Revisiting Tim Burton’s Ed Wood

Our look back at Tim Burton's films arrives at his superb love letter to the legendary Edward D Wood Jr: it's Johnny Depp as Ed Wood...

‘My girlfriend still doesn’t know why her sweaters are always stretched out.’ – Ed Wood

The Recap

As with the late 80s, the early 90s were a non-stop rollercoaster for Tim Burton. After his back to back successes with Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns he went on to write and produce the widely successful The Nightmare Before Christmas and to work on the less successful Cabin Boy. But his next venture behind the camera would be a smaller scale affair: a homage to the world’s worst director, Edward D. Wood Jr.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is desperate to break into the film industry, but with a string of flop plays behind him the studios are not knocking his door down. When he comes across a story in Variety about a new movie about a man who turned into a woman, he 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.

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Having come out to the producer George Weiss (Mike Starr) he is given the job and is told to make seven reels at little cost. Starring, writing and directing the movie, which is renamed from I Changed My Sex to Glen Or Glenda, Ed comes out to his crew and faithful girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) who is sent into a tailspin by the news but stands by her man.

The film is released to critical and commercial failure and the big studios refuse to finance any further projects. Disheartened, Dolores tells him that he is not studio material and should find independent backers. After an unsuccessful party to woo potential cash cows, Ed meets Loretta King (Juliet Landau), whom he believes has enough money to finance his next picture, Bride Of The Atom, but he needs to give her the leading role, thus pushing Dolores to the side.

When it is uncovered that Loretta only has $300, Ed turns to meat tycoon Don McCoy, who is happy to stump up the cash as long as the movie ends with an explosion.

At the Bride Of The Atom wrap party Dolores finally snaps when Ed comes out as a Turkish belly dancer and finishes their relationship. Meanwhile, Bela finally reveals to Ed the extent of his depression and drug addiction and is admitted to rehab where Ed meets Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette) who is to become his future wife.

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After being discharged from rehab, Ed begins shooting scenes with Bela for his next movie, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, but has to change the name to Plan 9 From Outer Space to satisfy his backers, The Church of Beverly Hills.

During the shoot Bela dies and Ed replaces him with a stand in who is to remain with face covered below the nose at all times. When the backers demand too much creative control, Ed leaves the shoot distressed, but a drink with his other idol, Orson Welles, makes him return and finish the movie he would become most infamous for.

Thoughts & Reaction

Written by unlikely pair Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, who were previously known for their work on Problem Child and Problem Child 2, Ed Wood is a wonderful love letter to the world’s worst director, who probably actually made one of the best B-movies of all time.

After having issues with what was his next mooted project Mary Reilly, Burton jumped ship straight into Ed Wood and shot directly from the first draft completed script, deciding that the movie would be more character than style driven. Not a hardcore biography, the movie sheds a rather favourable light onto its main characters, something Burton strived for as he felt they had been ridiculed enough in the past.

The style of the movie itself is not exactly in line with Burton’s previous directorial efforts. Filmed in black and white, it stays away from the gothic splendour of the Batman movies and fits exactly into the 50s style that is required.

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With screen wipes galore, it lives and breathes the old style of picture making and makes you want to go back and watch Wood’s original movies (helped by Howard Shore’s superb score, taking over for this one from longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman). It seems ridiculous to now think that original distributors Columbia Pictures put their foot down over the filming in black and white. It would have destroyed the soul of the movie to have it any other way. Also, special mention should be given to the opening credits that just get you in the mood straight away.

Cast-wise Burton manages to bring together an amazing mix of actors who bring the story to life. Martin Landau’s Oscar winning performance as Bela Lugosi hits all the right marks and it is as if the horror icon is alive again. Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Lisa Marie and Juliet Landau (whom eagle eye Buffy fans will know as Drusilla) make up the perfect foursome as Ed’s ladies, all of whom had a deep impact on his work as well as his personal life. And special mention has to go to the ever wonderful Bill Murray, who plays openly gay Bunny Breckinridge with a dry and not too camp humour.

Depp as the title lead, of course, steals the show as he so often does with his pitch perfect portrayal of the world’s worst director. Never letting anything get him down, Wood strives to keep on making films at any cost and finds more unique and funny ways to fund them. His voice, walk and demeanour are so right that you soon begin to forget you are watching an actor in a film and begin to see him as just Ed.

Although a unique and entertaining piece of film, Ed Wood was not warmly welcomed at the box office and, although it garnered positive reviews, failed to make its money back. Since then, however, it has, as with most movie gems, garnered a cult following.

After Ed Wood, Burton again put on his producer hat and had hits with Batman Forever and the magical James And The Giant Peach. His next step directing a film, however, would be in line with those of Wood himself and next time I’ll be looking at Mars Attacks!

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Ed Wood Key Info:Released: 28th September 1994 (US) / 26th May 1995 (UK)Distributed By: Touchstone PicturesBudget: $18,000,000Box Office Gross: $5,890,000Best DVD Edition: Ed Wood (Special Edition)