Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Better Than Not Getting The Job
Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, an enormously entertaining and touching film which I never grow tired of, opens and closes with a nighttime downpour over Hollywood, not a normal occurrence. But every now and then it does happen so this unusual sight makes it an appropriate bookend to this look at a side of Hollywood not often seen in movies about the place, a biopic on the man who is generally thought of at the worst director in the history of the movies. My own perspective on the story it tells is bound to be different from a lot of people because it deals with names that I had long been familiar with when the film was made. And now that I’ve known this film for a long time as well, it just gains for me with every viewing.
I first heard of Edward D. Wood, Jr. when I was still just a kid, reading the various books by the Medved Brothers about the “worst movies of all time”, especially The Golden Turkey Awards which probably still remains the most famous of the four they put out. I was completely obsessed with those books way back then and they were my first exposure to names like Wood, William Castle, Ray Dennis Steckler and many others. Years later as I began to learn about these films and the people behind them, I came to the conclusion that the books were pretty reprehensible overall, treating their subjects as nothing but figures to be mocked and bafflingly even naming titles like BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD as among the worst films ever made. Even their research seems shoddy, at times giving the impression that they hadn’t even seen the films they were writing about. There’s nothing wrong with a love of junk or shining a light on the bad stuff, but there was never any affection in what they were writing about. It was just kind of nasty in its crass attempts to be funny. For purely sentimental reasons I still have these books all these years later, but they’re hidden away. I don’t particularly have any desire to look at them now or ever. But some of what the Medveds did made an impression in the world and to me as well, especially when it came to making the world at large aware of the story of Ed Wood, who they voted worst director of all time and his magnum opus PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE which was awarded the honor of worst film ever made. As people got to see these films through the years the cult grew, eventually resulting in screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski writing this biopic about the director, which led to Tim Burton deciding to direct it when his career was at its post-BATMAN hottest. The film did very little business when it was released in the fall of 1994 but it received a great amount of acclaim including several Oscars and certainly played a part in the continued career growth of the key figures behind it. The people who saw it always knew how good it was and seeing it again nearly fifteen years after it was released the film holds up as a valentine to the love of making movies, even when under the most deluded and ridiculous of circumstances.
Just in case there is somebody reading this who hasn’t seen the film, Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood, an aspiring director in the Hollywood scene of the 50s with a predilection for cross-dressing, a secret that he keeps from girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker). Just as he is trying to talk his way into a job directing a film based on Christine Jorgensen, pure chance results in him meeting idol Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), once a huge star, now a broke drug addict who hadn’t worked in years. Ed uses this opportunity to get to direct the movie, a singularly bizarre mish mosh entitled GLEN OR GLENDA, and as his pushes to direct again he continues to assemble the creative team around him which also includes would-be transsexual Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), gigantic wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), local TV horror hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie) and famed psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones). Of course, Ed really is a terrible filmmaker, with no discernable talent but he presses on, trying to get new films made, completely in love with the idea of doing that.
Part of my sentimental fondness for the film, along with knowing a great deal about the subject beforehand, is also due to having seen the film for the first time at a test screening held at the now-closed Hollywood Galaxy in the summer of ’94. Some of that audience aside from me definitely knew about the subject—I can remember the employees of Hollywood Book & Poster sitting in the row behind me. That version we saw was a little longer with scenes and bits of shoe leather that got cut before release and also contained the original ending which just went back to Criswell’s narration at the end, with no "Whatever Happened To..." titles that were added for the release cut to tell us what happened to all these people after the end of the movie (this is discussed on the DVD commentary, referring to it as the only test screening they had). I’ve always missed that ending a little, maybe because it seemed cleaner—it just told you the story and dropped you back into the real world leaving you to decide for yourself about what you’d just seen, but I can understand the desire for people to want to know more and also let them know that, ridiculous as they may have been, these really were real people.
