When I was in college I went through a phase were I read a lot of books
on philosophy. Eventually I made my way to Ayn Rand's book The
Fountainhead. It is about a brilliant architect who designs amazing
buildings, yet does not achieve any critical or popular success.
Even while he's struggling to scrape out a living, he doesn't compromise
his vision or yield to criticism because he knows that the work he is creating
is good. While I was reading the book, I kept on thinking "yeah,
but what if he's wrong. What if he really is a horrible architect,
but just doesn't see it?" Well director Time Burton and co-writers
Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander have gone a long way towards answering
that question in their 1994 biopic Ed Wood. This slightly
fictionalized account of the low budget director's life is finally available
on DVD after several false starts and even a recall. After finally
getting the DVD I can tell you that the disc was worth the wait.
Ed D. Wood Jr. has taken on almost mythical proportions in the movie
world. In 1980 he was voted the worst director to have ever lived,
and his movies are renowned for how mind- bogglingly bad they are.
There have been many attempts to make bad movies for the camp appeal, (Attack
of the Killer Tomatoes comes to mind,) but none of them are as bad
as what Wood created when he was trying to make a good film.
This film looks at the most interesting period of Wood's life; his relationship
with Bela Lugosi and the films they made together. As the film begins,
Wood (Johnny Depp) stumbles upon the down on his luck Lugosi (Martin Landau)
one afternoon and the two strike up a friendship that is mutually beneficial.
Lugosi can't get a job acting, is suffering from the effects of a twenty
year drug addiction, and is out of money. Wood wants to break into the
movie business as a director, and saying that he can get an actor of Lugosi's
caliber is certainly going to make his movies more popular, or so he thinks.
Wood casts Lugosi as the narrator in the first feature he was to direct.
The producer wanted an sensationalistic picture about Christine Jorgenson,
the early recipient of a male-to-female sex change operation who was in
all the papers at the time. Wood convinced the producer that he would be
perfect to make the movie since he was a transvestite: he loved to dress
in woman's clothes. Armed with a small budget Wood writes, directs
and stars in Glen or Glenda?; a movie that, instead of being about
Jorgenson, pleads for understanding of a transvestite's lifestyle.
The movie turns out so wretchedly that Wood can't get funding from even
the poverty row studios to make another film, so he starts producing them
himself. By agreeing to cast a backers son in a leading role, Ed
manages to make another feature, Bride of the Monster. This
production stars Lugosi as a mad scientist with a killer octopus, and Tor
Johnson, a large wrestler as his lurching assistant.
This film was another dismal failure, and Wood has trouble coming up
with funds for another movie. *spoiler warning*
He films Bela for a few minutes in preparation for another production,
but it comes to naught. However, when Lugosi dies, Wood realizes that he
has the last footage of a one-time star. He uses this footage as
a selling point to raise funds for a film that he's sure will be his masterpiece:
Plan 9 From Outerspace. *end spoiler*
This movie was a humorous look at the bad director's life, but it resisted
the temptation of making fun of him. It would have been very easy
to make Wood look like a fool and turn him into an object of ridicule,
but the film doesn't. It has a certain amount of respect for Ed,
while not ignoring his failings. During the movie, viewers find themselves
routing for this underdog, though they know that he will ultimately fail.
The film, almost like one of Wood's films, has a sort of odd internal
consistency where Ed Wood is a humorous character, but not pathetic or
idiotic. He has an infectious enthusiasm about his film making that
comes through. At one point Wood phones the producer of Glen or
Glenda? To ask why the film hasn't been advertised. You only
hear Ed's half of the conversation as he says "Really? Worst film you ever
saw. Well, my next one will be better. Hello? Hello?"
While the movie is fairly accurate on a lot of points (by all accounts
Ed really was very enthusiastic about his films and did see himself as
an auteur) there were several things that were changed to make the movie
more enjoyable and entertaining. Dolores Fuller has stated that she
didn't like the way she was portrayed in the film, and most people agree
that Bela Lugosi didn't swear as he does in the movie. Lugosi's funeral
was also much better attended than they imply. 1
The biggest omission is that they cut out films that Wood made during
this period that Lugosi wasn't involved with. That is because this
film is really about a the friendship between Wood and Lugosi. It
is touching in its sincerity while not being sappy or maudlin, and that
is the film's strength.
