September 30, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Of all the magically funny and bizarre moments in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD (Touchstone, R), none made me laugh harder than the one in which Ed (Johnny Depp), the worst filmmaker of all time, shoots the climactic battle from Bride of the Monster, his latest grade-Z ghoulie special. It’s the middle of the night, and Ed has led his cast and crew to the ”set,” a scrungy man-made pond somewhere on the outskirts of Hollywood. Plopped into the middle of the water like a giant stuffed animal is Ed’s monster, a mechanical octopus he and the crew have stolen from a prop warehouse. There’s just one problem: They forgot to steal the octopus motor. And so Ed instructs his star, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), to lie back against the creature and move its tentacles around, as if it were fighting him. Downing a shot of whiskey, Lugosi complies, grabbing the tentacles and screaming like a madman-at which point I practically fell out of my chair. To call Edward D. Wood Jr. the ultimate hack wouldn’t do him justice. A transvestite who proclaimed his love for wigs, pumps, and angora in the naively impassioned Glen or Glenda (1953), and who spent the next 25 years clinging to Hollywood’s underbelly without achieving a moment of quality or success, Wood was a travesty of a hack moviemaker; disreputable no-budget trash was what he failed at. The sci-fi sets that looked like somebody’s kitchen, the stock footage that was cut in practically at random, the dialogue that seemed to trip over itself in order to move the plot along-his movies existed on the level of a child playing make-believe. The fascination-and hilarity-of Wood’s films is that it’s impossible to suspend your disbelief while watching them. They’re like documentary chronicles of their own ineptitude. In a feat of creative alchemy, Burton has tapped something rich and poignant, a kind of tawdry pop essence, in Wood’s story. Shot in a lustrous black and white that evokes the dilapidated glamour of ’50s Los Angeles, Ed Wood is at once a celebration of all-American freakishness, an ironic tribute to the seedy glories of poverty-row moviemaking, and a surprisingly emotional buddy movie, with Ed winning the friendship of the aging, decrepit Lugosi. Johnny Depp, I’m pleased to report, has awoken from the prettified slumber of his last few films. As Ed, he’s peppy and sleek, like the young Little Richard, a bright-eyed simpleton hustler so ridiculously upbeat he could practically be a character in one of his own films. Ed shoots everything in one quick take, and though he lacks the budget to do otherwise, he means it when he says, ”Cut! That was perfect!” He likes the process of making movies so much that what’s actually in them is of secondary concern. Depp’s performance is a spangly cartoon, stylized in its cockeyed optimism and powered by an unfakeable innocence. What’s endearing about Ed is that he’s so completely himself. In one of the film’s high points, he appears in full drag at a wrap party, doing an ecstatic harem dance and brandishing his (dentureless) gums. Watching this eerie spectacle, I grasped the connection between Ed’s cross-dressing and his awfulness as a filmmaker: It’s his willingness to indulge his most infantile fancies, without stopping to shape or question them. Burton re-creates the shooting of Wood’s three most famous films, duplicating the sets and staging with a loving exactitude that makes every tacky prop and zombie performance seem revelatory. And he shows a ripe affection for the lowliest colonies of the entertainment industry when Ed assembles his stock company of outrageous pseudo-celebrities: the bald, oafish Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George ”the Animal” Steele); the sulky TV horror hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie); the charlatan psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones); and the wise-guy transsexual candidate Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray). Where the film becomes surprisingly moving is in Ed’s friendship with Bela Lugosi. Bitter and impoverished, a morphine addict for 20 years, Martin Landau’s Bela lives in a cryptlike tract house stuffed with ghoulish mementos. In his derelict way, though, he’s still a star-Ed’s one thin link to legitimacy. Ed pays him back by ”reviving” his career. Wearing Rick Baker’s uncanny makeup (beetle brows, black mouth) and speaking in a lugubrious Hungarian singsong, Landau gives a brilliant performance. He plays Lugosi as a curdled camp relic of old Hollywood, a drugged-out humbug still muttering profane insults at his old rival Boris Karloff. Yet Bela hasn’t lost his cornball theatrical panache-it’s all he has left-and it lends him a kind of desperate integrity. The movie hits a note of comic-pathetic greatness when Bela-twice-works himself up into full Draculoid lather to declaim the speech Ed has written for him in Bride of the Monster: ”Home-I have no home. Hunted. Despised. Living like an animal. The jungle is my home! But I will show the world that I can be its master. I shall perfect my own race of people, a race of atomic supermen that will conquer the world!” As written, the speech is a piece of escalating insanity-it’s as if the Wolf Man had suddenly morphed into Dr. Frankenstein-but Landau delivers it with such madly purposeful, Lear-like fury that it seems to speak for Bela’s entire life. The beauty of Ed Wood is that Tim Burton loves these losers for who they are. They may have made luridly inept schlock, but in their brain-dead way they believed in what they were doing. (That’s more than you can say for a lot of people with talent.) By the end, when Ed, in triumph, directs scene after scene of Plan 9 From Outer Space-the worst film ever made -Burton seems to have found his way to the primal essence of moviemaking: the pure, simple desire to create illusion. Since Ed Wood had no talent, that desire came through in every desperate, see-through detail of his movies. And it comes through in Ed Wood, a comedy of the ridiculous in which the ridiculous turns unexpectedly sublime. A

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