'Ed Wood' doesn't say why we should care about that awful director

October 07, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

A spate of recent movies has turned on the beloved figure of the idiot savant, the moron with some secret gift that enables him to see the truth more clearly, or some bizarre talent that permits him to do the amazing. Think "Rain Man," think "Benny and Joon." Think "Forrest Gump," fer crying out loud.

Don't think "Ed Wood." In fact, that's exactly what "Ed Wood" is not. "Ed Wood" tells a new kind of idiot story: not the idiot savant but the idiot-idiot. No sense of wisdom or vision at all applied to Edward D. Wood Jr.'s condition: he was just, you know, a regular old idiot, a really dumb guy who did really dumb things. He saw no truth. He had no talent. He was just a jerk.

Out of some odd mind-glitch, he decided he was a movie director. Yeah, right. Possessing neither talent nor inclination, receiving no encouragement, laughed at, derided and ignored, he forged ahead with a gaggle of equally untalented losers to produce exactly what you might expect: an oeuvre that was banal, rancid, unformed, puerile and horrible. Also, it was stupid, DTC boring and absurd.

In the late '50s and early '60s, he made two or three of the most putrid movies of all time: "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Glen or Glenda," "Bride of the Monster." Then he died. The end.

Or . . . was it the beginning? By the odd currents of the '70s, his very artlessness became campy and acquired a patina of secret, avant-garde meaning. His work accrued something in the shadow of his death it could never have in the blank glare of his life: dignity. People began to pay attention. The stuff reappeared on video, in worst-film books, at festivals dedicated to unearthing the truly awful and now, its logical destination, in a mainstream movie by a major director that costs more than all Ed Wood's films cost and made combined. All of which leads to one key question:

What's the deal with "Ed Wood"?

The deal is the deal with "Ed Wood." This feels very much like a studio write-off kind of thing, out of which but one positive thing can happen: When the dust settles and the ticket receipts cease to dribble in, Touchstone (i.e., Disney) will be in business with Tim Burton, who has for so long enjoyed a lucrative relationship with another movie mill, one that said no to "Ed Wood." The actual movie is strictly an afterthought to the signing of the contracts.

That's not to say "Ed Wood" is a bad picture. So let me say it: "Ed Wood" is a bad picture. It has some cuteness to it, a sense of merry adventurers on the oblivious rim of the indefensible, and one great sad performance (Martin Landau as the dying, drug- addicted Bela Lugosi). But it fails to go into the one realm that would make it worthwhile, which is Ed Wood's brain.

As played by Johnny Depp, Ed is a cross between one of the

great heads on Easter Island and a large yellow smile button. His gleaming eyes suggest no depth, his sexual dysfunction (he was a cross dresser) yields no meaning, his motivations remain obscure. He blinks like a child, refuses to process or engage rejection or bad news, and just sails blissfully through life, a smiling blank. As a filmmaker, every take is always perfect. We never know what secret currents jolt through him. We never know the source of his odd directing style, which might be summarized as follows: "Start the camera. Stop the camera. Print the film."

Burton loves strangeness more than drama, so nothing in the film particularly grips as he explores with Robin Leach's simpering lethargy the lifestyles of the strange and weird, notably the screwballs who flocked to Wood's unjudgmental love.

But again, there's no depth, only superficial peculiarity, among them Bill Murray as a bitter old queen, Jeffery Jones as a bogus "mentalist," Lisa Marie as a busty TV horror movie hostess. These figures flit in and out of what is generally a pretty unprepossessing story.

"Ed Wood" takes on some force only when Martin Landau's tragic, dignified old Bela Lugosi, with grandiose memories and a monkey on his back, staggers in. To someone as unformed as Wood, Lugosi was still a star; and Lugosi had fallen so far in his career, and was so desperate for acknowledgment, that he allowed himself and his considerable accomplishment to be used by Wood. The results were not campy or cute, but truly sad.

Landau offers our only human entree into the world of Ed Wood. Through him, we can feel pain and, more to the point, the incredible cruelty of the movie business, which takes up and then discards people like Kleenex. He had it all, he lost it all.

Had the film focused tightly on their relationship, instead of consigning it a single act, it might have become more powerful. But soon enough, it moves on to lesser concerns. In the end, "Ed Wood" the movie and Ed Wood the man defy both tragedy and compassion: Mr. Ed never had anything to lose because, quite simply, he never had anything.

In fact, this movie seems a sad ding-dong of doom announcing the death of a culture. Who was writing and directing in the '50s? Elia Kazan. Tennessee Williams. Fred Zinnemann. Billy Wilder. Orson Welles. William Wyler.

Who do we remember in the '90s, and by remembering, consecrate?

Ed freaking Wood.

"Ed Wood"

Starring Johnny Depp and Martin Landau

Directed by Tim Burton

Released by Touchstone

Rated R


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