In the penultimate scene of Annie Hall, Woody Allen excuses the happy ending in his play about his relationship with the title character, noting, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.” That’s as good a summation as possible for what Tim Burton did for Edward D. Wood Jr. in Ed Wood (1994), too.
For the uninitiated, Edward D. Wood Jr. is a kind of Hollywood hero — a heavy-drinking transvestite who made some of the most lovably bad movies the world has ever seen and against odds saner men would have shied away from. Wood never let little or big concerns — no money, no credibility, no talent — stand in his way. Rather than realize that he couldn’t possibly make movies, he just went out and made them. At least three of them — Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) — became legendary, but in no meaningful way for Wood, who always believed the films were actually good.
Burton’s film respects that, respects Wood (Johnny Depp), and celebrates both the man’s indomitable spirit and his relationship with down-on-his-luck horror icon Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). A large part of the appeal of the project for Burton lay in the relationship between Wood and Lugosi, which he felt paralleled his own relationship with Vincent Price, and that is at the heart of the film.
The basic story is more or less true (even if it does ignore the existence of Lugosi’s fifth wife), but Burton deliberately skirts a few key issues in order to create the portrait he wants to believe in. The emotional last scenes make right in death that which was denied Wood in life. True or not, the film is brilliant in every capacity — rich, warm and outrageously funny. Landau’s Oscar for his portrayal of the legendary Lugosi is one of the few times the Academy got it right.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke