Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994) Film Review

Catch a falling star and put him in your movie. “What a picture.” As many horror and horror-adjacent movies I’ve seen over the years, I am still finding those that I am familiar with–yet–have never taken the time to watch. And Ed Wood is one of those movies. Even if you know the story, and have even seen clips of the movie in your cinema studies class, believe me, you want to seek out this brilliant motion picture about the dark side of show business. There is perhaps no greater example of posthumous notoriety and success in cinema than the late filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., most famously known for Plan 9 from Outer Space and casting the great Bela Lugosi in his final screen appearance. While his Z-grade movies were laughed at during their day, these movies provide inspiration to artists everywhere that you can pursue your dreams even when your harshest critics and financiers dismiss you. Ed Wood was a creator with a passion for bringing joy through entertainment into people’s lives. Perhaps his films were poorly produced, written, directed, and virtually everything else, but what this films demonstrate is a love of filmmaking and respect for great talent that flew in the face of a “town that chews you up and spits you out.” Ed Wood was in motion pictures for the art and love, not for the business. Tim Burton’s quasi biographical film about the production of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the relationship between Bela Lugosi and Wood is a beautiful portrait of love and respect. Of all the fantastic performances in this film, Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi is a command performance that rightly earned him an Oscar for Supporting Actor. If you’ve ever had a dream, this film serves as inspiration and provides darkly comedic anecdotes that shine a light on the lengths independent filmmakers have to go in order to find a way to finance and produce films. This film is a sort of ode to all the misfit creatives out there, and probably the most sincere and personal film that Burton has ever made.

Because of his eccentric habits and bafflingly strange films, director Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is a Hollywood outcast. Nevertheless, with the help of the formerly famous Bela Lugosi (Landau) and a devoted cast and crew of show-business misfits who believe in Ed’s off-kilter vision, the filmmaker is able to bring his oversize dreams to cinematic life. Despite a lack of critical or commercial success, Ed and his friends manage to create an oddly endearing series of extremely low-budget films. (IMDb)

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All the technical elements scream classic Tim Burton! From the moment the movie opens, even if you did not know that this was a Burton film, you would instantly identify the stylistic opening as quintessentially Burton. And not just the choice to make the movie grayscale, but the production design has a gothic poetry to it. Burton was able to successfully capture the look and feel of 1950s Hollywood. He was careful to recreate the world of Ed Wood, all the way down to the character blocking in the movies within the movie. For example, you can compare the recreated Ed Wood movies within this biopic to the real deal, and many are practically carbon copies. I appreciate this because it makes the filmmaking we see in the movie feel all the more real when what’s being shot in the movie is the same as was shot in real life. Perhaps Burton didn’t shut down Hollywood Boulevard like QT did for OUATIH, but he painstakingly transports the audience of the then 90s and even today’s audience to an era of independent film production that produced movies that look like they belong on an old UHF station.Most of the scenes are set in dank, warehouses or the empty streets of a nondescript section of the city. Other scenes are simply in a humble home. The filmmaker Ed Wood never shot a frame that he didn’t like; moreover, this practice was so extreme that he would ignore complete technical blunders and horrendous acting that was so bad that it achieved a kind of grandeur or cult status that can be appreciated decades later because Wood’s love of movies and movie making shines through in every frame of his masterful disasters.

Just as Ed Wood loved every frame of everything he ever made, the visual design of this film has got to be loved by Burton. His signature is on every scene. No mistaking it, there is more to the reasons for recreating Ed Wood’s Hollywood than just making an accurate biopic. Much like Norma Desmond took audiences on a journey into the life of a faded once-great(est) star of the silent era, It’s in these very dark corners and abandoned places where the true love of motion picture making lives, where the only reward for wrapping a picture is the love of the work itself and the cheers of those whom stood by you and helped take the idea from concept to screen. Ed Wood represents geek culture of the 1950s, future icons of horror and science-fiction are featured as unappreciated in their time. Fortunately today, geek culture is alive and well, and even celebrated. Yeah, there are obnoxious stans out there, but most of us movie and horror geeks simply love the medium and enjoy having fun with movies that still capture our imaginations. The director Ed Wood was not unlike many of us; he had a dream, and stopped at nothing to realize it. While I do not care much for Burton’s work after the 80s and 90s, he is a filmmaker that showed audiences through BeetlejuiceBatman Returns, Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks, and Ed Wood that he loves the art of motion pictures. When you went to a Burton picture in the 80s and 90s, you knew that you would witness the hand of the artist. In both Ed Wood’s and Tim Burton’s films, there is an effervescent life, a joy in their films that technically and critically “better” pictures only wish they had.

We cannot talk about Ed Wood without spending some on Landau’s Oscar-winning performance as Dracula himself Bela Lugosi! I was blown away by how sincere the performance was. What we saw Renee Zellweger do with Judy Garland in last year’s Judy, Landau did with Lugosi in Ed Wood. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said that I was watching Lugosi in this film. Both vocally and physically, Landau transforms into the famous Hungarian actor. From the moment we first see him laying in the coffin (creative latitude on Burton’s part), Landau captures our imaginations. Landau delivers a performance of a faded film star that Gloria Swanson would be proud of. In many respects, the characters of Bela Lugosi and Norma Desmond are similar. While Norma wasn’t living in near poverty, she was living in a world in which the parade of fans long sense passed her by; likewise, Lugosi fell into such obscurity that even people in the business thought he was dead. Landau embodies the mind and soul of someone that feels completely abandoned by the world and the fans that once loved to see his pictures. And it wasn’t the fame or money that Lugosi missed per se, but bringing joy to millions and simply the feeling of being wanted or needed is what Lugosi missed most. While Landau received negative criticism from the family and friends of Lugosi because his family said that Lugosi never used profanity or slept in coffins, there is no doubt that this is one of the finest performances of Landau’s career and in biopics.

Everything about this motion picture works brilliantly! I’m only disappointed that it took me this long to finally make time to watch it. Even though there is something in this movie for everyone, I feel that it impacts cinephiles and filmmakers the most. Though, there is a high degree of relatability for anyone that has ever had a dream and stops at nothing to continue to pursue it. Amid the recreation of all the tacky filmmaking and notoriously bad acting, there is a warmth and charm that will stick with you long after the credits role.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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