Directed By Tim Burton
“Really? Worst movie you ever saw? Well, my next one’ll be better!”
With Ed Wood, Tim Burton has a clear challenge: do you romanticise the Worst Director Of All Time, so that his films don’t look that bad after all, or do what a lot of other biopics do and just tell us how miserable he was? Burton takes a trickier third option, and tells an inspiring, hopeful story about a guy trying to make movies and gain acceptance, while never shying away from the fact that Ed’s movies were really, no-fooling terrible. It’s not a spoof, as there is no need to spoof something as car-crash dreadful as Glen Or Glenda. Nor is it entirely wistful. It’s pitched somewhere between, and its message – that outsiders are never alone, and wanting to do something great can be enough, even if the end result sucks – encapsulates most of the things Tim Burton has ever tried to say as a filmmaker. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is Burton’s best film, and there’s a tremendously sweet irony in the fact that it’s all about a guy who made terrible movies.
At the centre of it all is Johnny Depp, almost unstoppably optimistic as Ed. He smiles, ignores such petty filmmaking gripes as continuity and clumsy actors, and fawns unashamedly over his idol, Bela Lugosi, whose faded career he gives a last-minute jump start. (Of sorts. His reputation sinks even lower thanks to Wood, but Bela would argue there’s no such thing as bad press, so we’ll go with that.) Their relationship is of course based partly on Tim Burton’s own with Vincent Price, but it’s also a handy metaphor for how Burton views Ed Wood. He’s dimly aware of the man’s many failings, but more concerned with what good he’s capable of. Martin Landau is magnificent as Lugosi, but for me the less-celebrated Depp is the star of the show. It’s a slightly exaggerated, almost cartoony portrayal, making Ed more of an icon than a down-to-Earth normal human being. But then, whoever said Ed was normal?
The entire cast are on top form. Bill Murray is particularly wonderful as Bunny, one of Ed’s cohorts: it’s a performance that’s ingrained into every little movement, making Bunny one of the most real things in the movie. Sarah Jessica Parker has the perhaps problematic role of Ed’s girlfriend, who eventually leaves him. She does a great job of being the voice of reason when necessary – “You make shit! These movies are terrible!” – but also providing Ed with a sympathetic ear. She’s a tough, complex little character.
We get to see Ed’s most talked about movies get made, and his final “masterpiece”, Plan 9, is treated almost with awe – but again, without ignoring the fact that it was stupid, stupid, stupid. And that’s okay. Ed wanted to be remembered, and in a display of typical optimism, Tim Burton tells us that he got his wish. Ed would probably look at his infamous reputation with cockeyed misunderstanding, and see the good in it: all these people wouldn’t profess to hate him with such enthusiasm if they didn’t love him just a little, right? And it’s that ability to see the good in things, even when they are definitely, categorizably bad, that Burton has captured so well.
It's funny and entertaining, certainly, because movies about movies (especially bad ones) are always a hoot. But it’s the hopeful spirit that makes it a moving story as well: Ed’s grinning determination, the kindred weirdos he meets, the faith he inspires in them. There isn't another biopic quite like it, which is fitting for a filmmaker like Ed Wood, who is arguably unsurpassed in his own way. Seriously: Glen Or Glenda absolutely stinks. In that particular case, Burton tells the tale of a longing transvestite much better than Ed himself managed, and that’s somehow no disservice to a man who was lucky to figure out which end of the camera pointed where. The film about his life tells us that we must try, no matter the odds, no matter what everybody thinks, and no matter if they’re right. That’s a hell of a thing to get from watching Plan 9 From Outer Space, and that, one hopes, ought to be Ed’s real legacy.