Forget 'Edward Scissorhands' And 'Batman Returns', 'Ed Wood' Is Tim Burton's Best '90s Film
Ed Wood, the 1994 Tim Burton film about the much-maligned B-movie director isn’t just a biopic about a guy who never made it. It’s everything that Tim Burton loves thrown into a blender. Charming rogues, 1950s science fiction, and horror icons mix together to tell the story of a man with a dream... a dream to make incredibly cheap films starring all of his friends. It’s a love letter to the Hollywood misfits of the 1950s, and it’s the best film Tim Burton made in the '90s.
This movie may look and feel different than all of Burton’s previous work (and most of the movies that came after), but his unique take on life and his love of the macabre are so baked into the DNA of the film that it’s a must-see for Burton heads. If you haven’t seen Johnny Depp in Ed Wood, then you must seek it out. He’s vulnerable, courageous, and chipper to the final frame. Ed Wood asks the audience to side with someone who was considered a joke for years, and by getting into the world of Ed Wood, it’s easy to see yourself in Burton’s oddball biopic.
The Film Is Simultaneously Burton-esque And Different From His Other Works
Before directing Ed Wood, Tim Burton was known for outrageous and macabre films like Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman. More often than not, he blended the saccharine with the sad to create a tone that was completely unique to his work.
Initially, Ed Wood seems like a complete 180 for Burton, but it doesn't take long for his specific brand of weirdness to set in. Burton's regulars are all in the film, and there's an obsession with human impermanence, controlled substances, and the underbelly of Hollywood that feels like a parallel to the pastel world of Edward Scissorhands.
One of the most marked differences from previous Burton films is the lack of a score by Danny Elfman. Taking his place is Howard Shore (The Fly, Big, The Lord of the Rings), who puts together a deliciously retro score that sounds like it would be equally welcome at a tiki bar or in a B-movie with cardboard headstones.
It's Told Through The Eyes Of Ed Wood
There are a lot of stories to tell about Ed Wood, and Burton could have strayed into maudlin territory to show how Wood's life ended. He could have focused on Wood's struggles with alcohol, or the way that he never fully realized his dreams, but by telling the story through Wood's eyes, he allows the audience to experience the director's joy in overcoming massive obstacles.
By sticking with Wood's POV, we're able to see just how a positive attitude can make some of the most dire circumstances into a learning experience.
Many Hilarious Scenes Seem Made-Up, But They Are Completely True
So much of the plot of Ed Wood is so over the top that it feels like the whole thing is made-up, but some of the most insane scenes are more or less true. For example, while trying to get funding for Plan 9 from a group of Baptists, Wood agrees to be baptized with his cast. That actually happened.
Wood's cross-dressing is also one of the most factual things in the movie. Bob Blackburn, custodian of the Ed Wood Jr. estate, explained:
When Ed met Kathy, they stayed up all night talking. Because [his first wife] had left him, he just told Kathy right out. She saw some negligees in the closet and Ed said, "They’re mine. I dress that way sometimes." Kathy was taken aback, she was a child of the 1920s and '30s, but she would always say, "Well, he was such a handsome son of a gun." They fell in love.
The Film Celebrates Rather Than Mocks 'Bad' Filmmaking
As a director, Ed Wood isn't the best. While alive, the only awards he would have been nominated for are Golden Raspberries (if they'd been around), and that's okay. Burton's film celebrates the work of Wood in a way that makes you root for him even though you know he's making "bad" movies.
No one in the film is winking at the audience or asking you to laugh at their endeavor. Instead, Burton asks the audience to root for Wood and his crew of misfits as they do whatever they can to scrape together money and props to make an absolutely wacko movie. Even if you don't leave the movie thinking that Wood is a great artist, you'll respect the amount of work he put into his craft.
Burton Didn't Take A Paycheck For The Film
While he's probably made a couple of bucks off of Ed Wood by now, at the time of production, Burton had to use every bit of leverage he had to get the film made. Not only was he angling to make a movie about a director who made famously bad movies, but the general public also had no idea who Wood was, the script was 147 pages long, and Burton wanted to film in black and white.
Initially, the film was going to be distributed by Columbia Pictures, but when Burton refused to budge on his vision, they dropped the movie and it was picked up by Touchstone, a Disney subsidiary. He was given a budget of $18 million, which wasn't even a lot of money in the '90s - especially with a hit director and Johnny Depp in the lead role.
Burton went without a paycheck to keep the picture moving forward, proving that Ed Wood is a labor of love.
The Story Reveals The Neurosis In Every Creative
The best decision that Burton makes in this film is his insistence that Wood isn't a bad filmmaker, just someone whose dreams were never realized. Throughout the film, Wood is optimistic, but he also hears that nagging voice in the back of his head that asks if he's made a huge mistake by following his dreams.
After a particularly bad performance of one of his plays, Wood asks aloud if he is missing "it," that intangible quality that makes someone a talented artist. He notes that Orson Welles was only 26 when he made Citizen Kane, and he wonders if he'll ever get anywhere.
Burton makes sure the audience knows that it's not just Wood who feels this way, but almost every creative person on the planet. He underscores his point when Wood meets his hero, Orson Welles, in a bar during a particularly rough period of production. Welles tells him about the issues he ran into on Citizen Kane and A Touch of Evil, and the two bond over the injustices of being an artist in an industry that doesn't care for them. It's not only a narratively satisfying moment (and humorous as Wood dons a cardigan and skirt combo), but it's something that everyone watching understands.