The acting in this film was excellent. Johnny Depp was able to
make the viewer sympathetic to Wood, while not empowering him with talents
that he just didn't have. He filled Wood with enthusiasm while not
making him look desperate, or worse, stupid. Not only did Depp give
a fine performance, but he was able to look just as sexy as Sarah Jessica
Parker in his drag scenes.
The person who really had the hardest acting job, and pulled it off
admirably, was Martin Landau. In one of the extras on the disc he
says that this was a hard role. As he describes it, he had to play an 80
year old alcoholic drug addict who just happened to be Bela Lugosi.
He was able to recreate Bela lovingly, making him venerable without being
pathetic. He was able to give Lugosi his pride while still showing
how low he had sunk. Martin Landau really seemed to understand what
Lugosi had gone through, and well he might. Martin had been in Hitchcock's
North by Northwest, but later in life found himself taking roles
in bad made for TV movies like The Harlem Globetrotters on Gillian's
Island. This affinity for the person he played was really able
to shine through, and Landau won a well deserved Academy Award for his
The 5.1 DD audio was very good. Landau's imitation of Lugosi's
Hungarian accent comes through very well. There isn't a lot of sound effects,
so the rear channels don't get much of a workout, but the rain scenes are
enveloping. There isn't any distortion or other audio defects.
The anamorphic widescreen is in black and white and looks very good.
The contrast, something very important in B&W films, is excellent.
The black items in the foreground don't fade into the background which
sometimes happens in films where the contrast isn't very strong.
The detail is also very good, with the needle tracks on Lugosi's arm showing
up clearly. There were only minor digital defects, fine details in
the background occasionally shimmering is the major culprit. Overall
a nice looking transfer.
This is a special edition that really lives up to its name. There
are several nice bonus features included on the disc that made it well
worth the wait.
Let's Shoot This @#!%: Introduced
by Jonny Depp, this 14 minute behind the scenes featurette shows the filming
of several scenes, without narration or interviews. You can just
The Theremin: A seven minute conversation
with Howard Shore about the music in the film, and how they recorded the
Theremin track. There is also demonstration and explanation of how
a Theremin works and is played.
Making Bela: Martin Landau talks
about how he portrayed Bela Lugosi in the movie. He mentions the
similarities between Lugosi and his own career, and how he worked on the
Hungarian accent. Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for the make-up effects,
discusses how he approached transforming Landau into Lugosi, and how much
he wanted to do the project. A very interesting bonus.
Pie Plates Over Hollywood:
Production designer Tom Duffield shows how he created the look of the film
and talks about the challenges of filming in black and white.
Commentary: Director Tim Burton,
actor Martin Landau, co-writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander,
DP Stefan Czpsky, and Costume designer Colleen Atwood narrate the film
in an alternate audio track. All of these people weren't in the room
at the same time, they all recorded separate tracks and then their comments
were cobbled together. This was a very good track, with few silent
areas and a lot of information. I thought Burton gave Ed Wood and
his movies a little too much credit; saying that there was some quality
to them since they are memorable, but this was a minor quibble. The
commentators discuss how they first encountered Ed Wood's films and how
they felt about them. They talked about just about all of the aspects
of the movie from filming it in black and white to Depp's woman's wardrobe.
I enjoyed Martin Landau's comments the most. He had a real affinity
for his character and respected Lugosi as an actor. Landau's analysis
was always interesting and perceptive. This was a very informative
track, though I was disappointed that Johnny Depp wasn't included.
There is also a trailer to the film, five deleted scenes, and a music
This is an immensely entertaining film, both comic and endearing.
It masterfully portrays Wood in a humorous light, while not being demeaning
or insulting. The strong acting, writing, and directing make this
unique movie a film worth seeing. Highly Recommended.
1) Vincent Price was at the funeral along with Peter
Lorre. When the latter saw how natural Lugosi looked in the Dracula
cape that he was buried in he quipped: "Do you think we should
drive a stake through his heart just in case?"