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In 1994, Tim Burton was a cash machine for Hollywood. Everything he touched—from his debut feature Pee-wee’s Big Adventure through two paradigm-shifting Batman movies and idiosyncratic comic fables Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands—made mountains and mountains of cash. Given his clout, he could have made the phonebook. In fact, that would have been preferable to his studio bosses than what he did end up making: a black & white Valentine to a little-known though much-obsessed-about schlock movie director. Max Bialystock could not have a conceived of a more surefire flop than Ed Wood.
But Ed Wood turned out to be just the flop that Burton and those who love him desperately needed. A movie by the ultimate insider about the beauty and essentiality of being an outsider, Ed Wood rescued Burton from corporate tentpoles and brought him back into the actual circus, at least temporarily. This is a Polly Pureheart take on deviancy, a biopic that felt profoundly personal, and a rallying cry against normalcy and for maniacal passion, perseverance, and mentorship. Most powerfully, in a time when sarcasm felt epidemic, Ed Wood threw down the gauntlet to disaffected ’90s proto-hipsters, challenging them to find the actual love hiding behind their ironic detachment and inside of their air quotes.
Thanks largely to this film, more people know who Ed Wood is than have ever seen his largely terrible movies. He was utterly unknown before Michael Medved and his brother named him the Worst Director of All Time in 1980. A war veteran with a set of false teeth to show for it, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was a cross-dressing auteur with no discernible talent beyond the ability to secure minimal financing and then convince his friends to work for next to nothing.
If it wasn’t for his relationship with fading monster movie icon Bela Lugosi (friendship if you believe Wood and his friends; exploitation if you believe Lugosi’s son), his odd journey might have been lost in the same black hole that swallowed so many tales of Hollywood wannabes. In the movie, their partnership begins when Wood spots Lugosi coffin shopping (“This is the most uncomfortable coffin I’ve ever been in!”) before taking the bus home (“Shit, where’s my transfer?”). It culminates one cold night when Lugosi, morphine-addicted and tortured by sciatica, throws himself into a cold pond to wrestle a stolen, broken octopus for Bride of the Monster.
Whatever the truth behind their actual teaming, the Wood-Lugosi partnership displayed in the film is a thing of pure magic. Played by Burton muse Johnny Depp and a heavily latexed and accented Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for his efforts), they serve as each other’s chief artistic support and delusion enabler, challenging us to tell the difference. Regardless of the names of the characters, the emotionally charged relationship shown on screen is the one that Burton shared with his idol, Vincent Price, the inspiration and narrator for an early Burton short. Depp’s Wood meanwhile was the actor’s way of air kissing John Waters, the more-gifted modern-day Wood who saved Depp from the Tiger Beat hell of 21 Jump Street by casting him in Crybaby.
Whether viewed as a financial failure, cult classic, or critical darling, Ed Wood is a powerful reminder of the wonder of two things that sustain us through even our darkest moments: friendship and delusion. In one of the film’s funniest and most powerful scenes, Ed and his troop have to be baptized in a pool by a group of Beverly Hill’s Methodists to secure the money to make Plan 9 From Outer Space, the alien grave robber epic that would become “the one I’ll be remembered for.”
“How do you do it?” asks Bunny Breckenridge, perhaps the sweetest and most tender creation in the Bill Murray canon. “How do you get all your friends to get baptized, just so you can make a monster movie?” Soaking wet, Ed doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s not a monster movie,” he says. “It’s a supernatural thriller.”