006. Tim Burton – Ed Wood (1994)

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After reflecting on the Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theatre post, perhaps the most important function of the horror movie host was telling all the stories behind the story shown on screen.  The horror host’s knowledge added layers of context and depth to what basically amounted to any number of guy-in-a-rubber-monster-suit films.  While listening to Joe Bob Briggs wax poetic about the financing of Night of the Living Dead (1968) was both enjoyable and interesting, it wasn’t better than the film itself.  By that same token, listening to Svengoolie discuss the differences in the underwater scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955) was pretty darned cool, but it still wasn’t better than either of the films.  But what if a movie was so awful that the story of its making was more compelling than the movie itself?  Moreover, I can’t be the only person who ever watched a 1950s B-grade horror flick and wondered how much fun it must have been to be involved with making it?  And I certainly can’t be the only person to wonder how cool would it have been to drink whiskey with Bela Lugosi?

This brings us to Tim Burton’s 1994 comedy/drama/biopic Ed Wood.  The film lovingly chronicled the career highlights of writer/actor/director/producer Edward D. Wood Jr., who in the 1950s made a number of low-budget sci-fi, horror and exploitation films.  Wood continued to write, act, direct and produce up until his untimely death in 1978 at the age of 54.  Although it seemed perfectly logical in 1994, as strange things were clearly afoot with the zeitgeist, future film historians may be puzzled why anyone would have wanted to make, much less watch a movie about the worst director of all time directing the worst film of all time?  There were plenty of bad movies and bad directors in the 1950s, so why Ed Wood and why then?

Let’s recap, in chronological order, the chain of events that led to Ed Wood’s resurgence of relevance;

  • In 1961, the rights to Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) were sold to late night television and the film became a staple of UHF programming for the next two decades.
  • In 1977 Glenn Danzig changed the name of his punk rock label from Blank Records to Plan 9 Records, clearly referencing Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  For the next ten years, each subsequent recording by horror punk pioneers The Misfits, and later Samhain, was released under this imprint.  This helped to firmly cement the film’s legacy with every punk rock weirdo in the United States of America.
  • In 1980, author and film critic Michael Medved posthumously awarded Edward D. Wood Jr. a Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time, while declaring Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) the “worst movie ever made.”  As fate would have it, this renewed the public’s interest in Wood’s work.
  • In the early 1990s, three of Wood’s films, Bride of the Monster (1955), The Violent Years (1956), and The Sinister Urge (1960), were featured on Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, which further exposed Wood’s works to a new generation of sarcastic wiseacres.
  • On May 23, 1991, “The Chinese Restaurant” episode of Seinfeld aired.  This was the eleventh episode of the show’s second season, in which Jerry, George and Elaine decided to eat dinner without a reservation at a Chinese restaurant before seeing Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  Jerry Seinfeld made some notable squibs.

    “Just a movie? You don’t understand. This isn’t plans 1 through 8 from outer space. This is Plan 9! This is the one that worked, the worst movie ever made!”  Seinfeld further intoned, “I can’t go to a bad movie by myself. What, am I gonna make sarcastic remarks to strangers?”

It should go without saying that Seinfeld was one of the most watched and most frequently awarded programs of the 1990s.  However, Jerry was very astute in his observation that viewing an Ed Wood movie was a social event.

  • In 1992, Rudolph Grey’s biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. was released, and initiated the process of Wood’s life and work being publically reevaluated.
  • Also in 1992, Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion was released.  This exhaustive two-hour documentary by Mark Carducci chronicled the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space and featured interviews with Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Paul Marco and Conrad Brooks.
  • And finally in 1992, Konami developed a Plan 9 from Outer Space video game for the Amiga and Atari ST, as well as a DOS version.

This brings us to writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who developed a ten page treatment for an Ed Wood biopic based on Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr.  This script eventually found its way to oddball director Tim Burton, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Obviously, there was a great deal of retro inbreeding going on in the early 1990s, as one could literally turn on Friday night basic cable and watch Bride of the Monster (1955) on MST3K, wake up Saturday morning, drive to one’s local book store and pick up a new book about Edward D. Wood Jr., get back in the car, pop in the latest White Zombie cassette to hear songs with samples from Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and then hit the multiplex for a screening of Ed Wood (1994), which featured the making of Bride of the Monster (1955), and depicts Edward D. Wood Jr. and Bela Lugosi watching the film White Zombie (1932) on television hosted by Vampira, to whom The Misfits wrote an ode on a record released through their Plan 9 label, and…..  You guys see where I’m going with this?

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As for Ed Wood (1994), the film itself, it was unlike any other movie of its time.  First and foremost, Burton insisted on filming the movie in black and white, which set the tone perfectly.  Seeing a black and white movie about the making of black and white movies was a stroke of genius on Burton’s part, as it reiterated to the viewer with all surgical precision of an atom bomb that this was the 1950s.  Sure, many independent films were shot sans color, but it was virtually unheard of for the studio-industrial-complex to release a major motion pictureTMin black and white.  The only predecessor that comes to mind was the Steve Martin film noir parody Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).  Regardless, after Ed Wood (1994), Hollywood was less hesitant to screen new black and white movies at the multiplex, as evidenced by the success of Clerks (1994), Dead Man (1995), and roughly half of Pleasantville (1998).  Unfortunately this trend did not continue into the new millennium, and I, your humble narrator, am still irritated that I’m forced to watch Mad Men in color.  Yet, I digress.

