Two videos celebrate Ed Wood's eccentric career. Tim Burton's loving biopic and an in-depth documentary spotlight the undying optimism of a misguided film visionary

By David Everitt
Updated April 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ed Wood

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Two videos celebrate Ed Wood’s eccentric career

Rarely does complete and utter failure get the credit it deserves. But then, rarely has there been a failure so completely and utterly winning as Edward D. Wood Jr. So what if he was a filmmaker who didn’t know how to make films? Wood was no ordinary incompetent; his movies weren’t just bad. Whether they were about the joys of transvestism or the menace from outer space, they were laughable, loopy, and always strangely impassioned. For years, a cult of faithful followers has known the pleasures of Wood at his best — or at his worst, which is the same thing. The simultaneous video release of Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood and Mark Carducci’s documentary The Ed Wood Story: The Plan 9 Companion brings much to the celebration.

Those who aren’t up to speed on Wood should watch the documentary before viewing the Burton film; Burton’s drama plays a lot better when one knows the real story. The Ed Wood Story chronicles the auteur’s career, beginning with his one of his earliest directorial efforts, the 1953 cross-dressing manifesto Glen or Glenda? (As Stephen Apostoloff points out, Wood showed up for script meetings sporting a skirt, an angora sweater, and a day’s growth of beard.) Primarily, though, the documentary is an exhaustive study of Wood’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, Plan 9 From Outer Space, generally acknowledged as the worst movie ever made. The documentary is so exhaustive, in fact, that it’s 32 minutes longer than Plan 9 itself.

To his credit, director Carducci (who scripted the 1988 horror movie Pumpkinhead) doesn’t jeer at Wood’s cinematic blunders and peculiarities. In lieu of cheap shots, he offers good-natured ribbing and an entertaining probe into Wood’s filmmaking process. The Ed Wood Story also makes a case against Plan 9‘s worst-movie status, arguing that Plan 9 is too entertaining to be that bad. In some amusing bits of contrariness, interviewee Tony Randel (director of Ticks) suggests that Gone With the Wind is far worse than Plan 9, while cartoonist and EW contributor Drew Friedman nominates ”Meryl Streep’s last movie or any film that she’s in.”

Originally released three years ago, as Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion, on an obscure mail-order label, The Ed Wood Story brings to its subject a compulsive’s eye for minutiae. But then, that’s the tape’s charm, particularly when it reveals that Wood did not, as is widely believed, use hubcaps for his flying saucers (they were plastic models from toy stores).

Like the documentary, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood takes an affectionate view of the director on the lunatic fringe of 1950s Hollywood. At the film’s heart is Johnny Depp, playing Wood as an earnest and pixilated wannabe who believes he’s emulating his idol, Orson Welles. As Wood forges from one misguided film to the next, director Burton manages to sound an offbeat tone that is funny, strange, and often poignant. As a burned-out Bela Lugosi (who became a Wood crony in Lugosi’s final, drug-addled years), Oscar winner Martin Landau makes you believe the horror star has risen from the dead and returned to the screen. And it’s more than just an uncanny impersonation. When he’s not being hilariously foulmouthed, Landau’s Lugosi emerges as the real tragic figure of Wood’s world of Tinseltown castoffs.

Black and white is the perfect medium for a film about the B-movie stratum of the Hollywood heap, and on the big screen Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography vividly captured L.A.’s sun-bleached streets and cave-dark screening rooms. On video, however, the film loses much of its scope and tall-tale vigor.

Episode Recaps

Burton endearingly casts Wood’s escapades in cockeyed heroic terms. Wood’s life becomes the story of an artist remaining true to himself, despite all obstacles — not the least of which is his lack of talent. The film ends with the (fictional) lavish premiere of Plan 9 and doesn’t venture, as the documentary does, into Wood’s later years of pornography, alcoholism, and skid-row life. It’s merciful, perhaps, that Wood didn’t live long enough to see the Plan 9 cult reach full bloom, to watch audiences laugh at his films, not with them. Chances are, he never would have understood. Ed Wood: A-; The Ed Wood Story: The Plan 9 Companion: B+

Ed Wood

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