It is the mid-1950s and one Edward D. Wood Jr (Johnny Depp) is pacing outside the theatre holding the premiere of his latest play, worried that the press have not turned up to review it. Actually, not many paying punters have turned up to watch it either, and if you were being kind, the production could only be called amateurish, but Wood has tremendous faith in his abilities and those of his cohorts. Even when they congregate in a nearby bar to read the savage review of Los Angeles' leading critic, Wood's enthusiasm is not dented, but his friends are not so sure. What Ed needs is a real project, something to bring his talents to the big screen...
A lovely tribute to a man who could never have been said to be a success, Ed Wood nevertheless managed to snatch victory of the "World's Worst Film Director" of Hollywood legend from the jaws of his real life defeats. Based on Rudolph Grey's biography Nightmare of Ecstasy, obviously being a movie version a lot of what was depicted was not entirely accurate, yet Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's script tapped into something of the spirit of Wood, and emerged as a recreation of a time and place where he may have been a loser, but here was someone the audience could really champion.
The film depicts the making of three of Wood's pictures, starting with Glen or Glenda for which he felt uniquely qualified. Inspired by the true story of sex change recipient Christine Jorgenson, for some reason Ed believes because he is a secret transvestite he is the ideal man to bring such a tale to the public, but his producer, George Weiss (Mike Starr), finds he cannot secure the rights, so allows Wood to make whatever he wants, little realising he will end up with something so utterly bizarre it would take decades for anyone to appreciate it. One good thing comes out of it: Ed gets to meet and employ a down on his luck Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau).
The relationship between Ed and Bela is one of the most moving in any movies about showbiz, all the more touching for being about two men struggling to get by and buying into their shared delusion that their next big break is just around the corner. There's a strong undercurrent of desperation to director Tim Burton's film, and the fear that the characters are in danger of ending up destitute is far more palpable than anything that the character's scary fictions could ever dream up. So Ed and Bela cling to each other in this unfriendly world, with the irascible Lugosi tragically addicted to drugs and pretty much on his last legs, not that Ed could ever accept that his star was anything other than shining as brightly as he did in his heyday.
While Landau, under Rick Baker's superb makeup, gives the performance of his career and was rightfully awarded with an Oscar for it, Depp matches him every step of the way with a style bordering on naivety turned denial. He captures a sense of the man's eternal optimism soon before the point where it is about to be drummed out of him (the real Wood descended into alcoholism and filming occasional tawdry porno movies), making for a stirring centre of the mayhem, the middle of a group of misfits, who, as he admits, if he was judgemental about them he wouldn't have any friends at all. We're back with Burton's celebration of the outsiders, and rarely did he find such perfect subjects for his attention.
The supporting cast are particularly fine as well, with Sarah Jessica Parker as Dolores Fuller, the first woman in Wood's life who finally rejects him, and Patricia Arquette as the sweet-natured Kathy who provides him with the acceptance he needs. More comedically, Bill Murray makes a terrific Bunny Breckinridge, one of Wood's gay hangers-on, Jeffrey Jones is Criswell and gets to open the film in Plan 9 from Outer Space fashion, and George 'The Animal' Steele is a great Tor Johnson. You do laugh at these people, yet something in the telling makes us almost feel guilty for doing so, and there are scenes in this which are incredibly poignant: when Lugosi eventually dies it's genuinely affecting. With a feeling of authenticity to these characters whatever the facts of their lives, Ed Wood is a curious mix of joyful eulogy and the melancholy knowledge that most of them, Wood especially, had dreams bigger than their lives could bear. Music by Howard Shore.
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.