By Philip Newton
Ed Wood is often regarded as the worst director of all time, and became infamous within cinema for directing turkey after turkey with Plan 9 From Outer Space being his most well-known. Here we see Tim Burton take a rather affectionate perspective on the legend of this enigmatic figure focussing on his passions and struggles rather than ridiculing the results of his efforts. What comes from this is a typical Burton work, full of weird and wonderful style and imagery, however, at its centre is a misunderstood and underappreciated director not for his skill but for his will and dedication to his vision.
Johnny Depp takes on the lead role as Ed Wood and in my opinion could be regarded as one of his finest performances. He doesn’t hide behind a gimmick but instead engages with the audience his interpretation of our hero, and that’s how I would regard him in this film. I did not feel the character was desperate or pathetic, just a director working hard to tell his life’s work. Ed is a man who ranks himself alongside Orson Welles being a director, writer and producer, this does not feel like arrogance but pride as a filmmaker, and as a viewer I did not feel like mocking him but admiring his dedication to his craft.
In one scene Wood speaks with his idol Welles whom he finds in a bar having a quiet drink and they share stories together. Wood speaks as though they are old friends meeting again even though Welles’s has no idea of his existence, Wood has admired the man for so long it is almost like he knows him and hangs off his every word.
Another man he admires is legendary horror star Bele Lugosi, played here by Martin Landau in an Oscar winning turn, and when Wood rediscovers his idol he vows to once again make him the star he once was. What begins in terrain of comedy, Lugosi performing in Wood’s bad film’s fighting a rubber octopus and being compared with rival Boris Karloff, turns into a genuine friendship of great emotion and drama. When Lugosi checks himself into rehab for drug addiction, Wood stands by his side for this is now his friend not simply his idol and allows us to see that tenderness of caring beneath the exterior of the bizarre.
Johnny Depp has always had a talent for giving his characters comedic vulnerabilities which on the surface should frighten us off however simply intrigue us more as to what else they have to offer, due to their endearing quality. Here he is no different in his scenes explaining his life as a cross dresser when speaking to his first wife played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Dressed in her clothes explaining his dual life it is hilarious albeit quirky and Depp does not play up to the scene, which pays off more effectively.
In contrast to this when at the fair on a broken down ghost train he explains to his new girlfriend his life as a cross dresser and his concerns over how she would take it. This time Depp plays it for a dramatic effect as this is a real individual with real vulnerabilities not a clown and Depp show’s his versatility with these two scenes in particular.
Bringing everything together is Tim Burton and once again is a director where themes and visual style work well together creating a unique experience. Burton is fascinated by misunderstood oddities, characters that form an initially unusual presence to the world who we do not understand, however as the film progresses realise that they have the same desires as us all to succeed and be loved. Visually he succeeds by shooting the film in black and white evoking memories of old 1930’s horror films, the gothic imagery also puts us right in the moment reflecting the themes and tone of Wood’s world.
One of the most beautifully filmed scenes is on his first date and the broken down ghost train, as the train breaks down the lights of the background fade to black bringing up the lighting of the two solitary figures. It is a scene as much strangely bizarre as it is magical perfectly capturing the moment and setting.
If one scene could define the film it would be where Welles tells Wood “always go with your vision, without that what do you have?” No matter how his vision may have been regarded by the industry, at least Wood never sold out and stayed true to his art.