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this September. Peter Travers wrote in his review of “Ed Wood,” that “[Ed Wood] is Burton’s most personal and provocative movie to date. Outrageously disjointed and just as outrageously entertaining, the picture stands as a successful outsider’s tribute to a failed kindred spirit”. 

“Ed Wood” is perhaps Burton’s most underrated, underappreciated and most overlooked work. The film flopped at the Box Office earning just $5.9 million back of its $18 million budget. It was a hard film to sell to an audience: a film about a director who nobody outside certain circles was aware of, a film shot in black and white (Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography is superb, and captures that 1950s B-Movie camp vibe), and with a cross-dressing main character. “Ed Wood” is also interesting as it stands out from the rest of Burton’s work, due to it being more adult in tone. Aside from the likes of “Big Eyes,” “Ed Wood” remains the only film of Burton’s cinematography to be based on true events and grounded in some sense of reality which is why “Ed Wood” remains one of Burton’s most accomplished works.

The film follows Ed Wood, played by Depp as this lovable eccentric, misunderstood figure who simply wants to make movies, and is desperate to break into the film industry. Wood and his band of oddballs manage to create some of the most infamous ‘bad’ films known in cinematic history. The film opens in 1953, Wood has recently moved in Hollywood driven by the dream to become a famous, and well-revered films director. The only issue is that his films stink.

​Needing a hit, Wood comes across an announcement in Variety magazine that producer George Weiss is trying to purchase Christine Jorgensen’s life story and Wood feels this is the perfect project for him, as he himself is a closet transvestite. On the same day as his meeting, Ed meets his screen idol Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) and decides to put him in the picture. The two of them strike up a relationship and Wood manages to convince Lugosi to star in his picture which is now called “Glen or Glenda.” The film is a flop, but this doesn’t stop Wood from making films, and he ends up completing his magnum opus, “Plan 9 From Outerspace.”

It’s not hard to see why Burton was so attracted to Ed Wood and his films. Their childhoods share certain similarities, both men were fascinated with comic books and pulp fiction. Both grew up devouring cinema. Both men ended up working with their idols, Wood with Lugosi and Burton with Vincent Price. With Wood, Burton saw a fellow outsider, a weirdo who doesn’t really fit into society. Burton was so devoted to the job of bringing Ed Wood’s story to the big screen that he refused a salary and insisted on shooting the film in black and white, stating that it was “right for the material and the movie, and this was a movie that had to be in black-and-white.”

“Ed Wood” does have some inaccuracies which should be addressed. The film avoids referencing Wood’s alcoholism, which ultimately led to his death. Depp’s Ed Wood is shown as a lovable oddball and focuses on his best traits rather than his negative ones. In interviews Burton has acknowledged that he probably portrayed Wood and his crew in an exaggeratedly sympathetic way, stating he did not want to ridicule people who had already been ridiculed for a good deal of their life. And, Burton made the conscious decision not to depict the darker side of Wood’s life, Burton used Wood’s own letter as a reference and noted that Wood’s letters never alluded because his letters never alluded to Wood’s drinking problem and seemed upbeat about his career. 

Revisiting “Ed Wood” after watching Burton’s absolute dud “Dumbo” reminds us that when Burton is passionate and able to connect to a story, then he can really play to his strengths. It would be wonderful to see Burton return to smaller pictures like “Ed Wood” and “Big Fish” because these films really capture Burton’s unique visionary style and approach to storytelling. “Ed Wood” is a loving celebration of obsession and auteurship, and its message is about following your dreams. One has to wonder what the real Ed Wood would have made of Burton’s film, and personally speaking, I think he would have loved it.

You can follow Bianca and hear more of her thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @the_filmbee

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