Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Johnny California: ED WOOD

by JB

Kathy O’Hara
Eddie's the only fella in town who doesn't pass judgment on people.

Ed Wood
That's right. If I did, I wouldn't have any friends.

I was amazed and surprised when I learned in the Fall of 1994 that Tim Burton had made a film based on the life of “Worst Director of All Time” Ed Wood. I had been a big fan of Ed Wood’s work since reading about it in the Medved brothers’ 50 Worst Films of All Time and Golden Turkey Awards books. A late-night screening of Plan 9 From Outer Space at the late, lamented Varsity Theater in Evanston when I was in high school is one of my most cherished filmgoing memories.

A midnight sneak preview of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood was advertised at a local theater, so I told the students in my Film Studies class at the time that we should all go and see it together, but begin the evening in my classroom where, over snacks and pop, we would screen Wood’s most famous film, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Dozens of students took me up on my offer and we had a grand old time, but I can still remember my wife, sitting with us at the old Woodfield Theaters, looking around the auditorium right before the lights went down, saying “Everybody who wants to see this film is here right now.”

This was prescient, because the film proved to be quite a box-office disappointment. When Martin Landau accepted his Oscar a few months later, he paraphrased my wife’s prediction in his speech, saying, “Gee, I think everybody who saw the film is here right now.” It does seem like an ironic denouement that the big Hollywood film version of Ed Wood’s life... would lose money.
Ed Wood
This story's gonna grab people. It's about this guy, he's crazy about this girl, but he likes to wear dresses. Should he tell her? Should he not tell her? He's torn, Georgie. This is drama.

The Plot in Brief: Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) longs to enter the film industry and when he learns that low-budget producer George Weiss (Mike Starr) is planning a quickie cash-in movie based on the Christine Jorgenson story, I Changed My Sex, he talks himself into the job. Ed agrees to write the script as well, and it suddenly becomes the story of a transvestite titled Glen or Glenda. Meanwhile, Ed meets and befriends Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) a horror movie star from the Thirties who has fallen on hard times. Lugosi has not worked in four years and has become a morphine addict to boot. Ed agrees to get Bela a part in Glen or Glenda.

Ed gradually develops a stock company of actors and crew members that uses in all his films. Though Glen or Glenda is a box-office disappointment, meat magnate “Old Man” McCoy (Rance Howard) agrees to finance Wood’s next film, Bride of the Monster. When that film too fails at the box office, it looks like Wood’s directing career may be over, but Wood manages to talk some local Baptists into bankrolling his magnum opus, Plan 9 From Outer Space, the film that Wood “wants to be remembered for!”

Ed Reynolds
Perfect? Mr. Wood, do you know anything about the art of film production?

Ed Wood
Well, I like to think so.
The Twisted Tale of How Films Get Made in Hollywood: Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski conceive the film while still students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. After some success with the Problem Child films, they pitch Ed Wood to fellow USC alum Michael Lehmann, who had great success with his first film, Heathers, but is now in “movie jail” because he directed Hudson Hawk. Lehman shows the Ed Wood script to Denise Di Novi, who then shows it to Tim Burton. Lehmann bows out of directing Ed Wood to direct Airheads. Tim Burton bows out of directing Mary Reilly because Columbia Pictures want Julia Roberts to play the title character instead of Burton’s choice, Winona Ryder. Then Burton is attached to Chris Elliot’s debut film Cabin Boy at Walt Disney. But Tim Burton chooses to direct Ed Wood instead of Cabin Boy. Co-writer Adam Resnick directs Cabin Boy. Columbia puts Ed Wood in turnaround because Tim Burton insists on shooting it in black and white. Walt Disney picks up the orphaned Ed Wood project and releases it under their Touchstone Pictures imprint. They had previously given the greenlight to Cabin Boy only because Tim Burton was attached to it.

Airheads, Cabin Boy, and Ed Wood all end up losing money: Airheads, -6m; Cabin Boy, -6m; and Ed Wood, -4m, for a grand total of 16 million dollars lost. You know, a million here and a million there, after a while, you’re talking big money. And somewhere up in Hollywood Heaven, Ed Wood is smiling.
Ed Wood
Is there a script?

George Weiss
Fuck no. But, there's a POSTER.

Rewatching it after many years revealed the film I’ve always loved: the performances are uniformly excellent. Look at that cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lisa Marie, Jeffrey Jones, G.D. Spradlin, Rance Howard, and cameos by two of the original stars of Plan 9: Conrad Brooks and Gregory Wallcott.) The art direction is a marvel. Rick Baker’s Bela Lugosi make-up rightfully won an Academy Award. The script is clever and the direction is top-notch. Neither the screenwriters nor Burton ever condescend to Wood’s reputation. They don’t ever punch down or take easy pot-shots at Wood as so many snot-nosed critics have done in the past. (I’m looking at you two, Medved brothers!) The friendship between Lugosi and Wood is presented warmly and with such gentleness. It’s sweet.

I’ve always said that Tim Burton would have made a better art director than a movie director, but in Ed Wood, he manages to meld the two. The film is full of flat, desolate black and white landscapes that resemble the work of Depression era (era) photographer Dorothea Lange or the more modern work of Diane Arbus. These sad, dull settings symbolize the loneliness and aridity of Wood’s Hollywood dream. Then Burton marches Wood’s circus of eccentrics in front of these one-dimensional flats, (As Dolores Fuller says midway through, “Well, I see [your] usual cast of misfits and dope addicts are here.”) and the film SPRINGS TO LIFE. Burton reminds us that it’s not our background or circumstances that determines the quality of our lives, but the people with whom we choose to fill it. This is Tim Burton’s best film.
Ed Wood
(on the phone with a producer)
Really? Worst film you ever saw?
Well, my next one will be better.
Hello. Hello?

1 comment:

  1. Great article, JB. I could feel your love of the film give the words extra sparkle.