Ed Wood (1994)

Directed by Tim Burton

There are some movies it takes me a long while to get around to seeing. I get some notion of what a movie will be and, not particularly liking this, I avoid the film.

One of these is a Tim Burton movie, now re-released on DVD as Ed Wood – Special Edition. I think I’ve been avoiding it because I thought it would be a campy, tongue-in-cheek send up of the man known as “the world’s worst director.”

Well, I was wrong.

The film’s not like that at all (though there is a strong camp flavour to the movie). And as often happens when I do finally make myself sit down and watch one of these films I’ve avoided, it turns out it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while.

In fact, it may be the Tim Burton film I’ve been waiting to see, the one I had hoped Big Fish would be.

Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994).

While many people love Burton’s films, one criticism of him that keeps coming up has to do with the style overwhelming the content. Or, put another way, they look great but the stories don’t have a great deal of depth.

In Ed Wood, Burton is as stylish as ever but for some reason it doesn’t seem to dominate the film as it does in others. I think this is because it’s mitigated by two elements – the black and white photography and the actor’s performances, in particular the performances of Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi and Johnny Depp as Ed Wood.

In the case of the photography, the movie has a marvelous black and white look that evokes the look of mid-fifties, low budget films. In trying to get this look and feel, I can’t help wondering if Burton restrained himself a bit in order to capture it.

The movie doesn’t come across as quite so elaborate in its look – not like many of his other movies. And I think this helps capture the period look the film is aiming for while also mitigating the distracting quality of a lavish look.

Where the performances are concerned, Landau and Depp are about as close to perfect as anyone could hope for.

In fact, the jewel within this movie has to be Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi (it won him an Academy award).

He communicates both pathos and humour as well as an element of realism within the quirky, sometimes desperate world of the film.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994).

And Landau’s Lugosi both contrasts and complements Johnny Depp’s Ed. Together, they capture a human element, one with some depth, that we often find lacking or obscured in Burton’s other films.

In keeping with the tone of the film, and as he often does in the roles he takes, Depp plays Ed Wood with eccentricity and humour and it plays brilliantly against Landau’s realism.

You can see Depp having fun with the role as his Ed Wood is nothing less than exuberant and tenacious about making movies, and with a smiling, period Andy Hardy kind of look and approach.

Oddly, his performance is simultaneously both parody and homage and it’s leavened by nicely placed moments where Ed loses his smile for a moment and appears genuinely, and quietly, confused – often when others don’t share his enthusiasm.

The movie as a whole works because rather than taking the obvious approach, which would be an amusing send-up of bad films as exemplified by Ed Wood, maker of some of the world’s worst films, it becomes a celebration of filmmaking.

It seems to say that for the filmmakers themselves, the merits of a film are almost irrelevant. It’s the making of the movies that is the thing.

While finding some amusement in Ed Wood, the movie loves him for his enthusiasm and celebrates his tenacious, if wrong-headed, approach to movies.

For those who collect and categorize movies, Ed Wood can be placed beside Cinema Paradiso as a kind of companion piece – two celebrations of film.

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