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‘Ed Wood’

By Desson Howe
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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If Ed Wood hadn’t existed, director Tim Burton probably would have invented him. Which makes it more than appropriate that Burton, creator of “Beetlejuice,” “Batman” and “Edward Scissorhands,” has made “ Ed Wood, “ an understatedly delirious portrait of the eccentric filmmaker.

Wood, Hollywood’s goofiest visionary, made a dead-end career during the 1950s of no-budget, klutzily scripted movies about ghouls, aliens and transvestites. The quasi-autobiographical films, which Wood wrote and appeared in, stank spectacularly. The productions were rushed. The acting was atrocious. The sets wobbled. Flying saucers “hovered” on obvious threads. And in the nuttiest budget-saving device of all, Wood incorporated stock shots of anything he could find (from army battles to octopi) into the stories.

Wood—who played the eponymous transvestite role in his debut “Glen or Glenda”—had a thing for women’s clothing too. A decorated war hero and avowed heterosexual, he fought in World War II wearing bra and panties under his uniform.

Burton’s movie, which stars Johnny Depp as Wood, presents Wood’s life as if it were one of his movies. Shot in a cheesy, black-and-white style reminiscent of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” it’s a tender, midnight-madness parable about a determined moviemaker who tilts at every conceivable Hollywood windmill to get his pictures made. Befriending over-the-hill horror star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), and rounding up a motley coterie of performers, Depp hustles studio honchos, B-movie producers, lonely women at bars, dentists and Baptist ministers to finance his harebrained projects. Few of them bite.

Yet somehow, the movies—with names like “Bride of the Monster”— get made. And terrible as they are, Depp is rhapsodically satisfied with all of them. During filming, he never asks for a second take, even when burly George “The Animal” Steele (as wrestler-turned-actor Tor Johnson) smashes into a prop doorway and almost knocks it over. In Depp’s mind, every performance is perfect, and the power of his delusion affects troupers Landau, Bill Murray (as a screamingly funny would-be transsexual called Bunny Breckinridge), Lisa Marie (as Vampira, a ‘50s precursor to Elvira) and others.

His movies are always panned. Money is never available. Sarah Jessica Parker, Depp’s girlfriend and erstwhile leading lady, leaves him. Landau, a morphine addict, is rapidly deteriorating. But Depp, who finds new love with Patricia Arquette (as Kathy Wood), perseveres until “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” the campy zenith of his questionable oeuvre—enjoys its L.A. premiere.

Apart from a brief epilogue (telling us Wood died in 1978 at the age of 54), Burton’s movie pretty much leaves the story here, choosing not to get into the real Wood’s later, pornographic movies (which he appeared in) or his fatal descent into drinking. Depp’s performance— probably the most assured of his career—is amusing, but it doesn’t bring you in. In fact, the whole movie— despite fleetingly good moments from Landau and Murray—is devoid of character warmth. Burton has evoked the surface of Ed Wood’s life, but in a story about a man who loves angora and frilly panties, he has barely unbuttoned Wood’s uniform. When Vincent D’Onofrio makes a late, memorable appearance as Orson Welles (a Hollywood auteur Depp absurdly relates to as a fellow artist), he’s a welcome blast of human air. You want this other enfant terrible to stay longer.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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