Several times over the course of this Cinematic Century project I’ve come across years in cinema that just have a staggering amount of great movies released. There’s really no rhyme or reason to why these suddenly very big years come about, but it certainly leads to some stress on my end, since I’m going to have to look at this insanely crowded field and pick a favorite from the bunch. And, almost always, when put in that position I’ve found myself leaning towards something of an unexpected pick. And, 1994 is no different. Because, going into this year I kind of assumed that the film I would be talking about is Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough classic, Pulp Fiction. It’s a movie that I love quite a bit, the film of his that really got me into his work, and the movie that virtually launched an entire movement within American cinema, for better or for worse. But, as time has gone on I’ve found that film slipping in my estimations. It’s certainly not aging as well as some of his other films, and I just find myself getting the urge to revisit Pulp Fiction less and less, which is kind of a hallmark for the films I tackle on this project. But, aside from Pulp Fiction, there are plenty of other great movies from 1994 we could have been talking about. I’ve never been the biggest Forrest Gump fan, and it certainly is having problems aging as well, but it’s definitely and interesting movie to dissect. I’m a big fan of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, a movie that really gets to the core of lies and conspiracy. Or, hey, we could have talked about bus terrorism with Speed! Or discussed the fact that Jim Carry was absolutely on fire in 1994, making the Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Ace Ventura, all in the same year, which is a staggering achievement in the field of dumb comedies that I loved as a child. Or, hey, we could have gotten silly with the Coen Brothers and talked about the vastly underrated the Hudsucker Proxy. But, when it became time for me to choose what film to cover this week, I had to go with my heart and talk about Ed Wood, a wonderfully bizarre and sincere love-letter to the “worst” director of all time.
The film began life as the passion project of screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. After gaining success with penning the two Problem Child movies, Alexander and Karaszewski decided they needed to break the mold a bit and write a script that wouldn’t get them pigeonholed as family film writers. So, lending on an obsession for cult film director Ed Wood that they’d garnered in film school, the pair set out to create a biopic of the man who frequently gets hailed as the worst director of all time. And, after working on the script they were able to get the attention of directed Michael Lehmann, who they knew from film-school, and who had gained a certain amount of clout from his directorial debut, Heathers. The film then began to progress, and eventually gained Tim Burton as a producer. Burton at this point was on top of the world, having created a string of massively successful films, and getting permission to make essentially anything he wanted. So, while researching Ed Wood after agreeing to produce the film, he found himself becoming fascinated with the oddball director, and decided that he wanted to direct the film himself, which ended up working nicely since Lehmann had gotten wrapped up in a different project anyway. So, Burton took over the reigns, and fell in love with the script, promising to champion it in any way he could. Which resulted in the movie moving from Columbia Pictures to Walt Disney Studios after Burton refused to back down on the idea of shooting the film in black and white. But, Burton and Disney had a good relationship at the time, and the film was going to be assigned a fairly paltry budget, so the studio basically let him do whatever he wanted, giving him virtually complete creative control. And, that resulted in a fascinatingly strange little film that ended up getting a massive amount of critical affection, while ended up as a bit of a box-office bomb. But, it ended up garnering two Academy Awards, and has gone on to be regarded as perhaps Burton’s finest film. And, I certainly agree.
Ed Wood tells the story of Edward Wood Jr, a struggling theater director who is desperate to break into the motion picture business. He has acquired a loyal band of oddballs who serve as his theater troupe, and he’s convinced that he’s one big break away from becoming the next Orson Welles. And, he believes that that break may be in the form of a biopic of Christine Jorgensen, one of the first people who get a gender reassignment surgery. Ed is a transvestite and he decides that that makes him uniquely suited to tell this story. Unfortunately, the film he has heard about it being made by a very low-budget studio who wants to create some drive-in schlock. And even they don’t want to work with Ed. So, he forlornly leaves the studio’s office, and his life changes forever. Because while walking home he finds his idol, Bela Lugosi shopping for coffins. Lugosi has fallen on hard times, and he and Ed strike up a friendly conversation that quickly blossoms into a full-on friendship. And, with that relationship, Ed is able to throw his hat back into the ring for Jorgensen film, promising that hiring him would bring along the star power of Lugosi. Weirdly, this works, and Ed begins production on his debut film, Glen or Glenda, a much more open-minded film that his producer was intending, with himself staring in the title role.
