Six Damn Fine Degrees #10: Ed Wood

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

Johnny Depp as Edward D. Wood Jr.

If there ever was a prime example of positive thinking gone awry, it has to be Tim Burton’s interpretation of Edward D. Wood Jr.

A filmmaker in the 50’s, an era of highly localized and diversified cinema where there was still a space for worse-than-B grade films, the real Ed Wood’s two best known films are Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. He is most noted for being voted the worst director of all time, posthumously, in 1980. It is clear he wanted to make extraordinary movies, but lacked everything, from money to quality control to, well, competence. But they do have… personality.

Note: spoilers below…

Burton was obviously drawn, not just to Ed Wood’s personal journey through filmmaking, but also to his style. He films this pastiche in rather cheesy black and white, and with highly stylized performances. Johnny Depp, not widely known for his comedic chops, plays Ed very broadly for comic effect, with few flashes of genuine feeling. Other members of the cast include the likes of Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge. In real life Breckinridge was a burlesque entertainer and openly gay, at a time when it was rare, and dangerous, to be out. In Murray’s hands, Breckinridge is painted in broad strokes, undeniably a Murray performance. It would be queasy to play out this flamboyant personality, with his plans for a sex-change operation in 1954, for comedy. But Murray is graceful and injects some much-needed warmth into the film. Ed himself was an avid cross-dresser, a fact which is played up here. His film Glen or Glenda deals with the subject (and Wood’s particular penchant for angora wool). That film’s genesis, the journey of transgender woman Christine Jorgensen, reportedly inspired Bunny to pursue the path to his own gender re-assignment, a path which he would ultimately be forced to abandon.

Bill Murray as Bunny Breckinridge

Another stand out performance is Martin Landau’s sensitive take on the great horror actor Bela Lugosi, of Dracula fame. He refuses to do the broad performance amply provided for by the script and make-up. Instead, he portrays the – by then very much diminished – former horror star as an old man, with many regrets to ruminate over. As Landau explains it, he set out to make a homage rather than a documentary, and he succeeds admirably. The real-life Lugosi had, at the time the movie is set, suffered badly from not just career set-backs which left him depressed and out of work, but also from chronic pain. This led to an addiction to morphine, and later methadone, which badly damaged what little was left of his career and his health. Even after the ordeal of detoxing from the drugs, he still drank, either with Eddie, the inveterate dipsomaniac, or on his own at home. Landau’s performance both captures the eccentricities of the elderly actor, as well as the very real pathos of his declining mental and physical health. Whether the relationship between Lugosi and Wood was in actuality symbiotic, or an example of crass exploitation, is up for debate. As real life tends to be messier than biopics, probably a bit of both, though it seems clear that either man got something out of the friendship – and it is the friendship that makes up the heart of the script.

Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi

The stellar cast is rounded out by Patricia Arquette, Sarah Jessica Parker and Vincent D’Onofrio (as a very convincing Orson Welles), to name but a few. The music is by the inimitable Howard Shore, no less, and the costumes were done by the prolific Colleen Atwood.

Atwood explains she wanted Wood’s male attire to be very simple, rather than the more flamboyant style of the era. So, avoiding Some Like it Hot-style broad comedy, when Ed is shown in his preferred angora sweaters or dresses, it creates a moment which actually reveals character. This is key, as the cross-dressing (as Ed called it) is an important part of the film, as it was an important part of Ed’s life. To allow that aspect of his identity to descend into farce would be beyond crass and, in all honesty, Depp’s well-meant hamming doesn’t always help. It is Atwood’s beautiful texturing that gives the angora a lushness, granting us a peek into Ed’s deep fascination.

For all these reasons, Ed Wood is one of Burton’s more accomplished films, and a particular favourite of mine. If that still isn’t enough to entice readers to see it, it also won its share of awards (among which were two Oscars). That Burton would pick Ed Wood’s story, or at least a version of it, instead of the many – arguably more interesting – characters who surround him, makes sense. He is, after all, a director / producer himself, and has a penchant for outsiders. Although I am unsure whether the ancillary stories are always best-served by this approach, Burton shines when he allows himself to geek-out about moviemaking. Consider the scene almost two hours in where Ed, by pure chance, runs into Orson Welles. Ed commiserates with his idol about the vagaries of directing, and the great director responds: “I am supposed to do a thriller at Universal. But they want Charlton Heston to play the Mexican.” It is this indiscriminate love of film, genre and era, that makes the movie sparkle.

Plan 9 from Outer Space

As famous Dutch author Gerard Reve once wrote: “[That it’s a] true story is no excuse.” So, although the script is very well researched, it contains many inaccuracies for the benefit of storytelling. Scriptwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski rightly choose to focus on the strangely productive times of ca 1952 through 1956, rather than to sum-up Ed’s life from the cradle to his decline into cheap porn, alcoholism, and ultimately an early grave. In the final analysis, you could perhaps view it as a paean. Not so much to its struggling protagonist, to his varied group of friends, or even to an era. But to making movies, despite all the asperities, for the sheer joy of it.

The hook for this Six Damn Fine Degrees piece is, of course, the costume design. If you are not (yet) convinced of Atwood’s range, she did both Ed Wood and Alice for Burton, and of course the stellar costume design for last week’s entry: Beloved, among many many others.

Edward D. Wood Jr.

Please note: Though I am well aware of the power of words when addressing these topics, it is hard to determine how these people would self-identify in the current, less restrictive, culture. Therefore I have adhered to their own descriptors as much as possible, even if those terms are currently outdated.

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