Saturday, July 09, 2011

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #10 – Ed Wood (1994)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

"This is it! This is the one I'll be remembered for!"
Despite my involvement, this movie is a tender, comic gem. An amazing cast to work alongside in Martin Landau, Bill Murray, et al., but, of course, with Tim, there exists an almost brotherly sensibility, which made the whole experience a joy. Ultimately, I feel, with the artistic freedom we had, TB produced an American classic. A love letter to a filmmaker that didn't receive many. 
– Johnny Depp

After his death in 1978, Ed Wood became best known as the world's worst film director and a cult following was born. Among his biggest fans were Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. 

"This is Edward D. Wood, Jr." 
The real Ed Wood
Ed Wood's most famous features are the autobiographical Glen or Glenda, which explores a transvestite's struggle for a normal life, and Plan 9 from Outer Space, a science fiction/horror movie that was funded by local Baptist churches and completed in 5 days. Unlike your typical director, who may take all day to shoot one scene and finish a film in months, Ed Wood might have shot 30 scenes in a single day. Usually without permits, he had to steal shots whenever and as quickly as possible. His films weren't your typical Hollywood blockbusters; they were Ed Wood opuses. As scriptwriter Larry Karaszewski explained, "There's a personality to Ed Wood films that you don't necessarily get in a lot of other people's films. A lot of bad films are simply bad movies or incompetently put together. With Ed, you get a real sense of the filmmaker behind the camera. You see an Ed Wood movie, and you know it's an Ed Wood movie because of the obsessions and the fetishes. The stuff he's throwing up on the screen is clearly his way of working something out inside of him." 

In Ed Wood's eyes, every film he made would be the one to make it big. Scriptwriter Scott Alexander noted, "Where Ed's movies are distinctive is that there's such passion there. The passion is oftentimes misguided, but it's there." That's where Tim Burton's film takes flight. 

Ed Wood focuses on the director's friendship with aging Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), who had fallen from stardom after portraying "Dracula" during the Silent Era and was now battling drug addiction and poverty. After a chance meeting, Ed (Johnny Depp) wanted to help Bela–one of his childhood heroes–by giving him parts in his films. The friendship lasted until Bela's death 5 years later. 

"Let's Shoot This F#*%@r!"
When Tim Burton received this bio-pic's script, co-written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, he dropped his other projects and got to work, hardly changing anything on the page. He remembered, "It's probably the first time ever that I got a script and said, 'Yeah, let's shoot this.'"

Studying Ed Wood's original letters, Tim and Johnny got a sense of an unwavering upbeat optimism about his work. Because of that, Johnny's performance is hilariously enthusiastic and joyful. His other ingredients for the character of Ed Wood included the heart of The Wizard of Oz's Tin Man, the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, and the distinctive voice of Casey Kasem. Working with Tim again on a project that became a labor of love for all involved was just what Johnny needed to break out of the, let's say, dark place he was stuck in while filming What's Eating Gilbert Grape? "Ed was the rocket ship that took me away from that horrible, black, bleak time," he said. "This guy needed to be the ultimate optimist, dreamer, idealist. It was like being in a completely different suit or skin. It felt very good." His friend, Director Jim Jarmusch can attest: "I was staying at his house for a while when he was shooting Ed Wood, and sometimes I would pick him up from the set and we'd get dinner. It would take him three hours to stop being 'Ed Wood'. I just wanted to slap him to get that stupid smile off his face. We'd be in this Thai restaurant and Johnny is going, 'Hey, this Pad Thai is fabulous!'"

Johnny's performance fits perfectly into Tim Burton's version of an Ed Wood film – beautifully stylized in black and white with all the perceived normalcy of the 1950s. "You're mixing different elements," Tim explained. "You want to get the flavor of an Ed Wood movie without being an Ed Wood exactly." 

"This is perfect!" 
Tim Burton's Ed Wood is one of his best. It's one of Johnny's best. It's one of the world's best! They made a movie that struck a bittersweet balance between Ed Wood's rosy vision and reality. It is at once hilarious, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and joyful. 

This movie is about the love of filmmaking. In his review, Roger Ebert proclaimed that every film school in the country should show this film to their students to instill the devotion to and joy of the work. No matter what happens, everything is perfect in Ed's eyes. His love of producing and directing –  getting the film in the can – was all that mattered. 

The writers noted that there were several more scenes reflecting Ed's insecurities and self-doubt, but they didn't make it into the film. Larry Karaszewski explained, "Johnny and Tim grew to love Ed so much that it made them uncomfortable to give  Ed those moments." 

At the heart of this movie is friendship and acceptance. No one in Ed Wood's circle is "normal," yet by the end of the film, you are cheering for all of them. Aside from Bela Lugosi and himself, Ed Wood's cast often included Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele), ghoulish TV hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), self-proclaimed psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), and drag queen Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray). The "bad guys" in this movie were those embarrassed by Ed's love for cross-dressing or confused by his films' lack of continuity or retakes. But this troupe of misfits stuck together like family. And that was no clearer than in the relationship between Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. 

Martin Landau as Bela, consulting with his director.
Brilliantly played by Martin Landau, becoming Bela Lugosi was a challenge: "What you've got here is a 74-year-old Hungarian morphine addict/alcoholic who has mood swings," Martin explained. "That would be hard enough, but it had to be Bela Lugosi, who everyone knows!"  Paying homage to the actor, Martin considered this film a male love story, one between two guys who really needed and depended on each other. "You could tell that between Martin and Johnny there was a real respect and a kind of bonding that went on with them because they were both good at a certain level," Tim said. "It was exciting to see that."  

"We have to go see Ed Wood!" 

I had no idea who Ed Wood was at the time I saw this movie, and I don't remember how or where my family and I went to see the film. But I do remember two things: 1) There was no question that we were going to see it this time – no convincing, plotting, or pleading necessary, and 2) While watching the movie for the first time, I was worried about what my parents thought while Johnny strutted around in drag doing a strip tease among his friends in a meat packing plant. On the other hand, I was thrilled by Johnny's fearlessness to do whatever – and for Johnny, "whatever" usually guarantees the unexpected. It's a trait that remains in full force today, and one of the reasons I will always see his movies. Tim agrees, as he discussed being able to work with Johnny again on this project: "'Edward Scissorhands' was a character who didn't speak, and now we're dealing with a character that won't shut up. It's great to see an actor go from one thing to something completely different. There's a great energy to seeing something like that. He's just so willing to do anything that way. In fact, he usually wants to go farther than you want him to go. It's nice for other actors to see." The reviews everywhere for Tim Burton's little film were positive, even those from my own family.

Ed Wood was nominated for too many awards to list here. Among them were Johnny's third Golden Globe nomination and his win for Actor of the Year from the London Film Critics. Ed Wood earned two Oscars – one for Martin Landau's amazing performance and one for the makeup team who transformed him into Bela Lugosi.

Because of this movie, I sought out Ed Wood's own films, which I so much wanted to love as much as Tim, Johnny, and company did. But I just couldn't do it. They actually made me sad. I felt better once I found out that the writers are aware of this phenomenon: "What's interesting is that when you watch our movie, and then watch Ed Wood's films, our movie affects the Ed Wood films themselves," writer Larry Karaszewski said. "It's much harder to laugh at Ed Wood films, particularly Glen or Glenda. It feels like a piece of personal filmmaking, where you feel like this guy is putting his soul onto film." It's true: Watching the real Ed Wood movies, I was excited to see all the real people who were portrayed in Tim's Ed Wood, and I was still rooting for them to do well. I probably always will. 

Check it out: Once you see Ed Wood – and you should all see it – it'll happen to you too. This labor of love is contagious.

The Kitties will do anything to get this one made!
The Kitties were all for the Ed Wood homage in black and white. We had to choose a filming scene because that's what Ed loved best. Here is one of his great moments: Ed (Gordon) dragged the crew (including Norman, Simon, and Comet) out at 3 a.m. to steal an octopus prop from a nearby studio. Now, he's plopping Bela (B.J.) in the middle of it all to stage a big fight. This will match up perfectly with the big underwater finish Ed has planned for his latest movie. Who cares that they forgot to get the octopus motor or that Bela isn't quite underwater? This is perfect! (And only 25 more scenes to go tonight.) 

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #10--Ed Wood (5-7-11)

What's next?
Johnny trades in his angora sweater for a mask. Next month, we'll meet the world's greatest lover, Don Juan DeMarco.

All photos © Touchstone Pictures, except Ed Wood portrait, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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