Ed Wood gets the big picture - at last


BELA LUGOSI'S upturned arm, in Ed Wood (15), displays a network of scars, resembling the contours and capillaries of an Ordnance Survey map. Lugosi was a drug addict long before to be one became de rigeur in Holly-wood. But he suffered from another addiction, insidious and incurable, which has a record to match the hardest of narcotics in destroying promising lives. Lugosi, like his hapless and hopeless director, Edward D Wood, was addicted to movies. Frank Capra once declared that for movies, as with heroin, the only treatment was more of the same. Ed Wood is a film about men in search of filmic fixes. When Martin Landau's Lugosi walks into Ed's ramshackle studio, after years of morphine and obscurity, his bunched shuffle turns jaunty, and his eyes look up, in wonder and reverence, at the arc lights, like Norma Desmond preening for her close-up in Sunset Boulevard.

Such people mainline on movies for an injection of thrills, glamour and, above all, fantasy. That is why Ed Wood, for all his limitations (perhaps because of them), is such a quintessential movie figure. His life (1895-1969) spanned the golden age of cinema, though it never mined its ore. For Ed, movie-making always involved scraping, skimping and improvising. The film chronicles his weird funding ruses, such as having his whole cast baptised, to woo a Baptist Church into investing in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956). He was largely untalented. Yet he had one great gift, which no one toiling in Hollywood's Slough of Despond, can do without: a gift for hope.

An irrepressible, almost maniacal optimism is the key note of Johnny Depp's wonderful performance as Ed. When he opens a newspaper to check that his transvestite saga debut, Glen or Glenda (1952), is advertised, his arms fanfare his excitement as they spread out the pages. There is no mention of the movie, its producer having already given up on it. But Ed's toothy Californian smile and twinkling, spaced-out eyes are undimmed. Later Depp does hint at a growing inner despair, in an incipient seediness, as a slicked-back hair or two falls out of place. But still the perkiness persists. When he directs, Ed flourishes his megaphone, and wraps every first take with the same blithe, wildly inaccurate assessment: "Cut - perfect!"

Any run-of-the-mill movie-maker can manage mediocrity. To be truly bad takes a kind of genius. Ed had it in spades. In a way he was a looking- glass reflection of a great film-maker. He had all the passion and energy of the auteur - and even his own idiosyncratic view of the world. But it was always allied to shoddy, make-shift execution. "Film-making is not about the tiny details," he declares. "It's about the big picture." He didn't understand that the big picture was composed entirely of tiny details. Ludicrously, given his films' use of irrelevant stock footage as filler, he claimed to be a stark realist. When his most maladroit actor, the former wrestler, Tor Johnson, bumps into the set, Ed insists the shot is printed because it's "realistic". He failed to see that movies are about creating an elaborate illusion of reality, not merely recording life.

Ed Wood is a small nut for a director of Tim Burton's talents to crack, and there are times when the film's relentless flipness grows wearisome (especially over 127 minutes). Certain aspects of Ed go unexplored, notably his transvestism, which Glen and Glenda, in its portentous way, illuminates more. But Burton gives ample compensation in his depiction of the faded demi-monde around Ed. Ed was a magnet for eccentrics. The film is full of winning cameos from the likes of Bill Murray, as the bleach-haired Bunny, toying with a sex-change; Jeffrey Jones, as fallible soothsayer, Criswell; and Sarah Jessica Parker, as Ed's first love and leading lady, who walked out when his transvestism stretched her - and her angora sweaters - too far. Ed was an agreeable sort of man to fail with. Nobody was convinced by him, but they were all charmed.

None more so than Bela Lugosi. Lugosi's relationship with Ed is the film's heart. His desperate nocturnal calls - "Eddie, help me!" - provide its most poignant moments. A new documentary, Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (Rhino Video), reveals that Landau's Lugosi, like so much of Ed Wood, is uncannily accurate. Though Landau is a touch less cadaverous than the real Lugosi, he has the proud Hungarian accent and eyes, half-closed in a mixture of shrewdness and nostalgia, down to a T. His chalky white face smudges around the eyes, leaving him resembling a gnarled doppelganger for the smooth Ed, whose own eyes are shaded by sunglasses. Together they form book-ends of Hollywood horror.

Landau won Ed Wood's only Oscar. How it missed one for design, I'll never know. The interior of Lugosi's apartment, a leather-bound shrine to himself, crowned by a photograph of him in his cape-flowing, Dracula prime, alone deserved an award. There are also seamy evocations of Fifties Hollywood, and beautiful curios, such as a gothic funfair, in whose stalled ghost train Ed reveals his cross-dressing to his future wife (Patricia Arquette). Stefan Szapsky's gleaming black-and-white photography gives all this a sheen of nostalgia. And by affectionately parodying Wood's clumsy exit lines, and making poetry out of his overheated rhetoric, Burton, clearly but never crudely, shows his own class and Wood's lack of it. His film proves that even the rankest failure can breed success.

This week's two other adult films [for a trio of children's movies, see Also Showing, left] are both in the Ed Wood league - yes, that bad. The Sexual Life of Belgians (18) is a lame comedy attempting to illustrate how the farce of sex obstructs life. The Mangler (18) is a woefully turgid Stephen King adap- tation, resolutely unfrightening for all the blood spilt. The characters go through the mangle, but not the audience.

Cinema details: Review, page 98.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders