Tim Burton pays elaborate tribute to the maverick creative spirit in “Ed Wood ,” a fanciful, sweet-tempered biopic about the man often described as the worst film director of all time. Always engaging to watch and often dazzling in its imagination and technique, picture is also a bit distended, and lacking in weight at its center. Result is beguiling rather than thrilling, oddly charming instead of transporting, meaning that Disney will have its work cut out for it with what is at heart a cult movie and a film buff’s dream.
Virtually unknown during his lifetime and for some time after his death in 1978, Wood started gaining notoriety as an auteur of the lower depths when his beyond-bad 1950s epics “Glen or Glenda” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” developed followings in the 1980s.
Wood’s other claim to fame was that, although apparently straight, he was an avid transvestite, with a particular taste for Angora sweaters. This predilection was dramatized, if that is the word, in “Glen or Glenda,” in which Wood himself starred as a young man seeking understanding for his odd habit.
Following one of the all-time great opening credit sequences, in which the cast members’ names all appear on tombstones, scene-setting finds Wood (Johnny Depp) and his motley crew dejected following a desultory little theater opening. “Orson Welles was only 26 when he made ‘Citizen Kane’ and I’m already 30,” Wood realizes, so it’s high time for him to get moving on his highly personal first opus, “I Changed My Sex,” very loosely based on Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change, which was later retitled “Glen or Glenda.”
Wood is able to raise his meager financing by proposing to star Bela Lugosi, the old “Dracula” star whom Wood meets by chance in Hollywood. “I’m just an ex-boogeyman,” admits Lugosi (Martin Landau), who hasn’t worked in four years and has been addicted to morphine for 20. Living in a dismal tract house straight out of “Edward Scissorhands,” Lugosi is grateful for the work and becomes a friend and sort of spiritual mentor to Wood.
By contrast, Wood’s girlfriend and appallingly bad lead actress Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) bolts in revulsion at her man’s sartorial tastes and weird colleagues. Along the way, Wood’s entourage comes to include aspiring transsexual BunnyBreckinridge (Bill Murray), faux TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), TV horror hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), hulking pro wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), actress and would-be film financier Loretta King (Juliet Landau) and new g.f. Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette).
Much of the running time is spent recounting the cockeyed, disrupted shoots of “Bride of the Monster” and “Plan 9,” with Burton and company taking great pains to reproduce the indelibly flat look of the Wood originals. Although the financing and production details of these works are amusing, they become somewhat repetitive.
Giving the story its principal weight is the Wood-Lugosi relationship. Initially, the young director willingly pays the old star the obsequious homage the actor believes he deserves. But when Lugosi needs serious help with his addiction, Wood is the only one there for him, checking him into a clinic and, later, filming some footage that ended up as Lugosi’s posthumous appearance in “Plan 9.”
Lifting all this enormously is Landau’s astounding performance as the old Hungarian. Looking (thanks to a terrific makeup job) and sounding very much like the real thing, Landau brilliantly conveys the ego, pride, hurt and gratitude of the man in his twilight and, despite his character’s grand theatricality, gives the film its most human moments.
One could well ask why anyone would want to make a biography of such a disreputable figure as Ed Wood. The answer for Burton lies in the film’s key scene, a no-doubt fictional encounter between Wood and his hero, Orson Welles, at Musso & Frank’s. A despondent Wood spills out his problems to Welles, who’s got troubles of his own, and is told to tenaciously follow his own vision in his work. Welles inspires Wood to rush out and finish “Plan 9” according to his own designs.
(Vincent D’Onofrio, a virtual dead ringer for Welles when the latter was in his 30s, is the perfect choice for the role — even if the voice sounds vaguely electronic.)
Once Wood finishes “Plan 9,” biopic flies into purest fantasy, even if many viewers won’t recognize it as such. Wood and his wife arrive at Hollywood Blvd.’s illustrious Pantages Theater, where “Plan 9” is cheered to the rafters by a well-appointed packed house. Scene contains the recognition and respect Wood always sought but never achieved in a career that degenerated into pornography and alcoholism thereafter.
As Wood, Depp is more animated and less interiorized than he has ever been onscreen before, and no doubt a number of fans will be very curious to see how he looks in drag. He does everything possible to create audience interest in this strange fellow, but Wood, perhaps unavoidably, remains a lightweight both as a talent and a man.
Remainder of the cast delightfully fill out a roster of nicely individualized Hollywood weirdos, with Parker niftily pulling off some deliberately bad acting, Arquette expressing great understanding as the only woman who would put up with Wood’s eccentricities, and Jones a perfect Criswell.
Technically, “Ed Wood” is a feast on a par with Burton’s previous films, but in black-and-white. Sensational models and Tom Duffield’s production design brilliantly conjure up a Hollywood in transition between illustrious past and seedy present, and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky has pulled off the difficult trick of echoing the laughably poor lighting of Wood’s own films while still shooting a beautiful looking picture. Howard Shore, replacing Danny Elfman as composer on Burton’s films, has come up with an excitingly varied, pacing-helpful score.