Director has an odd affection for Wood

October 12, 1994|By Russell Smith | Russell Smith,Dallas Morning News

His hands and fingers are long and thin and pale as a ghost's. The spectacles are large, the blazer basic black, the socks whimsical with black-and-white stripes.

Tim Burton looks as if he could be a character in one of his own movies: "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," perhaps "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

On this day, however, the subject is "Ed Wood," the filmmaker's sweet and sad opus to the man who made "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda." The movie stars Johnny Depp as the cross-dressing '50s director whose work has been adjudged by various critics as the worst of all time.

Mr. Burton claims an odd closeness to the material, because he grew up near the Burbank airport and cemetery where "Plan 9," a hysterically bad sci-fi film, was set.

"This sounds really stupid, but it felt really real," he says. "The people were so odd. They reminded me of my parents' friends."

The breathtakingly cheesy "Plan 9" featured such memorable figures as TV star Vampira (a '50s version of Elvira), gimmick wrestler Tor Johnson, and Bela Lugosi, who died during filming and whose remaining scenes were performed by a laughable stand-in who looked nothing like the old horror icon.

Wood's second-most famous film, the filler-filled "Glen or Glenda," starred the filmmaker himself, decked out in the Angora sweater and hat that gave him such a charge. And there again is Lugosi, playing a godlike figure who rants and raves lines whose meaning seems to have been understood only by the eccentric director.

Mr. Burton's black-and-white portrait of the filmmaker (who died in the '70s) is largely upbeat and affectionate. He doesn't see his subject as quite the loser he's been labeled.

"Those images remain with you because they're strong," says Mr. Burton. "You don't get acknowledged as the worst director for nothing. There has to be some sort of underlying weird power to the images. . . .

"I think I was too young [when he first saw "Plan 9"] to know that something was bad. And, because I liked those kinds of movies, I never saw them as bad."

It wasn't until college that Mr. Burton stumbled upon "Glen or Glenda" and other Wood films. He says he loves the overwrought transvestite hand-wringing that has made "Glenda" a cult favorite.

"I just always admire anybody who kind of does their thing," he says, "no matter what it is."

Ultimately, Mr. Burton says, what he appreciates about Wood is his "perverse optimism.

"It's possible that it was, like, 98 percent denial," he says. "But, at the same time, he did seem to have" real optimism.

It's all a matter of perception, says the director.

"You can be perceived as a loser by other people, but a lot of it has to do with how you feel about yourself," he says.

From that blend of optimism and denial, "Ed Wood" turns out unexpectedly poignant.

"We all have it, and that's the way it should be," Mr. Burton says. "When people are perceived as bad or kind of ridiculous, it's something to be sensitive to."

Mr. Depp was always his first choice for the title role, says the director. "They [Wood's coterie] always said that he was very handsome, very charming," he says. "So Johnny has those qualities."

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