I was planning to cover this film as well prior to the death of Martin Landau, and now I offer this review as a bookend of my tribute. As macabre as it may be, I think I’d like to time my reviews around these key deaths as I know they will continue like clockwork. I think it would be better to write this way rather than delivering the usual career retrospectives because if I wrote fullblown obituaries I’d spend all my time doing just that.
I would consider myself to have once been a fan of Tim Burton. You could say Big Fish was probably his last “good” film after which he really became nothing more than a more whimsical Michael Bay hack,. Burton was best when his misfit/outsider themes came across as sincere rather than schtick. But Burton’s penchant for humor and cutesiness always worked against any sense of pathos, leaving the goth/emo stuff on the surface.
They say write what you know. But too often Burton’s films are about what he’s a fan of and not what he knows. But if there’s one thing filmmakers know is what it means to be a filmmaker itself. And while I haven’t read any biographies on the guy, Ed Wood feels autobiographical.
One of the first things I do when I finish a film is look for ways it seems to exist within a continuum of similar films. When I say “similar”, on the surface they could seem totally different, but they share a common theme, message, or tone. The one film that seems to share the most with Ed Wood is, implausibly enough:
In both The Muppet Movie and Ed Wood, you start out with a protagonist who wants to make it in showbiz who winds up gathering a group of like-minded misfits and manages to, despite all obstacles, “make it”. The Muppets humor revolved around a comedy of errors. They were never portrayed as being consummate professionals. The only thing they had was a shared ambition.
With Ed Wood, that passion to “make it” in Hollywood is rather loosely defined. While some are attracted by the lure of showbiz, for the most part they are there for a meal-ticket. So while Tim Burton these days seems to operate as a very well-paid hack, that aspect of doing anything for a buck is on full display at a bargain basement scale right in Ed Wood. The only difference is Alice in Wonderland movies make a billion dollars, but on a critical level, they’re not that much better regarded as Wood’s on anything other than the technical aspects.
But I think it’s no surprise that The Muppet Movie and Ed Wood would be similar. Henson had something he wanted to say about himself and his group of puppeteers in that film. The film was a thinly veiled analogy for their common struggle for success and acceptance. That’s what all filmmakers go through, and what Burton is expressing through the vehicle of Ed Wood. It’s just that Wood’s weirdness is in his lack of taste and cross-dressing vs. Burton’s spikey emo hair and Addams family sensibilities.
Another aspect of Burton is the trope of the aging horror star as a father-figure. You see it with Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands and you see it with Christopher Lee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In this film it’s in docudrama form as Landau channeling Bela Lugosi.
Yet another aspect of Burton is he likes to shift focus off of the official protagonist and onto the most eccentric character. That happened in Batman with Jack Nicholson stealing the film from Michael Keaton and it happened here with Landau’s Lugosi getting the juiciest scenes. While Landau won best supporting actor, one walks away from the film thinking more of his portrayal than Depp’s perfunctory wide-eyed manchild routine as Ed Wood.
My favorite scene is when Landau’s Lugosi meets Wood at the door with a pistol with the intention of committing suicide. Then he takes it even farther and suggests that it be a double-suicide. Only in the mind of Tim Burton can a scene like that play out in an almost sweet way. Bela frames the idea of double-suicide as a way to relieve both of them from suffering and he wants to maintain his friendship. However, there is this moment of clarity that washes over Landau which is really awsome. The dark humor gives way to genuine pathos. When Landau starts crying on Depp’s shoulder asking for forgiveness, it’s probably the single best dramatic moment in any Tim Burton film. Unfortunately I can’t find that scene on Youtube so I can’t embed it.
Landau also is the source of the film’s best humor. So he really covered the spectrum on the laughs and the tears. I usually have a problem with swearing in films, but it’s the clash between the black and white period piece from a supposedly more “innocent” era and the more modern “crude” talk that works for me. It’s done in just the right ratio. If it had gone over the top Kevin Smith style it would have ruined it.
The big climax of the film is all about producing the eventual masterpiece of awfulness, Plan 9 From Outer Space. While Wood’s persistence helps, there’s no way a film so bad could be produced without a series of happy accidents. So you get a sense that destiny was insuring that the film got made, and that it was, in a strange way, an achievement.
Another film that shares some similarities to Ed Wood is Amadeus. In Amadeus, the theme was that some people are born with innate talent, so much that greatness comes easily. Salieri has to bust his ass just to produce passable material. Amadeus just goofs off all the time and produces masterpieces without breaking a sweat. One can take issue with that thesis, but that’s the theme of the film. Ed Wood is an inversion of Amadeus. It suggests that some people are born without talent, and yet they manage to fail their way forward through luck and persistence. My life history has shown that the Ed Wood view is more true than Amadeus. While the potential for talent is partly nature, and there are child prodigies out there, even when you have talent, it takes work to hone it. Likewise, some people find themselves in professions for which they really do not belong, but for whatever reason, they stumble forward. (I’d be tempted to insert mention of a certain politician here…)
Another connection with Amadeus is the idea of interference from patrons. The famous “too many notes” scene featured a common actor (Jeffrey Jones who we all know got in trouble with the law more recently).
Milos Forman and many other filmmakers have tried to express the struggles of trying to maintain their artistic integrity in the face of this sort of interference.
Robert Altman had his take on things with The Player which brought us this famous quotable from a movie exec:
I was just thinking what an interesting concept it is to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we could just get rid of these actors and directors, maybe we’ve got something here.
The comedic spin in Ed Wood is although he is technically an artist, and as a matter of principle deserves to say his piece, he is a bad one. For him to be given free reign doesn’t really elevate the material. The best one can say about it is that when he stands up for himself to finish Plan 9 on his own terms, he pushes the material so far into bad territory that it becomes good again, as self-parody. A dubious honor.
Nevertheless, in Ed Wood is just as much an essay on the intersection of art and commerce as any. In a way you could see it as a dramatization of some of the rants I post about industry dysfunction. And I guess because of that combination of insider meta-story and ensemble misfit bonding, it will remain one of my favs.