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‘Ed Wood’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 07, 1994


Tim Burton
Johnny Depp;
Martin Landau;
Bill Murray;
Sarah Jessica Parker;
Patricia Arquette
Under 17 restricted
Supporting Actor; Makeup

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Late in Tim Burton’s sweetly bizarre “ Ed Wood,” an exasperated financial backer asks the director whether he has any concept of film production. Undaunted as always, Wood brightly responds, “I like to think so.” He couldn’t be more wrong.

Famed as the worst director of all time, Edward D. Wood Jr. was a distinctly American phenomenon—a schlock visionary. That Wood’s movies were bad is not really a subject of debate; they were extravagantly, often inexplicably bad. But that this bottom-of-the-barrel auteur never seemed to get wind of his shortcomings is what makes the character here so irresistibly charming.

Actually, Wood’s lack of talent is sort of irrelevant. Wood made movies because he had to, and as Johnny Depp plays him, his greatest gift was a perpetually sunny indifference to the plain facts of real life. After reading about a producer’s plans to make a film about Christine Jorgensen’s sex change, Wood offers his services, claiming that he is better qualified than anyone else to deal with this subject. Why? Because he likes to wear women’s clothes—he even parachuted over Germany wearing panties and a bra under his uniform.

What’s remarkable here is that this revelation isn’t the least unsettling.

Actually, “ Ed Wood” may be the sunniest movie about sexual deviance ever made. Asked whether he likes women, Wood says he loves them, adding, “Wearing their clothes only makes me feel closer to them.” And Depp makes him seem so open and uncomplicated that we immediately take him at his word.

Working from a droll screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Burton presents Wood as a wide-eyed innocent. Though Wood’s life is filled with personal and professional setbacks of all kinds, nothing seems to break his chipper mood.

Though Burton focuses his story on the hilarious contortions that went into the making of Wood’s films, the pivotal relationship in the movie is between Wood and his lifelong hero, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Now in his seventies and addicted to morphine, Lugosi has been washed up as an actor for years. To Wood, though, he is as big as ever, and though there is absolutely nothing for him to do in his sex change movie—which becomes his transvestite movie, “Glen or Glenda?”—he signs him up anyway.

It’s impossible to overestimate the job that Landau does here as this sepulchral Hungarian. Both vocally and physically, he’s simply astounding. As Burton sees it, Lugosi and Wood were equally good for one another. Lugosi helped Wood sucker backers into financing his disasters, and Wood gave Lugosi a reason to live—plus a little cash to buy more dope. But Depp and Landau create a relationship that is far stranger and more tender than one built solely on mutual advantage. Like Depp and Vincent Price in “Edward Scissorhands,” the actors slip into a moving father-son relationship with Wood shouldering the burden of his aging parent’s deterioration.

As time goes by, the need to bail Lugosi out of one crisis or another becomes the driving force behind Wood’s career. Oblivious to rejection, Wood presses on, beating the bushes for cash and creating work for his friend, despite the fact that, in the case of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” he is already dead.

Such trivialities were often lost on Wood, and Depp does a brilliantly skillful job of portraying the filmmaker’s engaging single-mindedness. Plus he looks smashing in his blond wig and tight sweaters. From “Batman” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Edward Scissorhands,” it’s clear that Burton has a special affinity for freaks, and he’s surrounded Depp with a sublime bunch, including Jeffrey Jones as the mentalist Criswell, Lisa Marie as horror show hostess Vampira, and George “The Animal” Steele as the Swedish wrestler-turned-

actor Tor Johnson. As Wood’s girlfriend, Dorothy, Sarah Jessica Parker is hysterically funny as the only truly sane person in the film, and Patricia Arquette is adorable as the one woman who really understands him. The best of them, though, is Bill Murray, who takes fey to undreamed-of heights.

In a magnificent scene near the end of the film, Wood meets his director hero, Orson Welles (played with uncanny accuracy by Vincent D’Onofrio), in a bar. Even though Wood is dressed in a skirt and pink angora, these two strike up a conversation about the need for artists to stick to their visions. In passing, Welles mentions that the financing has fallen through yet again for “Don Quixote,” and the reference is perfect. When Wood mentioned his link to Welles earlier in the film, it seemed like a joke. But for Burton, they’re both Don Quixotes, tilting heroically at windmills. And so, too, is Burton. Making a movie about the life of Ed Wood certainly qualifies as an impossible dream, but Burton has pulled it off with wit, imagination and something amazingly close to grace.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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