The man who is routinely described as the worst director the movie industry has ever produced blithely ignores the fact he has no talent whatsoever and keeps churning out his monumentally awful genre flicks, often while wearing womenís clothing.
I donít think Ed Wood is Tim Burtonís best movie. Big Fish is better, and I love Pee-weeís Big Adventure (donít ask me why; I canít explain it), but Iíd definitely give the bronze medal to this love letter to Edward D. Wood, Jr., the man who gave the world some of the most inept motion pictures ever created. Itís nicely crafted, flawlessly acted, and told in a manner that perfectly befits the story, but some messiness on the part of the screenplay causes it to stumble on a few occasions. This is one of those cases where a bit of massaging of the script could have turned a very good movie into a great one.
Although he may not have scissors for hands or live in a candy-colored fantasy world, Ed Wood is still a quintessential Burton protagonist. Heís an outcast, one with a skewed, eternally optimistic outlook, and heís just as detached from reality as any of Burtonís personal creations. Thereís no question that Burton identifies with Wood in much the same way he identifies with Edward Scissorhands or that kid from Frankenweenie, which is why he was the perfect choice to handle this material.
The original plan was Burton would produce and Heathers director Michael Lehmann would direct, but Lehmann couldnít get out of his Airheads contract (bet he regrets that), so Burton stepped in. The script was more or less locked in, so itís unlikely that a Lehman-helmed version would have been all that different in terms of content, but it still would have been a much different movie, as the love Burton so obviously poured into it would have been missing.
Given his reputation and legacy, it would have been very easy to make a movie that mocked Wood. Letís face it, the man was so devoid of talent that labeling him a hack is an insult to garden-variety hacks. But Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (itís still hard to believe the duo that wrote Problem Child and its sequel could turn around and perform the one-two punch of this movie and The People vs. Larry Flynt) instead present him as a man who loved filmmaking but who had absolutely no idea how to make a film (and was completely oblivious to the fact he had no idea). He went to ridiculous lengths to fund and see his movies through to fruition, this despite the critical drubbing and financial failure of each. Say what you will about the final result, but you have to admire a crossdresser who cozies up to some dyed-in-the-wool Baptists in order to fund a movie about grave-robbing aliens. Thatís dedication. Wood was a complete failure, but the movie makes him an endearing one.
The movie also plays very loose with the facts (for example, the portrayal of Lugosiís last years is largely untrue), which is why you canít really call it a biopic. The script takes the best known phase of Woodís career and condenses and manipulates it into something that can be told in two hours. But thereís not really much in the way of story here. The plot isnít doggedly episodic, but itís certainly not smooth or easy in the way it moves. Thereís some logic to the way the incidents presented here are strung together (the relationship between Wood and Bela Lugosi is the only real through-line), but thereís not much to make you forget theyíre just strung-together incidents. Thatís something that bothered me the first time I saw the movie and continues to bother me.
One thing that wasnít so bothersome back then but now really sticks out is some of the self-conscious humor. Jokes about Charlton Heston playing a Mexican in Touch of Evil will probably never get old, but Woodís remark that Plan 9 will be the movie heís remembered for is too precious by half, as is the bit where he uses one of that movieís most famous outbursts two or three scenes before heís shown filming that very outburst. Stuff that like is too winking to jibe with the overall tone and thrust of the movie. The score also becomes intrusive at times. Some of the drama is undercut by incongruous, unnecessary music.
Thereís a reason Martin Landauís portrayal of Lugosi got so much press when the movie was first released: itís seamless and transformative. Aided by Rick Bakerís makeup, Landau vanishes into the part. Johnny Depp is perfect as Wood, but thereís something about Depp that prevents you from ever completely forgetting itís Depp. Landau has no such baggage, and never once do you think youíre watching the guy from Space: 1999 imitating Lugosi; he simply is Lugosi.
Aside from the opening credits, little in the way of Burtonís typical style is on display here. He instead adopts a style that either tells the story in an unadorned manner or recalls movies of the era being portrayed. This was a wise move on Burtonís part, one heíd be wise to adopt more often. Heís reached a point where anyone whoís watched all his movies and has a basic understanding of how cinema works could come along and mimic his style perfectly. Itís long past time for him to shake things up again.
The 1.85:1/1080p transfer--encoded with AVC onto a 50GB disc--is a good one, nicely conveying the contrast between the cinematographyís stark whites and deep blacks. (The movie was reportedly dropped by Columbia after Burton announced his intention to shoot in black-and-white.
Shooting in color would have been a huge mistake.) This is far and away the best Iíve ever seen the movie look; the slightly murky, unnecessarily soft look of the DVD is gone, replaced by an image that is as clear and sharp as Burton and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky originally intended. (The image is still soft from time to time, but it now looks like a stylistic choice rather than an anomaly in the transfer.)
Thereís a bit of a problem with the contrast in the title sequence, one which makes the names on the tombstones hard to decipher; and while for the most part the grain inherent in the image has been compressed quite well, some digital noise is evident on a few occasions.
Lossless audio comes in the form of a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. In keeping with the old-school vibe, the audio favors the front channels, with the surrounds coming in only to help open up the music. Dialogue, which is the mixís most important component, sounds very good. French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks are also included; English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
The commentary by Tim Burton, Martin Landau, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, director of photography Stefan Czapsky and costume designer Colleen Atwood is actually just random bits of audio that have been edited together in hopes of contriving a commentary. Itís still a pretty good track, though, particularly when the participants discuss the work that went into mimicking the style of a cheap Ď50s sci-fi flick.
All of the following are presented in standard definition:
Making Bela (8 minutes) features interviews with Landau, who discusses his approach to playing Lugosi and his research for the role, and Rick Baker, who talks about the creation and implementation of the Lugosi makeup.
Five deleted scenes (8 minutes) offer extended versions of two scenes (both of which involve the octopus) and three completely excised bits, including two that arguably should have been left in the movie (one that adds depth to the Wood-Lugosi friendship, and one that explains what was up with that mariachi band).
Pie Plates Over Hollywood (13 minutes) looks at the movieís production design.
Letís Shoot This F#*%@r! (14 minutes) is an assemblage of behind-the-scenes footage. Comments from Depp bookend the footage and give it a bit of context.
The Theremin (7 minutes) gives composer Howard Shore (subbing for Danny Elfman, whoíd quarreled with Burton during production of The Nightmare Before Christmas and therefore sat this one out) a chance to discuss the use of a theremin in the movieís score. Thereís also a breakdown of how the instrument works.
You also get a music video (3 minutes) thatís built around Shoreís theme for the movie.
Closing things out is the movieís theatrical trailer.
Ed Wood doesnít work as history, but thatís not the point. This is meant to be both a celebration of a filmmaking iconoclast (just ignore what heís actually responsible for) and a celebration of cinema itself. As such, it definitely succeeds.