This is my contribution to The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, hosted by Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles.
The notion of a man being trapped is what drives Tim Burton's Ed Wood, the best movie the director has ever made. Watching the film makes it clear that Burton has a personal investment in the story--- he identifies with the director in unique, unexpected ways, and that's what makes Ed Wood a great film. It would have been so easy for Burton to make a mean-spirited biopic that relishes in the director's weaknesses--- after all, Ed Wood's reputation precedes him; he's commonly referred to as "the worst director of all time", he was a transvestite, he was an alcoholic, and his career is defined by his relationship with Bela Lugosi, who was a has-been at that point. But Burton goes the other way with his portrait of the director--- it's one of the most sympathetic, warm, loving portraits I've ever seen in a biographical film. Which isn't to say that Burton's film falls into the trap of idol worship--- rather, the warmth emanates from Burton's identification with the director.
It's because Burton empathizes with the director's plight that he was able to make a movie like Ed Wood. Burton understands Wood's love of cinema, and he's struck by the comic-tragic ironies of the man who made Plan 9 From Outer Space being inspired by Citizen Kane, of all things. Johnny Depp's Ed Wood, king of the B-movies, lives in the shadow of Orson Welles; there are many scenes in Wood and his girlfriend's (Sarah Jessica Parker) apartment where the poster for Citizen Kane literally eclipses the man, and he keeps comparing his own progress to that of Orson Welles'. This element highlights the way cinematic history has treated Wood; as a freak, an anomaly, a side-show in the main attraction of high-art. So many over the years have condescended towards Ed Wood, and it's this notion that Burton spends the entirety of the film rejecting. It's because Burton sees elements of himself in Wood that he is able to portray the man so warmly and affectionately--- the relationship between Wood and Bela Lugosi (an uncanny Martin Landau) mirrors his own with horror icon Vincent Price, and Burton's sensibility undoubtedly has a rooting in the B-Science Fiction horror that was Wood's specialty, only with a comically expressionistic overtone.
Again, it's the idea of a man trapped that Burton seems to most strongly identify with. Burton, having experienced hardships in the Hollywood system with the two Batman movies, understands the way the drive to express yourself artistically is made into a commodity. When Wood is getting interviewed for his first chance at a directing job, a schlocky B-Movie called I Changed My Sex (later to become Glen or Glenda), the producer tells him "Ed, you seem like a nice kid, but look around you...I don't hire directors with burning desires to tell their stories. I make movies like Chained Girls. I need someone with experience who can shoot a film in four days that'll make me a profit. I'm sorry. That's all that matters". Ed knows that he, above everyone else, is qualified to make this movie, because he sees himself in the main character. But just because Wood has that "burning desire" to tell the story doesn't mean he has a talent or the experience to do so--- and this is where the element of being trapped comes into the picture. Ed, in spite of his dreams of being a film maker of Wellesian proportion, simply doesn't have the chops. As Burton sees him, Ed Wood is trapped in his fate as the 'worst director of all time'.
When the movie introduces us to Ed Wood, it is opening night of his play The Casual Company in Los Angeles. It's pouring, which is a theatrical superstition for bringing good luck to a production, but naturally not in Wood's case: it's press night, but there isn't any press. As the typically corny play unfolds in the run-down theatre, Wood emphatically mouths the lines backstage--- in a way, this early scene sums up Wood's fate. He has the enthusiasm, the drive, the passion--- but he is unable to bring the all the elements together successfully, partially because of lack of resources, but mostly because of a lack of discernible talent. And his play, a drama about World War II, is full of the cornball social pretense that would permeate Wood's career. The vision and enthusiasm are there, it's the other elements that are lacking.
The scene immediately following shows the cast out celebrating, and Wood opens a local newspaper to read the first of the many critical trashings of his career. His loyal group of friends huddle around him as he reads the evisceration--- and while we don't get to hear the entirety of the piece, we get a clear enough understanding of the extent of the pan by the players' reactions. "Do I really have a face like a horse?", his girlfriend asks, "What does 'ostentatious' mean?", another of his friends ask. While such a slaying would surely be enough to discourage even the strongest of egos, Ed stays focused on the positive. "You just can't concentrate on the negative. He's got some nice things to say... See, 'The soldiers costumes are very realistic,' that's positive!" He is, right of course, that it could have been far worse--- there are some reviews where they don't even mention the costumes. Burton understands the kick-you-when-you're-down methodology of show business, and here he shows the extent of its cruelty. Another later scene illustrates this, which shows a Hollywood Producer viewing Wood's first opus, Glen or Glenda, and, astounded by its sheer awfulness, is convinced that it's a practical joke. When Wood calls the studio later to ask if they were in business, the Producer tells him that Glen or Glenda is the worst film he ever saw, to which Wood's reply is "Well, my next one will be better!". Though, knowing what we know of Wood's reputation, his can-do enthusiasm is borderline depressing.
Johnny Depp gives what may be the best performance of his career as the energetic, optimistic Ed Wood. Depp has said that his Wood was a combination of "the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, the enthusiasm of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, and Casey Kasem", though the performance is never pitched as caricature. Rather, Depp uses the quirks in his performance to expose Wood's humanity, and in one of the movie's most affecting sequences he asks his girlfriend "Honey, what if I'm wrong? What if I just don't have it?" Anyone who has tried to express themselves through art understands the fear of not having that great intangible thing called talent--- and with this admission Burton makes the relatively diminutive career of Ed Wood something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But what an exuberant, joyous self-fulfilling prophecy it is! The sequence near the end when Wood makes his 'masterpiece', Plan 9 From Outer Space, is simultaneously hilarious and bittersweet--- the movie treats Wood's infamous film as though it was Da Vinci painting The Sistine Chapel, or Mozart penning Requiem. "This is the one,", Wood says of his most famous film, "I know I'll be remembered for this film". He was right in more ways than he could have imagined. Yes, Wood may have carved out a legacy as the 'worst director' in the history of the medium of film--- but Burton is suggesting with Ed Wood that an infamous legacy is better than no legacy at all. Tim Burton's Ed Wood stands as a unique tribute to one of film history's strangest and most idiosyncratic figures. No one did bad like Ed Wood, and Burton understands why, perhaps more than he would like.