Ed Wood

A charming black-and-white fantasy by Tim Burton about the late Edward D. Wood Jr., a writer-director-actor at the lowest reaches of 50s Z-budget filmmaking, recently accorded cult pantheon status by virtue of his eccentric personality (he was a straight transvestite) and his very personal form of ineptness. Suggested by Rudolph Grey’s oral history Nightmare of Ecstasy, the movie concentrates on the time period during which Wood’s three best-known works (Glen or Glenda?, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 From Outer Space) were made; these efforts are all treated as holy writ, but the man himself, despite Johnny Depp’s best efforts to convey Wood’s greenhorn enthusiasm, remains elusive. Such a project requires remembering a time when camp (as an attitude of affection as well as derision) wasn’t yet part of the mainstream sensibility, and this is clearly beyond the range of Burton and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They opt instead for a sort of pie-eyed postmodernist fancy that in effect transports today’s audience back to the 50s–it’s derisive at a premiere of Bride of the Monster, respectful at a premiere of Plan 9 (absurdly set in Hollywood’s plush Pantages Theater)–in a way that magically transforms a singularly miserable and abject career ending in alcoholism and indigence into the feel-good movie of the year, budgeted for a cool $18 million and radiating tenderness (at least for the guys in the story; nearly all the women are regarded as betrayers and spoilsports). Yet the movie still manages some remarkable achievements–in particular, a tour de force turn by Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi (whose friendship with Wood becomes the film’s emotional center) and some glorious cinematography by Stefan Czapsky. There’s also an impressive cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles (despite his ridiculous dialogue in this imaginary encounter) and some game camping by Bill Murray as a wistful transsexual. As long as you settle, like the filmmakers, for myth rather than biography, you’re likely to find some agreeable kicks here. With Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie, and George “the Animal” Steele. Esquire, Evanston, Bricktown Square, Broadway, Golf Glen.

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