Ed Wood: Tim Burton’s Most Personal Film

On its 25th anniversary, we examine why Ed Wood remains Tim Burton's best film, as well as his tribute to the thrill of creation.

Ed Wood Tim Burton Best Movie Johnny Depp Bela Lugosi

It is a fear that keeps every artist up at night. The intangible terror that, come nightfall, takes on a shape as vivid as the shadows on the wall. What if I’m no good? It drove Hemingway to the bottle and van Gogh to self-mutilation. But perhaps more disturbing is when it afflicts the hacks too—the journeyman whose travails can occur in lifelong obscurity. Even the most legendarily awful can be haunted. So enters Ed Wood, the subject of Tim Burton’s exceedingly sympathetic biopic.

Early in the film, Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp) is having a truly bad night. Premiering his new UFO-meets-World War II play to an audience consisting of a few friends and an assistant to the the theater critic, Wood earns a lone (and scathing) review. While he puts on a brave face for his troupe, lying in bed that night next to girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker), Wood laments, “Honey, what if I’m wrong? What if I just don’t got it? Orson Welles was only 26 when he made Citizen Kane… I’m just scared it’s not going to get any better than this.”

The knowing horror for the audience—and the inherent affection built into Ed Wood—is that we know it won’t get better. While he does eventually achieve his dream of becoming a triple threat writer-actor-director like his idol Welles, Wood never earns more than derision and ignominy for his genuinely awful movies. Later, during the couple’s breakup scene, Dolores verbalizes that fear: “You’re wasting your life making shit! These movies are terrible!”

And so they are. The joy of Ed Wood though is that in a medium stuffed with navel-gazing paeans to the struggles of the greats, Burton has crafted an old-fashioned Hollywood love letter to one of its worst. Decades before James Franco borrowed the idea for The Disaster Artist, Ed Wood essayed the cult darling who many, including The Golden Turkey Awards, considered the worst director of all-time. In the absence of any silver-lining of success, Burton and Wood alike are left solely with the thrill of creation to hang their hat on. And in capturing that with the rosiest of tents, Burton created one of the best Hollywood biopics ever made.

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Of course Ed Wood was not originally Burton’s idea. The concept of an Ed Wood biopic belongs to screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, two scribes toiling in what they considered flat family films via the early Problem Child movies, and who’d been fascinated by Wood, cross-dressing auteur extraordinaire, since their days at USC. Hence they convinced school chum Michael Lehmann, a director who’d just broken out with Heathers, to make the thing. Lehmann, in turn, brought the concept to producers Denise Di Novi and Tim Burton. Ed Wood would’ve likely been a different film too had Lehmann not been busy making Airheads when Burton wanted to immediately prioritize Ed Wood.

Fresh off the highly controversial (though fondly remembered) Batman Returns, Burton had just seen the studio who previously insisted he make a Batman sequel say “we’ve had enough” when he began spitballing ideas for a third. Meanwhile his interest in the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde reimagining, Mary Reilly, fell apart when Columbia Pictures insisted he cast Julia Roberts instead of Winona Ryder in the lead role. Much like Ed Wood himself, Burton wanted autonomy away from the “moneymen,” which led to him rushing a script for the biopic from Alexander and Karaszewski, who to date had only written a 10-page treatment.

Six weeks later, they had a draft and Burton wanted to direct that first 147-page version as is, with nary a single rewrite. If that didn’t give the studio where it was set-up, Columbia Pictures, cold feet, then Burton’s insistence that it be shot in black and white sure did. A month before production, Columbia put the movie in turnaround, and Burton ended up having to go back to his oft-mercurial home of Disney, who produced it under their Touchstone label for $18 million… of which Burton saw not a dime after foregoing a salary.

In the realm of film criticism, it risks erring toward the hackneyed to call any effort a filmmaker’s most personal film, for only that filmmaker would know for sure. Yet to this day, there is no film in Burton’s oeuvre that features so much knowing affinity for its protagonist as this passion project. Beyond the lack of a paycheck, Burton obviously sees himself in the trashy filmmaker who has a taste for the odd and left-of-center. They are very different storytellers, but they certainly travel similar territory.

While Burton was a disaffected youth growing up in the Southern Californian suburbs before beginning his career as an animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Wood grew up everywhere, including the South Pacific where he served as a U.S. marine in World War II. Losing several of his front teeth, as well as getting shot in the legs by a Japanese machine gun at the Battle of Tarawa, Wood’s life from the beginning offers the potential to be viewed through the lens of tragedy. It would be presumptuous to assume where, if at all, Wood would fall in the modern parlance of the LGBTQ community, but he was a crossdresser and self-described transvestite who spent half his life hiding that fact—he even claimed he feared being wounded at Tarawa more than dying because he’d have to explain the bra he was wearing under his uniform—and the other half trying to instill that pleasure for female garments into his amusingly atrocious films that further alienated him from Hollywood producers. Ed Wood may document three of his first four films (it notably skips his Dark Passage rip-off, Jail Bait), but Burton still stops short of chronicling Wood’s descent into making softcore pornography and alcoholism… or the tragic manner of his lonely death.

