1994, R, 127 min. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray, Lisa Marie, George “The Animal” Steele, Juliet Landau.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 7, 1994
The strangest biographical film ever made is also one of the most charming, melancholy and quirkily humorous films of the year; a wonderfully sparse recreation of the glory years of Hollywood's lowest echelons and the adolescence of independent filmmaking. Who would have thought, years ago, that someday grade-z director Edward D. Wood, Jr. and his motley crew of hangers-on would someday be the subject of a major studio release. Perhaps only Wood himself, he of the eponymous Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda (alternately, enthusiastically titled “I Changed My Sex!”). Burton's film is a loving tribute to this man whose cinematic ambitions outweighed his talent ten-to-one. It's also, in a very palpable sense, a multi-faceted love story focusing on Wood's passion for making movies, his love for the then-over-the-hill Bela Lugosi, and a funky, friendly look at Hollywood in the Fifties. Burton confines himself to dealing with Wood's life at its pinnacle -- the years from 1954-59, during which the director filmed Bride of the Monster as well as the aforementioned films -- and has wisely forsaken Wood's eventual descent into alcoholism and cheap porno flicks. A well-chosen ensemble cast carries the film along at a brisk pace with Depp emerging as a near dead ringer for the handsome director with a penchant for angora sweaters and lacy undergarments, though his characterization occasionally borders on hamminess (and, oddly, occasionally sounds for all the world like one of Jon Lovitz's old characters on Saturday Night Live). Landau's casting as the aging, morphine-addicted Lugosi is equally inspired, firing off fusillades of epithets at the mention of rival spook Boris Karloff and struggling to keep his name in the public eye. Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (Steele), television horror hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), flaky seer Criswell (Jones), and assorted other members of the Wood scene are here in all their second-rate splendor as well. Burton and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky have shot Ed Wood in the rich black-and-white tones of the movies they've recreated, but it's hard to imagine the film being seen any other way: Color would only spoil the illusion. It's hard to say if Ed Wood will be as big a box-office smash as Burton's other films have been, though. It's no Batman, or even Edward Scissorhands, but something else entirely: a biographical tribute from one Hollywood visionary to another.