[box cover]

Ed Wood: Special Edition

Buena Vista Home Video

Starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Directed by Tim Burton


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


Tim Burton's remarkable Ed Wood (1994) is a "biopic" in roughly the same way that Patton is a "biopic." Both obviously dramatize selected portions of the lives of men whose singular achievements and eccentricities set them apart from their peers. But in each film the biography is a platform for other ruminations, not an end in itself. Each is ultimately about something more than just the title subject.

It's clear that Burton had something more in mind while directing Ed Wood, which so easily could have been merely a sniggering hatchet job that points and laughs at a bad, and dead, movie-maker. Instead, Burton, who down to his bones appears to share the late Edward D. Wood Jr.'s boyish wonder at "Hollywood magic," puts his finger on the guilty appeal of Wood's films when he has Orson Welles, of all people, buck up a disheartened Wood by proclaiming, "Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else's dreams?"

Burton discovered Wood's 1950s oeuvre on TV. Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and most famously Plan 9 from Outer Space, with their shaky cardboard sets, lead-balloon dialogue, wooden acting, and pie-plate flying saucers, remain the standards by which all grade-Z crapfilms are measured. For Burton their cross-dressing, zealously clueless director's distinct style gave those schlocky midnight schedule-fillers a certain intoxicated power born out of Wood's passion for making them. Burton, with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, saw in Wood's story not just an elegiac serio-comedy and a showcase vehicle for actor Johnny Depp. There was also something worth saying about passion, dreams, and talent, and about how having two of those three things isn't the worst way to go through life.

Ed Wood chronicles Wood's years after World War II, first as a writer-director of cheap and overwrought stage dramas, then following his bliss as a writer-director of Hollywood features (cheap and overwrought were by now a matter of course). Johnny Depp explodes out of his insular Edward Scissorhands to make Wood a near-manic, yet sincere and likable, showman-huckster-dreamer. One of God's holy fools. A true auteur, Wood is his own writer, director, producer, and occasional actor. "Just like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane!" he crows with a beaming smile.

Wood is also a nonconformist in 1950s America, where conformity was king. After convincing a low-rent producer (Mike Starr) to back his first opus, Glen or Glenda, Wood gives himself the title role(s) in a deeply personal dud spotlighting his own fetish for women's clothing, especially angora sweaters. "I'm all man," he says during the pitch. "I even fought in W.W.2. Of course, I was wearing women's undergarments under my uniform." Neither Depp nor Burton plays Wood's eccentricities for cheap laughs. The laughs are naturally there with no need of shticky embellishments. Rather, Wood is geekdom's sympathetic Everyman. The producer initially wants Wood to direct an exploitative sex-change flick. Because Wood "even paratrooped wearing a brassiere and panties," what qualifies him for the job is that he "wasn't scared of being killed" but was terrified of getting wounded and having the medics discover his secret. "I know what it's like to live with a secret, and worry about what people are gonna think of you."

It stands to reason then that he is surrounded by other displaced persons. Gravitating to Wood is his company of misfit actors: camp flamer Bunny Breckinridge (a hilariously dour Bill Murray); "horseshit" TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones); TV midnight movie hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), whose gifts are cleavage-oriented; and hulking Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele). As Wood's leading lady and long-suffering girlfriend, Dolores, Sarah Jessica Parker sums them up with, "This isn't real life! You surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdoes!" Later, after Dolores storms out of his life in search of normalcy, his next girlfriend, Kathy O'Hara (Patricia Arquette) observes, "Eddie's the only fella in town who doesn't pass judgment on people." Wood nods, "That's right. If I did, I wouldn't have any friends."

Thanks to one of several chance encounters that steer the screenplay, Wood hires his childhood hero, Bela Lugosi. A destitute old man in his 70s, Lugosi is a washed-up ex-Dracula with a debilitating morphine addiction, a head muddled with soured memories of better times, and a hair-trigger foul mouth (especially where Boris Karloff is concerned). He is powerfully played by Martin Landau, who won an Oscar and a New York Critics Award for this portrayal, the finest screen time of his long career. Wood casts the discarded has-been as his company's "star" attraction. Here's where the real heart and blood of Burton's film pumps. The relationship between Wood and Lugosi is touchingly handled, affirming Burton's ability to imbue oddballs and outcasts with sympathy and warmth. Wood becomes Lugosi's friend, confidante, and — as Lugosi succumbs to the monkey on his back — his almost-savior.

As Wood channels his ardency into Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space, his travails include recasting Dolores's role as the Bride with a new ingénue (Loretta King, Landau's daughter) who could bankroll the entire production; conniving a Baptist church to fund Plan 9 (baptism under fire indeed); finagling funds, actors, and equipment with desperate, even larcenous, abandon; and Lugosi's death before production of Plan 9. Wood, only briefly inconvenienced, got Lugosi into the movie anyway.

When Wood is at his most despondent, a credulity-stretching encounter in a bar lifts him back to action. It's an impossibly tidy scene with Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio). Whether the encounter is real or just a useful hallucinatory byproduct of Wood's beaten-down soul, the master tells Wood exactly what he needs and wants to hear to keep fighting the good fight.

The Welles scene fits only because Burton's characteristic skewed-reality approach to the material let him magnify the story's theatricality. Burton and his crew crafted Ed Wood with a well-gauged "this is a movie" self-awareness. It's shot in screamingly appropriate high-contrast black-and-white, and Burton framed it all by mimicking Wood's greatest hits, such as Criswell's inane declamatory addresses to the audience ("Future events such as these will affect you in the future!"). When Depp's Ed Wood is the focus of a scene, there's a heightened staginess to Burton's visual compositions and the cast's performances. Depp exaggerates Wood's every gosh-wow expression without quite stepping over the line into caricature. It's a delicate trick that would have been fatal if overdone. There's no mistaking Ed Wood for Raging Bull.

But soon after Burton convinces us that he's playing Wood's life for a goof, he stealthily shifts the emotional tone with the friendship between the pitiable Lugosi and earnest young Eddie. Both men are affected by their mutual dependency: Wood gets to repay his horror-film hero with kindness, patience, and medical help, and Lugosi leaves this world with a few more good times and some reminders that he hasn't been forgotten after all. When Burton is in command of what's on the screen, he doesn't let us forget that we're watching a movie. When he turns that command over to Landau, we're pulled into the reality of his Lugosi. That duality gives Ed Wood its two-tone harmony, and it keeps the film from playing either side too far.

Burton's affectionate homage ends with a moment of (for Wood) triumph, exulting at the premiere of Plan 9, "This is the film I will be remembered for!" Burton leaves out the subsequent years, which straight bios note were spent as an embittered, broke alcoholic scraping by on exploitation horror-porn films and doomed to obscurity. He died in 1978 at age 54.

Wood's backhanded fame arrived posthumously with Michael and Harry Medved's 1980 book, The Golden Turkey Awards, which practically sneered as it crowned Wood the worst director of all time. Plan 9 was awarded the Worst Movie prize. Neither label is meaningful, of course. Our video stores, especially those with "psychotronic" shelves, display worse directors (i.e., less inept but more mean-spirited) and more unwatchable movies, some made with greater resources. But we can fairly call Wood the worst director to become famous. Burton's film peaked a wave of Wood appreciation that included a book-length biography, Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., which was the source for this screenplay. Interested bystanders are also pointed to three video documentaries, the marvelously titled Look Back in Angora, The Haunted World of Ed Wood, and Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion.

That Burton omits Wood's depressing slide from bad to worse is understandable. This isn't, after all, a comprehensive bio-drama like Richard Attenborough's Chaplin. Burton celebrates not only Wood's never-say-die (even-when-you-should) spirit. He saw that a film about Edward D. Wood Jr. could be his own jazz-hands dance to the spirit of movie-making. It was a vision worth fighting for.

