Sunday, October 04, 2009

“The women…the women prefer the traditional monsters.”

The name of Edward D. Wood, Jr. is synonymous with horrific filmmaking. A name etched in cinematic history for being able to scare audiences out of their seats and out into the streets demanding their money back. Yes, to some, Ed Wood is cemented in history the worst director of all time, having written and directed such nightmares as Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Atom, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. And in 1994, this oddball director received a biopic from oddball director Tim Burton.

In the 1950s, a young, idealistic director with more enthusiasm than talent struggles to make his cinematic dreams a reality. Along the way, he assembles a team of misfits that include a star fallen far into obscurity, a wrestler that can’t speak English well, a teller of wild fortunes, a TV horror movie hostess and more. The movie does get the basics of Ed Wood’s life down, it does take liberties for the sake of storytelling, skirting the line between biography and narrative.

Edward D. Wood, Jr.: Johnny Depp. Now all the female readers of this column will seek this movie out. Anyway, Depp plays a young, bright-eyed Wood. He’s got a vision, a dream to make movies, and won’t let anybody stop him. He also likes dressing up in women’s clothing, especially angora sweaters. Its not that he doesn’t love women, he just really likes wearing their clothes too. The idealism Depp infuses the character with is infectious. He just really, really wants to make movies. More than his boyish idealism though, the character gets a genuine humanity to him, an honesty and earnestness that can’t help but generate sympathy. What really elevates the character to heroic status though, is his devotion and compassion for Bela Lugosi.

Bela Lugosi: Martin Landau turns in an Oscar-winning performance as the Hungarian actor in his twilight years. Long since fallen from his Dracula heyday, Lugosi in the 50s was a morphine addicted, penniless wreck that people were surprised to find out he was still alive. He was Wood’s hero growing up, and after befriending the veteran horror star by chance, Wood was determined to get him in movies again. Landau plays Lugosi as a proud, foul-mouthed, cantankerous, dirty old man, and it is glorious. Easily the film’s badass, he’s also got a deep vulnerability thanks to his addiction to painkillers and his struggle to overcome them.

Dolores Fuller: Sarah Jessica Parker plays Wood’s first gal. She’s there from the start, supportive but she doesn’t fully understand everything that makes him tick. Amusingly, the character reads a scathing review of one of Wood’s plays and comments on her face looking like a horse, a good couple of years before Family Guy did a similar joke about Parker.

Kathy O’Hara: Patricia Arquette plays Wood’s second gal and eventual wife. She understands where Ed’s coming from better, and happens to love monster movies as well, so Ed ends up trading up.

Criswell: Jeffrey Jones plays the fortune teller who joins up with Wood & Lugosi, providing a little needed encouragement (and some outrageous predictions).

Bunny Breckinridge: Bill Murray as a flamboyantly homosexual friend of Ed Wood’s. Doesn’t do much for the plot, but he gets some great lines.

Vampira: Lisa Marie plays a proto-Elvira mistress of the dark. She’s a TV hostess for a show that plays old horror movies. Wood eventually befriends her, and she gets a role in Plan 9.

Tor Johnson: Actual wrestler George “the Animal” Steele plays the Scandinavian strongman who played the lumbering monster in several of Wood’s movies.

Loretta King: Juliet Landau (Martin’s daughter) plays a young woman freshly arrived in Hollywood that helps finance one of Wood’s movies in exchange for a starring role.

Orson Welles: Vincent D’Onofrio plays the body and Maurice LaMarche (veteran voice actor probably best known for being the Brain from Pinky and the Brain and for various voices on Futurama like Calculon) plays the voice of the distinguished actor/director who’s Wood’s other hero. It’s a small part, but Welles provides Wood with some sage advice and encouragement at a critical moment.

Despite being a Tim Burton movie, the film reigns in the crazy colorful look of most Tim Burton movies. Instead, its in glorious black and white, just like Wood’s most (in)famous movies. Burton goes so far as to directly emulate/remake several (in)famous scenes from Wood’s movies. It’s a conscious choice on Burton’s part, and I think it was the right decision to go for a look that emulates the low budget 1950’s era Wood was a part of. Also, I can’t possibly imagine Bela Lugosi in color. Amusingly, this movie is both of a higher quality and higher budget than any of Wood’s actual movies. Combined.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski adapted a book by Rudolph Grey about Ed Wood’s life. Now, I’m no expert on Wood’s life (oh God, why would I want to be??) and it’s a given that liberties are taken with the truth in favor of dramatic storytelling. Dialog is great, particularly anytime Lugosi gets pissed off and starts throwing F bombs (I dare you to mention Boris Karloff to him). Hell, the dialog’s great whenever they make Lugosi talk, even if its just getting excited when he has trick or treaters to scare.

The score by Howard Shore merges several themes together. Lugosi gets Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” as his melancholy theme (that played over the beginning of Dracula) and Ed Wood’s theme is something taken from Glen or Glenda. The rest of the score is great, balancing between cheesy 50’s B-movie cues and more heroic sweeps for the characters.

Ed Wood is a tightly crafted, sympathetic, stylish character drama that makes you root for the oddball director and his team that just want to make their movies. This is, of course, something that the actual Ed Wood did not achieve with his own films, so its really a testament to Tim Burton’s talent as a filmmaker to do what he did. Absolutely recommended.

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