“How do you do it? How do you get all of your friends baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”
That is the best line to describe the camp appeal of Ed Wood, the man. He was in many ways the perfect artist. No, not in terms of his actual art. His films are trash. I am speaking about his attitude. Ed Wood simply loved what he was doing. He was so caught up in living his dream that he never pauses to ask himself if it is all worth it. Nor does he seem to care that his props break and his actors cannot act. What does it matter, so long as they are on film? That old adage about being one’s “own worst critic” certainly never applied to him.
And yet…when a filmmaker is passionate about a project, the passion always shows. That is why people continue to flock back to Wood. As bad as he was, he was never, ever not passionate about his projects. He truly felt that he was doing well. Sometimes, if you pay close enough attention, you can see where it may have all gone right.
Ed Wood follows the most famous years of Wood’s life, from roughly 1953 to 1959. Wood (Johnny Depp) tries to stage plays in Los Angeles that are just as disastrous as his later films. One day, while working at a studio, he hears a conversation about the making of a sex change film. Seizing the opportunity, he meets the producer to get appointed director. He is rejected, but that same afternoon meets his hero Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Lugosi is long past his prime, but Wood doesn’t really care and uses his new friendship to get the job he so desperately seeks. The resulting film, Glen or Glenda, is a disaster that gets Wood blacklisted from every studio. He continues to make indie pictures using wrestling sensation Tor Johnson (George Steele) and his girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker). He also tries to help Lugosi kick his drug habit and goes through his own relationship struggles.
First off, the greatest scene of the film that illustrates Wood’s true passion. That is the (invented) scene in which he meets his hero, Orson Welles. Their conversation almost makes them equals in the industry. They are both concerned about the exact same things. They both curse their producers and the distributors who recut their films. Such is the irony of art. Every artist can talk about the same things in any restaurant, but they can hardly be considered peers. Depp knew that, and so did Vincent D’onfrio. Also, so obsessed are both men with the conversation that it never comes up why, exactly, Wood is in drag.
Depp plays Wood more or less as he probably had to be in order to make the films that he made. There is a tremendous enthusiasm with directing and with writing. Depp plays Ed like a child who will not take no for an answer. He creates entire fantasies based upon still images and stock footage. He never loses that sense of wonder, to the point where he cannot see it all going wrong.
Many have proclaimed Landau as the standout for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi. And yes, Landau does a great job of bringing Lugosi back from the grave. But Lugosi also does not appear to have been a fun man to be around. He is constantly on the verge of dying (or so it seems) and yells at people who even bring up Karloff’s name. He only works because Wood wants him to succeed to the point where he is almost just as much of a fantasy figure as Wood. I am not sure if this is an accurate representation of the real Lugosi. But it works for the film.
That’s the other great item about the film. It almost has a post modern feel, as though the actors are aware that they are living in 1950s B-movie hell and are aware of the cult status they have achieved today. So many moments and so many jokes that reinforce this. One joke is made at the expense of the lush black and white cinematography (a character is colorblind is expresses confusion when asked about which color dress he likes better) while Wood expresses that “I’ll be remembered for this one” attending the premiere of Plan 9 From Outer Space. He is, but for all the wrong reasons.
Ed Wood may be a sort of anti 8 1/2. That film was about a director who absolutely refused to direct what could have been great material. This film is about a director who directs anything, no matter how absurd. It actually makes a great companion piece to Fellini’s masterpiece. At the very least, it offers a glimpse as to what every artist is like at heart: a child, permanently stuck in the land of imagination.