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March 23, 2005

Review: Ed Wood

Ed Wood

There are two reasons to see Ed Wood, and three if you're generally a fan of Tim Burton. I'm generally a fan, but lately Burton hasn't had a lot to offer me so I haven't been as interested¹. Still, he's in that category of someone whose movies I'm more likely to see than not, because I feel like the auteur of Edward Scissorhands and Pee Wee and Beetle Juice is likely to come up with something I'll enjoy. Big Fish is another I need to see, it's in the queue.

Anyway, other than a Burton fetish, there are two reasons to see Ed Wood. The first of these is the amazingly compelling portrait of Bela Lugosi by Martin Landau, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor for his work here. This is a performance of amazing subtlety, and incredibly accurate to at least my memories of Lugosi and his work. He plays this old actor knowingly -- this is an old man who desperately needs attention and money and heroin, and is willing to do whatever he needs to do to get those. Often, I think, he substitutes the heroin for the attention and even adulation he's really seeking. Landau captures all of this, and gives us a picture of what it must be like to be an actor, to be capable of nothing else because acting defines who you are, and to be unable to pursue that any longer, due to age, infirmity, and yes, addiction. He's a needy, greedy, but also sympathetic and likable old man.

The other reason to see this film is for the interplay of the motives of a young man who clearly deeply admires Lugosi and was perhaps even inspired by him, and who also seeks to make films (and therefore money) from exploiting this very same man. That sounds more callous, I think, than it really appears on screen, but it's clearly there, it's clearly an undertone. Even as Wood films Lugosi for the last time, you feel both halves of this -- Wood is simultaneously exultant that he is able to provide this final adulation for the old man, and already thinking of what he can do with the footage. The man's body is barely cold before he's planning "Bela Lugosi's last picture" -- and we know at the same time that his passing is difficult for Wood.

It's a complex relationship, and really compelling to watch. But it leads me to the single one thing that makes me reluctant to recommend this movie: the sheer goofiness of Ed Wood, Jr.

I don't know a thing about Ed Wood that I didn't see in this movie. I suspect that it's a rare moviegoer who knew all that much about him before the movie was made. So why, why must he be so true to his original character -- he was simply too goofy to be believed, so I have to assume that this was how the man actually was. I came away thinking I was watching (at least in part) a Burton fairy tale, which didn't fit with the rest of the film, the more compelling bits. It left me puzzled at the choices Burton had made in making the film. It left me a bit soured.

Overall, I'd give it a cautious recommendation. The bits that are good are really, really good -- the flaws, however, are with the main character, which are naturally pervasive.

**½ (out of four)

¹I mean, Planet of the Apes. Good God. What was he thinking?

Posted by Brett Douville at March 23, 2005 09:58 PM


I took the character of Ed Wood to be over-the-top on purpose, a tribute to the enthusiasm that he brought to his projects, not a depiction of the real man. There's a 40's style broadness to the characterization that I thought was appealing, and I think it plays well of the complexity of Landau as Legosi. Personally I'd give this one an extra star!

Posted by: Reed at March 24, 2005 05:06 PM

You're crazy. All that over-the-topness¹ led the character to be nearly completely featureless in the face of the crusty geography of Landau's portrayal. It was completely mismatched! Completely unbalanced! Made no sense! Why am I shouting!?

¹Warning: not a word.

Posted by: Brett Douville at March 24, 2005 07:43 PM

Oh, and another thing. What was with Vincent d'Onofrio as Orson Welles? There was this complete mismatch between his lips and the voice track. It was almost like watching an Ed Wood film! Totally bizarre.

Posted by: Brett Douville at March 24, 2005 07:49 PM