The film was a constant blur or Mid-Century homes, cars, appliances, buildings, bars, clothes and music.  Speaking of which, Howard Shore’s film score was absolutely fantastic, and established the mood perfectly.  Shore combined the exotic percussion of Martin Denny and Les Baxter with the Theremin-laden sounds of 1950s sci-fi and B-movies.  The film score was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and even featured Russian Theremin player Lydia Kavina (the grandniece of Leon Theremin).  The resulting sonic retro-hybrid provided the perfect soundtrack for either making movies with Edward D. Wood Jr. or drinking a Mai Tai on Mars.

The entire cast was wonderful.  Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Edward D. Wood Jr. was outstanding, and he evoked the mannerisms, cadence and optimism of post-war America like a champ.  Allegedly, he studied the acting of Jack Haley, Mickey Rooney and Ronald Reagan to prepare for the role.  Bill Murray was absolutely hilarious as Bunny Breckinridge, and stole every seen in which he appeared.  Sarah Jessica Parker turned in a fine performance, portraying Dolores Fuller, the actress and Elvis Presley songwriter, who was Ed’s love interest for the first half of the film.  Even though the meme of comparing Sarah Jessica Parker to a horse has been a comedy goldmine for years throughout the more unkind corners of the internet, she actually looks sort of….. pretty in this movie.  It took me a while to put my finger on why, and it hearkens back to various skirmishes in the war of the sexes that I’ve observed over the past five years.  To wit, men want wives not coworkers, men value femininity in women, and the visceral repulsion to the manjaw-ificaiton of American women.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but she acted overtly feminine, channeling June Cleaver instead of Carrie Bradshaw, and as a result she seemed much more attractive than in any of her roles before or since.  Well, up until she tried to kill Johnny Depp with a frying pan, but he totally had it coming.

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The one part of Ed Wood (1994) most resonated with viewers was Martin Landau’s flawless depiction of Bela Lugosi.  This performance didn’t go unnoticed by the powers that be, as it won Landau an Academy Award for best supporting actor.  Regardless, the idea of befriending one’s heroes has always held appeal for..… pretty much everyone..… ever.  Tim Burton had experienced this first hand while working with Vincent Price on Edward Scissorhands (1990), and was therefore able to tackle the subject with expertise, plausibility and perspective.  Perhaps Burton’s greatest accomplishment with this film was that he made the audience care about the characters, especially Bela.  From the moment he showed up in the coffin store, to his profanity laced tirades about Boris Karloff, through addiction, rehab, and until his death, one just couldn’t help but root for the old man.  In hindsight, Burton’s treatment of Edward D. Wood Jr. shouldn’t come as a surprise, as much brighter people than I have previously pointed out that Burton is clearly an enthusiast, not a satirist.

Regardless, there were numerous scenes that depicted the social and workplace interactions of Ed, Bela and the gang, and allowed the viewers to feel as though they were standing in the same room or seated at the same table as the characters.  Most importantly, this allowed the viewer to feel as though they were sharing the camaraderie of a bygone past.  Not only did Ed Wood (1994) make the audience feel like they were there, it also made the audience wish they were there.  In the opinion of your humble narrator, several of these scenes stand out above the rest;

  • The scene where Ed, The Amazing Criswell and his entourage have drinks with Bela and try to goad him into delivering some of his most famous lines from Dracula (1931)
  • The night time filming of the infamous octopus wrestling scene from Bride of The Monster (1955)
  • Ed and Bela (in full Dracula garb) watching White Zombie (1932) on The Vampira Show on Halloween night, then scaring the bejeezus out of some trick-or-treaters

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I’ll leave it to The Amazing Criswell to summarize the effect of watching Ed Wood (1994).

All of us on this earth know that there is a time to live, and that there is a time to die. Yet death is always a shock to those left behind.

Even though that narration comes from the worst film of all time, I certainly can’t argue with the sentiment.  And for those of us born at the beginning of our civilization’s demise, looking back to the recent past often makes us realize, in no uncertain terms, that we’ve also been left behind.

After The Fact

  • Although I find the topic tedious, at best, I suppose I’m obligated to mention that Edward D. Wood Jr. was a transvestite (a heterosexual man who liked to wear women’s clothing), and then pontificate on some Kumbayah bullshit.  I’ll agree to the former, but I have absolutely no interest in the latter.  That said, the film addresses the issue with humor, realism and sympathy without coming across as overly “preachy”, or whatever it is that currently passes for “preachy” in our secular, politically-correct post-nation.  Upon re-watching Ed Wood (1994), it was refreshing to be reminded that no so long ago in America, people actually struggled with their sexual deviancy rather than making it the cornerstone to define their very identity.  Indeed, those were different times.
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