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
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'