Today I watched Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)
Call it a spinoff of Batman week but I think it’s high time I took a look at the films of Tim Burton, and I kick it off with his look at another film maker, Ed Wood. Ed Wood is often heralded as the worst film maker of all time which has garnered him many fans. Many of these fans, myself included, believe this title to be quite unfair as Ed Wood displayed a great deal of creativity and a genuine ability to entertain. Burton also seems to be of that mind as this film presents Wood as a naive young man exploding with unique ideas about how to make film. At some point though, his story of persevering in the face of the herculean struggle of making a film is overtaken by the tale of a fading star when he meets Bela Lugosi. The two by most accounts developed a very deep friendship during Lugosi’s final years when he struggled with drug addiction and depression and this relationship really dominates the much of the film.
As much as this film is a celebration of the strange genius of Ed Wood, Martin Landau’s powerful performance as Lugosi is not the only thing competing for time in the film. Pretty much all of the rest of the side characters feel extremely one note, especially the women. The question of who the wives of Ed Wood were is fascinating to me but not one that this film finds interesting in any way, placing them in extremely typical roles for a Hollywood film. Perhaps that is the film’s biggest failing right there; despite a cluttered cast and the black and white imagery, it’s still a fairly plain narrative. It’s the “old man is comforted by a younger fellow who sees through his bluster and the negative rumours around him to find a friend” plot bolted onto another stock story in which the young man is a classic starving artist who most people don’t believe in.
I think a better way to look at this film is not as a movie about who Ed Wood was but a film about who Tim Burton is and wants to be and his own passion for film making. This vision of Ed Wood is the kind of naive counter culture hero that Burton often strives to be, but Burton has become anything but the underdog that Wood was. Perhaps there is a sort of envy in that, Tim Burton helped define the look of a decade and is influential enough to have many imitators while Ed Wood remains wholly unique in a way that only the bottom of the barrel can ever be. There is one great moment though, in which Ed Wood’s career is held in contrast to that of Orson Welles and the two are not as dissimilar as one might imagine.
With all that said this film does have one major saving grace, one that overrules all of my previous quibbles. When you really get down to it this is a film about film making and the cathartic experience that film can be. In this Burton finally finds the connective tissue between him and Wood, the shared passion of two artists working in the strange medium that is film. But film is more here than just the title character’s passion, Wood’s insistence on involving the drug addicted and washed up Bela Lugosi in his films brings dignity and joy back to the aging actor as once more he receives the adoration he deserves, even if it is only from his friend Ed. So while I have some minor issues with how Burton presents his subject matter here, the film still moved me with it’s reverence of film making. Ed Wood is canonized here, as a saint for all the artists who refuse to take no for an answer and who persevere to create their unique expressions. 5/5