And, after finishing the film, Ed heads into Warner Bros. to look into getting his next film off the ground. But, when Glen or Glenda is released to critical and commercial desolation, no one is interested in working with Ed, and he’s tossed back out into the world. Which is when Ed’s long-time girlfriend Dolores Fuller suggests the idea of him raising the money for his next film, Bride of the Atom, himself. And, after some unsuccessful attempts, Ed meets a young woman named Loretta King, who appears to be independently wealthy. So, Ed convinces her to bankroll the film in exchange for playing the female lead, much to Dolores’ chagrin. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes evident that Loretta actually has no money, and the production is thrown into chaos once again, until Ed is able to convince a meat tycoon to back the film to completion. The film ends up becoming Bride of the Monster, and utilizes a rapidly declining Lugosi, the meat tycoon’s son, and a local wrestler named Tor Johnson. And, at the end of filming, Dolores can’t take Ed’s life anymore, and leaves him.
Which is around the same time that Bela Lugosi takes a turn for the worst. His unemployment is being cancelled, and his heroin addiction has gotten out of control, so Ed encourages him to go to rehab. And, while caring for Bela, Ed ends up meeting a woman named Kathy O’Hara who he falls in love with. Eventually Bela leaves rehab, in time to attend a premier of Bride of the Monster that goes so poorly the cast are chased out of the theater by an angry mob. Ed is ready to give up again, and shoots a little scene for a new project with Bela right before Bela suddenly dies, leaving him with a script without a star. Or any money. Luckily though, Ed is able to convince his landlord that if his church backs his new project financially they’ll make enough money on its success to create a whole slew of Bible movies. Ed then begins work on a sci-fi film that eventually gets named Plan 9 From Outer Space, and begins the arduous task of getting the movie filmed. He’s close to giving up though, due to the church’s strong opinions on the film, but Ed ends up getting a surprise pep-talk from Orson Welles, who he happens to meet at a bar. So, with that show of confidence, Ed finishes the film, and gets to go to the premiere of his masterpiece, eager to see what life has in store for him.
Ed Wood is a fascinating figure. When I was younger I really became fixated on the “worst movies of all time,” predominately because of my obsession with Mystery Science Theater 3000, and through that I became very familiar with the works of Ed Wood. He made quintessentially bad movies, just thoroughly incompetent, while incredibly sincere. Which ends up resulting in that perfect sort of bad movie that essentially can function as a campy comedy. And, when I became aware that Tim Burton, a director whose work I really loved when I was younger, made a film about Wood, it felt like a sure thing that I would enjoy it. But, ever since I first saw Ed Wood, it has been not only my favorite Burton film, but one of my favorite films of all time. I’m a real sucker about movies about movies, and Ed Wood may be one of the most successful of that subgenre. It’s a loving film that looks at the creative madness of one of film history’s weirdest members, tells the semi-realistic story of three of the oddest movies you’ll ever watch, and takes a look at the last days of one of early Hollywood’s most recognizable stars. And I love it. I completely understand why this movie wouldn’t have found an audience at the time it was released, because I really can’t think of many subjects more niche than the life of an infamously bad director, but it’s a movie that I love wholeheartedly, and that really has had a massive impact on me and my life.
Tim Burton has said that one of the reasons that he became so interested in telling this story was the fact that he saw quite a bit of himself in Ed. Not only was there the feat that Ed and Bela Lugosi had a very close and personal friendship, similarly to Tim Burton’s friendship with Vincent Price, but the general idea that Ed Wood was making the movies he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. And, people didn’t like them. Tim Burton is a very interesting figure in modern film-making, especially in regards to the ebbs and flows of his career. He came onto the scene with a staggering run of successful films, both critically and commercially, and it seemed like he could do no wrong, all while creating truly unique and strange films. Just like Ed Wood. But, for whatever reason, the audiences of Burton’s generation accepted him while the audiences of Wood’s rejected him. Because success really can come down to luck, the chance that people are wanting to hear the stories you’re willing to tell at the time that you’re ready to tell them. Ed was a passionate guy, maybe without the technical acumen he needed to really succeed, but it’s clear that the man lived and breathed movies. Things never worked out for him, but he didn’t let that stop him. In the face of constant adversity Ed Wood just kept going, kept making his movies, and kept telling his stories. And, there’s something really beautiful in that. Ed Wood was born a storyteller. It didn’t really matter that no one was interested in his stories. It obviously would have been nice if people had appreciated his work in the way that he did, but all that seemed to matter to Ed Wood was that he got to tell stories. And, he did. He went out there and hussled his way into living his dream. And, I really respect that, regardless of what the films ended up being.
Ed Wood was written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, directed by Tim Burton, and released by Buena Vista Pictures, 1994.
Categories: Cinematic Century