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Ed Wood (Tim Burton) 1994

    It's ironic that the director that produced some of the worst films of all time has gotten one of the best Hollywood-themed biopics ever made about him, but there's little doubt that Tim Burton's Ed Wood is a superb film. It's exceptionally clever in its portrayal of its subject. Wood's own films can be best viewed if you have a large appetite for campy material, but they were not inherently campy (indeed, no one in this film seems to appreciate Wood's output on that level). They were played with a straight face, and just happened to be horribly funny due to their abysmally poor quality. Still, Wood was convinced he was creating history with each shot. The film seizes onto this, and manages to mine a great deal of comedy out of Wood's passion behind his schlock. Burton makes low-budget filmmaker Wood into a charming, fanciful character. He never shot a scene he didn't like, since he was so thrilled to be making films. Depp plays him with a gee-whiz excitement, and when he compares himself to Orson Welles (after all no one but them writes, produces, acts, AND directs) it's far more endearing than pompous. .

 

    The enthusiasm for this character, and those that surround him, invigorate the film. The film's supporting cast is wonderful. Wood's odd personality (he is a transvestite) attracts other oddballs, and Burton's oddballs are all as loveable and untalented as their mentor. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Vincent D'Onofrio stand out among the universally stellar cast, but the best by far is Martin Landau, in an Oscar winning performance as Bela Lugosi. Bela and Ed's relationship is the film's most memorable, and Landau's performance is heartfelt and curmudgeonly. The technical side of the production is top notch as well. The cinematography creates a sparse, clean L.A. that never has a cloud in the sky. The makeup succeeds and converting the cast into relics from the '50's, and transforms Landau beyond recognition. The score occasionally overrides the dialogue, but when it is kept under control, it alternatively lends an appropriate sense of camp or melodramatic bombast to the picture. Burton's direction is always quite sure, even as the film shifts wildly in tone. The scenes between Wood and his first girlfriend feel like something out of a Douglas Sirk film, while most scenes featuring Lugosi alternate between elevating him to mythic proportions and tearing him down. We seem to be watching a world that exists only in terms of film genre. Perhaps the movie's saving grace, though, is that we're spared the fall from grace that makes so many biopics a drag. There's not much fidelity to historical fact, but any film that felt it necessary to dredge up Wood's eventual slide into alcoholism and continued commercial failure would seem downright mean-spirited. After all, he's already considered the worst director of all time. He doesn't need more abuse. Thankfully, there's not an ounce of mean-spiritedness in Burton's film. It's a glorious celebration of enthusiasm, and quite possibly Burton's best film.

* * * *

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman