Notorious 1950s B-movie director Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) stands at a payphone listening, an eager smile on his face. He seems surprised at what he’s hearing but his expression never changes. “Really,” he says energetically into the phone, “Worst film you ever saw? Well, my next one will be better.” This sheer determination and optimism are at the heart of Tim Burton’s stylish and sympathetic 1994 biopic about the man deemed “the Worst Director of All-Time.” An outsider desperate to be an insider, Wood’s ambitions were far greater than his abilities, and yet he never gave up even as the very people whose validation he craved laughed him out of their offices and movie theaters. He even found a muse in childhood hero Bela Lugosi, whose star had faded considerably though his desire (and also financial need) to keep working had not. Ed Wood is many things — a straightforward biopic, a loving homage to 1950s B-movies, an underdog tale — but it’s also about the merits and pitfalls of creative collaboration in an industry that frequently chews people up and spits them out. Twenty-five years later, Ed Wood remains Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s best collaboration, but it’s also oddly become a film as much about their own partnership as Wood and Lugosi’s.
Burton and Depp first worked together on Edward Scissorhands, the 1990 dark fable about a lonely young man with scissors for hands stranded in candy-colored suburbia. Created and left unfinished by a mysterious Inventor (played by Burton’s childhood idol, Vincent Price, in his last film role), Edward is the ultimate outsider of Burton’s filmography: pale, strange, and desperate to be loved and accepted by the world. The town sees Edward as a dangerous freak until the Boggs family takes him in and assures their neighbors he’s actually gentle and shy — until they all turn on him following an accident. The film’s coda goes the way of Frankenstein with the townspeople hunting Edward down in his Gothic mansion and asking us to consider who is the real monster.
Not unlike many of Ed Wood’s films, the majority of Tim Burton’s films play with and often subvert the idea of normality. The suburbia of Edward Scissorhands is meant to feel uncanny and strange to someone like Edward, who has lived on the fringes of it in near total isolation. Yet, Edward also seems to understand that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll never be fully accepted by the people around him who have a narrower view of the world and a limited tolerance for those who fall outside their definition of normal.
A lifelong cross-dresser, Ed Wood certainly understood this. His first film, the semi-autobiographical Glen or Glenda — the making of which is depicted in Ed Wood — was meant to be a call for tolerance and compassion. But this being 1950s Hollywood at the height of McCarthyism, the studio went the exploitative route, hoping to piggyback off the headlines about Christine Jorgensen’s history-making gender reassignment surgery. The other problem — which Burton’s biopic makes clear — was Wood’s inability to reconcile his complete lack of talent and skill with his vision, leading to a messy, incoherent film. As such, any hopes of finding broader acceptance of his own gender-nonconforming dress — especially in a decade of increased emphasis on “traditional” gender roles post-WWII — were pretty much dashed from the start.
Glen or Glenda was also Wood’s first film with Dracula star Bela Lugosi, whom the director idolized. By the early 1950s, Lugosi was in dire straits financially, addicted to morphine (which was used to treat his sciatica), and mostly working in extremely low-budget B-movies, but Wood still regarded him as a big star. The ‘94 biopic portrays their relationship as one of mutual admiration and true friendship. Depp’s Wood is all wide eyes and reverent smiles in the presence of Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi, especially on set. Even if he knew how, Wood doesn’t direct him at all, really — he simply lets Lugosi chew the scenery, shaking his head as though he can’t believe his childhood hero is in one of his films.
In a tour de force Academy Award-winning performance, Landau portrays the horror icon as a lonely man still desperately clinging to the past, hoping for acceptance once more from the industry that has mostly forgotten him (“I thought he was dead,” various characters deadpan throughout Ed Wood). The very things that made Lugosi perfect for Dracula — his thick Hungarian accent and slightly sinister looks — worked against him in a business that still has little imagination when it comes to casting. While Wood didn’t exactly think outside the box either with the roles he gave to Lugosi, it’s not difficult to understand why the actor was drawn to the director. They were kindred spirits — two men on the fringes of Hollywood who loved making movies more than anything else in the world. After being told “no” repeatedly by the industry they loved, it must have been a relief to work with someone who always enthusiastically said “yes” no matter how misguided the idea.
So too are Johnny Depp and Tim Burton kindred spirits. The story goes that Depp — wanting to escape the heartthrob track post-21 Jump Street and Cry Baby — wept reading the script for Edward Scissorhands though he was sure a bigger, more bankable star would be cast. The studio certainly pushed for it, but Burton insists the actor was always his first choice. Depp is nearly unrecognizable as Edward — his face caked in pale makeup and fake scars, hair wild, mannerisms twitchy. It’s an astonishing transformation aided further by Depp’s altogether heartbreaking performance. Edward Scissorhands not only established Depp as a serious talent but also made him Burton’s go-to muse — the man who perfectly understood Burton’s misunderstood protagonists.
In some ways, Ed Wood feels as much like one of Burton’s peculiar fantasies as any of his other films, and yet the subject matter is real (if occasionally exaggerated). There are no wigs or bizarre makeup here, but Depp still disappears into Wood, portraying the director as an indefatigable optimist with a huge heart who’s clueless about the disastrous nature of his work. Depp’s Wood sees what he wants to see, embracing people outside of the world’s definitions of “normal” and turning them into collaborators and friends. In Wood’s world, there’s no such thing as “other,” whether you’re a washed up horror icon or a B-movie director who likes to wear women’s angora sweaters. Once again (and rather successfully), Burton and Depp ask us to consider who the real monsters are: the outsiders making shitty horror flicks or the people who have ostracized them?
However, despite his idiosyncrasies personally and creatively, it would be inaccurate to say Tim Burton has ever truly been an outsider himself, considering his films have collectively grossed over $1 billion at the box office, and he has a healthy working relationship with the most powerful entertainment company in the world aka Disney. The same is mostly true of Johnny Depp, who also boasts a lucrative Disney relationship and $3 billion in box office grosses. The pair may have built their careers around films about outsiders, but neither one has been ostracized quite like Wood and Lugosi.
And yet, the gloss has faded somewhat on Burton and Depp in recent years — both in their work together and apart. Hollywood is a place where stars rise and fall as easily as the tides of the Pacific — something Lugosi knew better than anyone — and Depp especially has been on a steady decline in the public eye. A nasty divorce coupled with allegations of drug and alcohol abuse as well as domestic abuse plus major financial woes have put the actor deeply at odds with a once-adoring public and seemingly sucked the life out of much of his work. And the very things that made his earlier roles so interesting — such as strange accents, wigs, and mannerisms — now feel a bit like a hollow shtick. Like Bela Lugosi and Dracula, Depp seems to be clinging to the past, hoping his most loved onscreen personas — like Captain Jack Sparrow — will be enough to keep him financially and critically afloat through present day rejections.
For his part, Tim Burton seems content to play it safe at the Mouse House, putting his gloomy aesthetic to work on CGI-heavy re-imaginings of old Disney properties like Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo. It’s not a huge surprise given the director is a graduate of the legendary CalArts animation program that birthed the animation renaissance of the 80s and 90s but something is missing. He’s still making films about outsiders but that too has started feeling like a hollow shtick — all Gothic aesthetics with none of the heart or bite. Or as Wood puts it in the film, “nobody will notice that! It’s about the big picture!”
Ed Wood never had access to the resources Tim Burton has had for the majority of his career (and it probably wouldn’t have improved the quality of his films all that much anyway) but he made up for it in maverick spirit. Wood worked with whatever he could get his hands on whether it was cardboard flying saucers and a stolen fake octopus (“Somebody misplaced the octopus motor, so get in there and shake his legs around!” Wood yells at Lugosi at one point) or a gigantic Swedish wrestler with no acting experience. This was Wood’s true talent: assembling a team of people who loved making movies and convincing them to do whatever it took to make them. It was guerrilla-style filmmaking in its purest definition.
This also happens to be what makes Ed Wood so great. Despite its period setting, it’s Tim Burton’s least flashy movie (which also makes it his riskiest). Shot entirely in black and white and utilizing many of the same practical special effects Wood himself used, it feels more like an actual film from the 1950s right down to the actors’ semi-broad line-deliveries. It’s stylish in the way all films shot in black and white look vaguely stylish, but Burton doesn’t add anything to emphasize the style too much — he simply works within the visual restrictions of the genre and time period. And combined with a cast and crew of regular, trusted collaborators — Depp included — the film is the better and more personal for it. It’s funny, sweet, and compassionate. It’s exactly the kind of film Wood always dreamed of making but simply never could.
Ed Wood is also, rather ironically, the least-commercially successful film Burton and Depp have made together. It connected with critics but not audiences in 1994, who were sold a movie from “the director of Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands” and didn’t quite know what to make of a biopic about a semi-forgotten B-movie director who liked wearing women’s clothing. That seems fitting given audiences in the 1950s didn’t know what to make of Wood either. But Ed Wood also earned something the real Ed Wood never did: two Oscars. Hollywood loves an outsider story even if they’re not always very kind to outsiders themselves.
“When are we making another picture Eddie?” Lugosi desperately asks Wood several times throughout the film. He died before Plan 9 From Outer Space was completed, and in a way, Wood’s career sort of died along with him. He kept making movies up until the mid-1970s but never found anything close to mainstream acceptance for his work before his death in 1978— an outsider right up until the end. Wood and Lugosi made a lot of dreck together, but their collaborative relationship gave each a needed boost if only for their own creative needs. Burton and Depp’s work together over the last 29 years has been decidedly mixed overall — the ingenuity of earlier films like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood has all but disappeared. Yet their devotion to one another is unshakeable even if some of their films feel as flimsy now as a cardboard headstone in one of Wood’s graveyards. “Worst film you ever saw?” Well, their next one will be better!
Revisit Ed Wood and other Burton delights in our past Filmography series…