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.