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There is an obvious darkness to Wood’s side of the success-failure dichotomy (or at least the province of mediocrity between them), yet Burton’s Ed Wood is nothing short of dazzling in its monochrome approach. Filmed in a glowing black and white that scared off Columbia, Burton is relentlessly optimistic in his depiction of Wood, adding a spoonful of sugar (and maybe a little dope) to a historical record that becomes a wider celebration of all moviemaking. Especially the kind that would always be sniffed at by the mainstream.

The film casts Johnny Depp, who cemented his muse status for Burton here, at the height of his creative ingenuity. Already fascinated by Wood after being introduced to the filmmaker by director John Waters on the set of Cry-Baby (1990), Depp plays Wood with boundless enthusiasm and infectious sincerity that somehow comes off endearing, as opposed to desperate. Apparently mimicking the vocal inflections of radio DJ Casey Kasem and old school movie stars like Mickey Rooney and Ronald Reagan, determination and delusion blur. But unlike some of those influences, the worst thing you can accuse Wood of is forcing Plan 9 from Outer Space on unsuspecting drive-ins.

Portraying Wood as less a real person and more akin to a screwball comedy hero from the era the real Wood grew up in, Depp fits securely in Burton’s old-timey Hollywood stylings. Or rather the stylings of subject matter that wasn’t relegated to cheapies of the era like Wood’s favorite themes: crumbling tombstones in graveyards; fog-infested highways;  and good old-fashioned flying saucers. In fact, so many of these pulpy fascinations check Burton’s boxes that Ed Wood liberates the modern filmmaker to be his most restrained and character-driven.

“On a picture like this, I find you don’t need to storyboard,” Burton told Cinefantastique in 1994. “You’re working mainly with actors, and there’s no effects going on, so it’s best to be more spontaneous.” At his core, even today, Burton remains an actor’s director, a fact that is obscured the more obsessed he becomes with production design and digital technology. But the real Wood’s own peculiar passions were enough for Burton to dial back instead of lean in. With Ed Wood, you can feel one director admiring another for their foundational influences, a gung ho spirit… and the ability to build a profound friendship with an actor they admire.

Indeed, what most elevates Ed Wood is its depiction of Bela Lugosi. The real horror legend’s star still shines brightly to this day, despite its dubious association with Ed Wood in his final years, and Burton’s movie offered a chance to reflect on the Hungarian actor who rarely got his due in life. Still the definitive performer of Bram Stoker’s renowned vampire, Lugosi became Universal Pictures’ biggest horror icon, if only for a season, after the release of Dracula in 1931. Shortly afterward Universal would also release Frankenstein in the same year, and Boris Karloff would go on to have an even bigger career, particularly because of Lugosi’s tortured Hungarian accent.

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Lugosi’s frustration is rooted in the fact that he was an actor without a home, having been forced to flee Hungary in 1921 after helping form the first actors’ guild, the pro-communist National Trade Union of Actors. Landing in Vienna and then New York, he was still learning his English lines phonetically when he first appeared on Broadway in Dracula in 1928. He also became part of what was seen as a mass migration of Hungarian and Austrian filmmakers to Hollywood in the 1920s and ‘30s as they evaded the fascists (other stalwarts include directors Michael Curtiz and Billy Wilder). But whereas behind-the-camera countrymen could maintain their thick accents, Lugosi was never able to hide his own.

Despite being Universal’s second top horror star during the ‘30s, he never could escape the horror genre, much less gain the traction Karloff did with his droll English tenor. He would always be Dracula. Hence his last Hollywood-produced film was a parody of this fact, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The one before? Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945)… where he played second banana, again, to Karloff.

By the time Lugosi met Ed Wood in 1953, he was freshly divorced, out of work, and addicted to morphine. Working with this overeager young director was a way to make ends meet, but as Wood had grown up idolizing the man in the Dracula cape, it became a natural meeting of mentor and would-be protégé. Burton has spoken candidly that he related to this facet of their friendship, as he felt he had a similar rapport with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands (1991), which was Price’s last theatrical movie. One imagines today he’d also draw comparisons to his future kinship with Christopher Lee, the second most famous Dracula, who appeared in five Burton movies in his final years.

By focusing on Wood and Lugosi’s father-son friendship—to the point of taking major historical liberties like ignoring the fact Lugosi remarried in 1955 or that he had a teenage son named Bela Lugosi Jr.—Burton creates a central heart to his film that’s more soulful and layered than any other project in his career, and a stunning showcase for Martin Landau. In the performance that would win Landau an Oscar—as well as one for makeup artist Rick Baker who lobbied for the chance to help turn Landau’s long face into Lugosi’s rounder features—Landau asserts a heart-rending gravitas to his Lugosi that avoids caricature or pure sentimentality.

There is an intentional otherworldliness to Landau’s interpretation of Lugosi. Like the rest of the film, Landau knows when to place tongue firmly in cheek, such as when anyone dares compare Lugosi to Karloff (the real Lugosi is reported to be too chivalrous to publicly refer to Karloff as a “cocksucker”… but he might’ve thought it!). However, the film also understands Lugosi represented genuine grace, even when he was slumming it for Wood. Hence Howard Shore’s underrated score reverting to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” whenever Lugosi is at his most poignant or disturbing (which are often one and the same). It echoes the lone piece of music in 1931’s Dracula, but it also suggests a forgotten world gone by that’s become as romanticized as Wood romanticizes Lugosi… or how Burton romanticizes the adventures of both men in the gutter of 1950s moviemaking.

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There is a striking moment that both demonstrates Ed Wood’s humor and bitterest of sweetness when Wood directs Lugosi in his death scene in Bride of the Monster (1955). It’s four in the morning, the 73-year-old Lugosi is being asked to stand in freezing cold water, and now he’s informed that his scene partner, a rudimentary robotic octopus, is missing its motor so he’ll have to thrash its arms around to mimic its murderous grip. Soaking in his circumstances, Lugosi mutters, “After I did Dracula, the studio offered me Frankenstein and I turned it down. The part wasn’t sexy enough. Too degrading for a big star like me.”

Obviously starring in an Ed Wood movie is degrading, to the point where a senior citizen in poor health is forced to literally wrestle with a rubber sea creature. But after Wood points out that they have 25 shots to do that night, Lugosi instantly returns to his old school professionalism and throws himself into the water. It is that “show must go on” quality, and the community of misfits it builds, that becomes Ed Wood’s real legacy.

Wood was a lousy director. Never meeting a first take he didn’t like, he’d ignore sets that would shake, cardboard tombstones that got knocked over, or a flubbed line. In what Ed Wood depicts as his magnum opus, 1959’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, he really did use old footage of Lugosi filmed to cheer the actor up after a stint in rehab (a first for a movie star) as actual scenes in the movie. It didn’t matter that Lugosi was now three years dead, or that Wood would stitch together some scenes he shot of Lugosi during the day with other scenes of other actors he shot at night, he made it work, dammit! If only in his own mind.

Along the way he assembled friends as eclectic as professional wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal Steele”) and Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), an openly gay man living in ‘50s Hollywood who also spent a lifetime toying with a sex change. In our modern context of what is considered appropriate, using that as a source of humor in Ed Wood could be critiqued, but compare Murray’s deliciously deadpan supporting work here with another movie he stole barely 10 years earlier, Tootsie (1982). Whereas that Best Picture nominee found guffaws in the basic premise of a man dressed as a woman, Ed Wood celebrates transgender and transvestite culture as just curious quirks in Depp and Murray’s characters, no different than the messier details of mainstream culture.

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Hence the most storybook scene in the movie where Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio, but voiced by Maurice LaMarche) meets Ed Wood, and the alleged greatest director in cinema history converses with the worst. The moment where they share a drink in a quiet bar isn’t about their differences—even as Wood wears an angora sweater, earrings, and high heels—but their similarities. Dealing with moneymen who want to remove the grave robbing in Wood’s movie that was originally entitled “Grave Robbers from Outer Space,” or to force Welles into casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican in A Touch of Evil, Welles and Wood see the thirst of creativity as chasing the same muse. Just as the director who insisted Ed Wood be in black and white to the point of foregoing payment.

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Ed Wood is not only a toast to an infamously bad filmmaker, but an ode to all dreamers, including those who chase the most doomed of rainbows. Wood’s collection of eccentrics and 1950s misfits doesn’t look all that different from the revolving troupe Burton himself keeps around him to this day, even if the one on screen has a bit more Tinseltown fairy dust. During Wood and Lugosi’s first meeting within the movie, Wood extolls the qualities of Lugosi’s 1930s chillers. Always ready to receive a compliment, Landau’s Lugosi agrees, saying they “were mythic, they had a poetry to them.” By enshrining that myth for all eternity in Ed Wood, Burton cements Wood’s greatest legacy, as well as his own.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.