The DVD

Buena Vista Home Video's long-delayed DVD release of Ed Wood makes the wait worthwhile. The source-print and anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) keep the film's beautiful black-and-white cinematography right on target. Contrast and grayscale are deep and rock-solid. For such a recent A-list film, the print shows a surprising amount of minor speckling, a little dirt, and some wear. The flaws are not show-stoppers at all, though videophiles aching for "pristine" are forewarned.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is strong and clean. It uses its five-point-oneness sparingly, making this really a good forward-centric stereo mix plus just enough rear ambiance support. In the theaters the scene with Vincent D'Onofrio as Orson Welles was too plainly overdubbed by Maurice LaMarche (doing his "Brain" from the Pinky and the Brain cartoons). This DVD's crisp audio makes the disconnect between D'Onofrio and LaMarche obvious enough to crack the scene's verisimilitude.

The chief attraction among the extras is the informative and entertaining commentary audio with Tim Burton, Martin Landau, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, and costume designer Colleen Atwood. It's only occasionally scene-specific, and everyone except the two writers was recorded individually. All participants contribute well as they chronicle the project from its inception through its development and shooting. Burton is chatty and sounds quite pleased to talk about Wood's films ("like weird dreams" that are almost "poetic" in their badness), Wood himself, and what attracted Burton to him. Burton and the writers laud Depp's performance. We get Landau's thoughts on characterization, plus good summaries on the casting and the unexpected technical challenges posed by shooting a modern film in black-and-white. Alexander and Karaszewski, talking together in the most scene-specific segments, separate the film's facts from their fictionalizations, and relate their history writing the script for Problem Child, which was taken away from them and botched into a bad movie, a development hell that started them thinking about Ed Wood and his passion for movie-making.

The Bonus Material menu begins with a Music Video (3:28) choreographed by Toni Basil ("Hey Mickey") and co-directed by Burton. This Ed Wood A-Go-Go oddity uses Howard Shore's main title music straight up and gives it to a Vampira-like, hair-swirling dancing girl on a Woodian graveyard set. She's accompanied by period-cheesy video effects and clips from Wood's films and Burton's feature. It's in DD 2.0 stereo.

"Let's Shoot This F#*%@r!" (13:56) — Not your typical behind-the-scenes featurette. With no post-production gloss and no talking heads, we get instead long home-movie takes of Burton at work with Depp, Landau, and others shooting scenes such as the Plan 9 recreation and Landau's wet rubber-octopus fight. It's scored with Shore's title theme. While on the meathouse set costumed in his "seven veils" drag garb, Depp steps up to the camera for an impromptu intro and closing. Just raw footage with no promotional rah-rah built in, this one's a welcome change from the usual over-produced "making-of" marketing fluff.

"The Theremin" (7:23) — Composer Howard Shore gives us a primer on his score and how he used the fascinating 1920s electronic instrument that provided the ghostly oooo-weee-ooo vibe of so many 1950s sci-fi films. Theremin expert Mark Segal demonstrates how the instrument is played by moving your hands through the space between two metal rods.

"Making Bela" (8:14) — Here's a tribute to Lugosi from Ed Wood's two Oscar-winners. Actor's actor Martin Landau discusses his studious approach to the character of Bela Lugosi. Intercut with Landau, makeup supervisor Rick Baker tells us why he would have worked on this "labor of love" for free if he had to. We also get footage of the real Bela and a peek into Landau's dressing room while the layers of makeup are being applied to his face.

"Pie Plates Over Hollywood" (13:49) — Production designer Tom Duffield hosts this look through his production sketches and Polaroids. He addresses the difficulties of shooting in black-and-white with enough depth to make this extra useful for burgeoning art directors.

Five deleted scenes (7:50 total) — Not much was lost in these cuts, with two just trims from the octopus-stealing scene. Footage of Bunny's dirgeful parade with his mariachi band while singing "Que Sera Sera" through the meat-packing plant might have been an off-script throwaway, as there's no hint about where it might have appeared in the film. Other cuts give us more material on Wood and Lugosi, plus Eddie having dinner with Tor Johnson's disapproving family.

Amusing animated menus and the theatrical trailer are here too.

—Mark Bourne



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