Let’s be real here people and not sugarcoat anything: filmmaking can be a real pain in the ass. And most of the time, it is almost exclusively a pain in the ass. Someone is usually running late, some of the equipment is faulty, you will inevitably have to change and adapt something to any given circumstance, and issues of money and time will always be present no matter the project or where you are. When even experienced filmmakers mention that it’s a miracle any movie gets finished, they are not lying. The fact that there are good movies is even rarer, but it’s the one thing every person with dreams of filmmaking strives for in the long run: to make a good movie that stands the test of time. Some are successful and some are not. But that doesn’t mean the ones who fail are not ambitious or competent enough. There’s no shame in trying to make a good movie, and that, I think, perfectly sums up the sentiment offered by Tim Burton in what I consider to be his ultimate masterpiece: 1994’s Ed Wood.
Ed Wood depicts the true story of Edward D. “Ed” Wood, Jr., portrayed in a career best performance from Johnny Depp in his second collaboration with Burton. Wood was a WWII veteran who arrived in Hollywood with an infectious love for horror and genre cinema, and a dream to write and direct his own films. He was also a lifelong transvestite, which oftentimes became the cause of separation when he revealed this to his girlfriends. He managed to make a string of B-movies, sometimes referred to as Z-movies, in the 1950s that have gotten notorious in recent years for their campy awfulness. Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and the Citizen Kane of bad movies: Plan 9 from Outer Space. Only a few “proper” films followed afterwards as he succumbed to alcoholism and drug abuse which forced him to write pornographic novels and direct nudie flicks in order to earn a living. He died penniless in 1978 at the age of 54. That same year, critic Michael Medved published the book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time”, in which he dubbed Plan 9 from Outer Space the worst film of all time and Ed Wood was crowned the worst director of all time.
Even if I don’t personally take Medved’s assessment seriously (especially when you consider that he includes films by Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Peckinpah and Antonioni on his list), the book did bring Wood a new cult following, and now more people are forgiving of Wood’s apparent ineptitude at basic filmmaking skills. And in the 1980s, USC film students Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski developed Wood’s life into a script, which eventually caught the eye of Tim Burton.
Burton was fresh off of an amazing hot streak from Beetlejuice to Batman Returns, and was drawn to Alexander and Karaszewski’s script because it was much more character-driven than anything he had ever done before. He also found himself drawn to Ed’s apparently endless optimism, and most likely identified with Ed’s happy-go-lucky attitude and fondness for genre and monster films. This aspect is the key to the success of Ed Wood as a film. Burton never looks down on his character, but instead understands and empathizes with them.
Burton’s films are always about outsiders, and Ed Wood is no different. Everyone is on the fringes of society in some form of another: former horror superstar Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) is a washed-up drug addict, the Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) makes ridiculously inaccurate and false predictions on television, Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) is an unintelligible Swedish wrestler, and Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray) is an openly gay drag queen artist who longs for a sex change operation. What’s wonderful about the film is that it never treats any of these characters as freaks or lunatics. They are all human beings with a heart, and the audience grows to like all of them, just as I imagine Burton did when he read the script. Ed has a genuine passion for filmmaking, and as someone with similar aspirations, I cannot help but fall in love with his infectious optimism and faith in a dream that to most seems unreachable, yet he still struggles to get to. It becomes genuinely sweet and moving by the end, even though you know he’s just made what many people consider to be the worst movie of all time, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
I cannot say I have always been a fan of Tim Burton exactly. For a long time, this was the only movie of his I enjoyed, and even included his “classics” and his legitimately creative films from early in his career. And not to mention his later autopilot projects. However, I’ve grown more and more appreciative of his early films and see how wonderfully creative they are, but also how human they are as well. And as much as I really love Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, none of them match the brilliance and the greatness of Ed Wood. It may not be the first film of his people will think of when they hear the name Tim Burton, but for me, this is the one. This is the one he’ll be remembered for.