Ed Wood gets the big picture - at last

Cinema

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
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?