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25 Years Later: ‘Ed Wood’ is a Love Letter to Hollywood Schlock

Tim Burton’s Ed Wood isn’t the type of movie that gets made much today. Not because of political correctness or cancel culture or anything like that, but because it’s just so weird and so esoteric that it’s hard to imagine it getting any kind of funding in the current era. Well, maybe from Netflix, if they were feeling particularly adventurous. 

Ed Wood opened on September 30, 1994, a week after premiering at the New York Film Festival. The film was a biopic of Edward Davis “Ed” Wood, Jr., the famous director of low-budget horror and sci-fi movies in the 1950s, and whose most famous works were Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Shot in black and white, Ed Wood focuses on the life of Wood (Johnny Depp), his penchant for cross-dressing, his consistent company of oddball actors, and his relationship with elderly Hollywood legend Bela Legosi (Martin Landau, in his Oscar-winning role.) Legosi famously died during the making of Wood’s most famous picture, 1959’s anti-classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, leading Wood to cast a stand-in who simply appeared in all his scenes with a raised arm over his face. 

Decades before Tommy Wiseau made The Room, Plan 9 From Outer Space pioneered the idea of a movie that it was so bad it actually went all the way around into enjoyable and re-watchable. 

The movie Ed Wood, however, is much more respectful of its subject than The Disaster Artist was to Wiseau. Burton’s film depicts Wood as a passionate striver, full of ambition and serious about his cinematic dreams — even if his talent doesn’t quite measure up to his enthusiasm.

In 1994, both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were at the height of their powers; Burton made Ed Wood during one of the more creatively fertile periods of his career, having shot Edward Scissorhands (his first film with Depp) in 1990, Batman Returns in 1992, and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which he produced and wrote, but didn’t direct) in 1993. Mars Attacks!, another homage to 1950s genre film, would follow two years later. 

But Ed Wood’s life story was the perfect fit for Burton’s macabre sensibility, and filming in black and white was a masterstroke — thanks to Stefan Czapsky’s gorgeous cinematography, it’s hard to imagine the film any other way. And while the musical score sounds like the work of Burton’s usual collaborator, Danny Elfman, it’s actually by Howard Shore. 

Depp, who was just 31 at the time of the film’s release, gives one of his better screen turns here, showing an infectious enthusiasm. Landau, who studied for the role by watching 25 of Legosi’s movies, was justly honored for his performance, as it is one of the movies’ great portraits of a former star in his twilight. 

The rest of the cast included such familiar faces as Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, and even the 1980s professional wrestler George “The Animal” Steele. Vincent D’Onofrio shows up at the end as Wood’s hero, Orson Welles. 

The script was written by  Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who at that point had only written Problem Child and its sequel, but went on to write the screenplays for The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, Big Eyes (also with Burton), and the new Dolemite is My Name. That movie’s star, Eddie Murphy, said in a recent interview that Ed Wood was the reason he wanted the duo to write it. They also executive produced the great TV miniseries The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Ed Wood‘s treatment of cross-dressing largely holds up, as it’s pretty incredible that at a time when gays in Hollywood almost entirely stayed in the closet, Wood openly wore women’s clothes, and even wrote and directed a movie on the topic — Glen or Glenda. Bill Murray’s character, Bunny Breckinridge, even speaks openly about wanting to undergo gender-reassignment surgery, although in real life Breckinridge never went through with it. 

Tim Burton has very much receded as a director as of late, such as with the instantly forgettable remake of Dumbo. Ed Wood, however, remains as one of his most indelible and enjoyable films. 

As for Ed Wood himself, he has been described as the worst director of all time. But shlocky and amateurish as his movies were, they are at least memorable and gained an audience — in part through Burton’s film. Chances are, the actual worst director of all time is some guy whose name you don’t remember, and whose work never made much of an impression.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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