Such a sweet transvestite

Adam Mars-Jones applauds Tim Burton's affectionate tribute to Ed Wood, the worst director in Hollywood history

Tim Burton's Ed Wood is an insanely generous tribute to a famously terrible film director, the celluloid McGonagall. It must have been a great temptation for Burton to give Wood a talent transfusion from his own brimming supply, to show him as what he wanted to be rather than what he was. Instead Burton has used great delicacy and discretion, and perversely enough has turned out the most realistic film of his career so far, devoted to one of the least realistic lives ever lived on American soil.

When you set yourself to reproduce Ed Wood's working practices, to use a charitable phrase, it must be rather like trying to limbo dance: it can't be easy to get down that low. Production designer Tom Duffield had to come up with duplicates of crumby sets that were only thrown together in the first place: what he produces are like meticulous couture copies of rags. The director of photography, Stefan Czapsky, had to suppress the reflexes of a professional lifetime and multiply the shadows on Wood's sets, as if he could never get enough of them.

Away from the hero's film sets, Burton allows himself the occasional faint flourish. The car on a ghost train that Wood rides with a girlfriend has a suspiciously low-key design on it, and Burton's model shots - coming from someone who achieved prodigies in this line on Beetlejuice - can't help but improve on Wood's. Ed Wood thought that audiences weren't sensitive to matters of continuity, while Burton's aesthetic is of equal love for illusion and the breaking of it.

The script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is full of good jokes and bizarre situations, but Burton doesn't overplay them. Lines of dialogue that would normally be on the receiving end of a lot of underlining drift past on the sweetly funny melancholy mood of the film: "We want these Baptists to like us" or "I'm terribly allergic to liquids" or "You must be double-jointed... and you must be Hungarian". Even the film's visual jokes are gently handled. The revelation that Wood's cameraman is colour- blind takes on a different character since the film we are watching is itself in black-and-white. We are in the same position of not being able to tell the red dress from the green.

Tim Burton has consistently been drawn to the gothic in his directing career, but he is at his most characteristic when he also resists it. His best work (Beetlejuice and Scissorhands) is sweet-natured, wistful, sceptical about death. The Batman films are insincere by contrast, the products of a genial dreamer wearing a heavy prosthetic frown.

The signature shots in Ed Wood are subversions of the moment in a gothic horror film when the monster is revealed. A woman reading her boyfriend's movie script comes to realise it is a confession of transvestism: when she puts it aside and opens the door, he stands there revealed, in fear and angora, awaiting her reaction. Again: Ed Wood has just met his idol, Bela Lugosi, and drives him home, somehow not noticing the overwhelming evidence of his decline. Lugosi excuses himself to "take his medicine" and Ed goes on watching TV while we see Lugosi in silhouette, fixing up with morphine. Again: a sudden shadow falls across the white uniform of a nurse working in an asylum. Except that this isn't a ghoul claiming a victim but Bela Lugosi, undead but only just, checking in for emergency detoxification.

The point is that there are no monsters, and the pay-off of these subverted shots is a laughter that is often hysterical but never unsympathetic. It certainly seems to be true that Ed Wood exploited himself before he exploited anyone else, since his first script, Glen or Glenda, was indeed a highly autobiographical defence of heterosexual transvestism, not a coming out of the closet but a plea to be allowed to wear the fluffy things he found there. He didn't exploit his entourage of freaks, fat wrestlers and amateur zombies: he just filmed his friends.

Johnny Depp's performance as the hero is highly endearing. His Ed Wood is most at home where he least belongs, on a movie set, miming along to every word of his own terrible dialogue, seemingly unaware that the word "Cut!" can be followed by anything other than "Print! That was perfect!" His most characteristic expression behind the camera is one of incredulous joy: how can anything be this good? To go on making movies, he will do whatever it takes. We get used to his convulsive nod of agreement and eager yelp of "Great!" to any suggestion, however dismal, that might bring financial backing. There are some funny moments when Ed Wood tries to say No, trying to shake his head, but he just can't bring himself to do it.

For once, though, the Academy, who gave Martin Landau the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role as Bela Lugosi, got it right. The relationship between Wood and Lugosi, which has echoes of the director's own friendship - first fan and then director - with Vincent Price, comes across as a sort of innocent version of Sunset Boulevard. And if that means a satire on fame and illusion with the satire taken out, then it has to be faced that certain sorts of sourness are not in Burton's line.

The writers of Ed Wood choose to end the story on a delusional high note: the hero's conviction that with Plan 9 from Outer Space he had made the piece of work by which he would be remembered. In a sense he was right, since the film is regularly cited as the worst ever made, but he died after a long decline, before his failure was anointed by a later generation's campy taste. Would Ed Wood really have felt that a Golden Turkey award was recognition?

By taking such a benign view of its hero, Tim Burton's film risks, despite its exquisitely low-key aesthetics and sweet sense of fun, being just another film about American innocence and enthusiasm, and about how taking things at face value is really the best way. Without Bela Lugosi, in fact, Ed Wood is just Forrest Gump with delusions of grandeur, and the film is an exercise in the pathos of trash rather than the horror of failure.

But there is a single gothic revelation shot that works by double bluff. The camera tracks down a hospital corridor, and looks in through the window of one room. And here for once there is horror: Bela Lugosi tied down and screaming from drug withdrawal.

This shot is unusual not just for its extremity but its absence of a point of view. It isn't something Ed Wood sees, nor something he imagines. How could he imagine it, with his whole being focused on becoming the Orson Welles of schlock? But this shot gives the film some vital depth, with its acknowledgement that for Bela Lugosi, at the end of his life, there was indeed a monster, and the monster was himself.

n On release from tomorrow

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

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
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • 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.

    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
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own