The script by Alexander & Karaszewski succeeds in pulling off a balance of hitting the factual beats to tell the story while not losing focus of the story they want to tell—a guy with dreams of Hollywood glory and what that can mean to anyone who shares those aspirations. He has gobs of enthusiasm but not a speck of talent, exactly what anyone trying to make it in this business fears deep down. Many of the details presented in the film seem to come from “Nightmare of Ectasy”, Rudolph Grey’s oral history of Wood’s life which is credited in the end crawl and it very much feels like that book was on their desk the entire time they were writing the script. A number of major points come from there along with a surprising amount of tiny details which anyone unfamiliar with this story would probably think were made up (Ed never met Orson Welles at Musso & Frank, though—the pair freely admit to coming up with that one themselves). There are a few inaccuracies here and there, but they matter less to me as time goes on. Sprinkled throughout the film are reams of screwy dialogue that somehow feels right for the period but in a way that becomes infectious also feels like they’re writing some of this stuff just because it amuses them—Sarah Jessica Parker’s confused response at one point, “Better than not getting the job?” is a personal favorite of mine. The spin that Tim Burton brings to it feels like it has its own aims that concentrate on the character’s personal optimism and not quite paying attention to the sadness that lurks underneath a lot of this—all through the film it feels like there’s a lot of drinking going on at the edges of the frame, maybe an indication of the denial these characters have. Thinking of it that way I could almost look at the triumphant premiere that ends the film, not what happened in real life, as Wood’s own fantasy. It doesn’t matter, really but after everything we’ve seen him go through he deserves it. He may have made PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE, the worst movie of all time (Is it really? Has anybody seen ROBOT MONSTER? MURDER BY TELEVISION? VAN HELSING?), he made it. He accomplished that much. Always on his side, always treating the absurdities of these characters with the greatest amount of affection, ED WOOD the movie gives back the man a little of the dignity that was taken away from him by the likes of the Medveds. His films may have been lousy—they kind of are, as fascinating as his story is--but everything he represented matters. The film is important to me as a small piece of my own love for films and history in this town as well as maybe a small validation of those things. It really is something that I love.
All these years after that first viewing at the Galaxy, I went to the New Beverly to see it again, as part of a series of films programmed by A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE screenwriter Josh Olson. The two writers were there (second on the bill that night as a perverse joke, was the last remaining 35mm print of PROBLEM CHILD, the first film they wrote. I didn’t stick around for it) as was the great Martin Landau, who won the Oscar for his transcendent performance as Bela Lugosi in his final years. Olson introduced the beautiful print we saw by calling it “the best film about a film director ever made”, with the qualification that the lead of 8 ½ was fictional, after all. During the Q&A which followed Alexander & Karaszewski talked about how writing a film as reviled as PROBLEM CHILD (which they also hate, incidentally) led them to the idea of this take on the life of such a hated director. When Tim Burton was waffling on committing to another project, they took advantage of his interest in the idea and banged out a first draft in six weeks, which he committed to instantly, not even asking for a second draft (much of this info can also be found on the DVD audio commentary, which is highly recommended). As far as I was concerned they could have gone on for hours but there was no stopping Martin Landau when they brought him up to join them. The actor spoke with great humor and insight about various facets of his career, including working with Tim Burton, the challenge of playing Lugosi, meeting Boris Karloff in the sixties, knowing the real Vampira back in the fifties when she dated James Dean (“That was over half a century ago,” he added, almost in wonder) and, maybe coolest of all, talking about how back then he taught acting classes in the space that the New Beverly was at the time when he first arrived in Los Angeles. It was a thrill to be there that night, even if I couldn’t stick around for PROBLEM CHILD. All these years after seeing it, ED WOOD the film still means a great deal to me. In more ways than I could possibly express here, it beautifully and hilariously manages to tap into the dream of wanting to make movies, to write, to do what you need to do in life, in spite of everyone telling you that you shouldn’t because of who you are. Whether they’re right is beside the point. Sometimes these things need to stay alive.