The Right Kind of Wrong: Burton’s ED WOOD
13 May 2012
Edward J. Wood Jr. (1924-1978) was an American screenwriter, director, producer, actor, editor, and novelist who, just a few years after his death, was awarded the Golden Turkey Award for “Worst Director of All-Time” by film critic Michael Medved and his brother, Harry Medved, in their 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards. Since this esteemed accolade, the popularity Wood lacked in life he found posthumously in a tremendous cult following. As his name slipped into the consciousness of 20th century cinema, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski penned the screenplay for Ed Wood (1994), a biopic about the “worst director of all time,” specifically emphasizing Wood’s relationship with screen legend Bela Lugosi. Eventually, Tim Burton stepped in to direct the feature, and, as a skillful director, Burton was able to pay cinematic homage to a man who dreamt of making films as remarkable as the film made about him.
Ed Wood captures, roughly, 1952-1959 in the life of filmmaker Ed Wood (Johnny Depp). After returning home from WWII, Wood settled in Hollywood, intent on making pictures. When he hears of a film about a cross-dresser, entitled Glen or Glenda, Wood stops at nothing to direct and star in the feature. At first he is unsuccessful in getting the job; however, he happens upon classic film star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) while out in Hollywood one afternoon and the two develop a close friendship. When Wood promises Glen or Glenda’s producer Bela Lugosi will co-star in the film for a low salary he gets the job. As it turns out, Wood himself enjoys wearing women’s clothing, explaining his unyielding attraction to this film’s narrative. The film tanks, but Wood persists as a filmmaker, frequently working with Lugosi. Eventually, Wood’s girlfriend, Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker), becomes frustrated with his unconventionality and leaves him, but he soon meets Kathy (Patricia Arquette), a woman he falls deeply in love with. Kathy supports Wood and his crew in all their cinematic misadventures and the two eventually marry in the film’s conclusion.
One of the filmmakers Wood greatly admired, which the film pays specific attention to, is Orson Welles, a filmmaker Burton has also disclosed his admiration for. Like Wood, Welles wore several hats in the film industry; he wrote, produced, directed and starred in Citizen Kane, a film often referred to as one of the best in American cinema. Unlike Wood, Welles’ innovative directorial style and refined technique earned him a reputation, by many, as best director, world-wide, to date. Burton, who grew up watching both Welles and Wood, evolved into a director more stylistically and technically matched with Welles. Thus, in Ed Wood, Burton masters a cinematic composition about a man who could not master cinematic composition.
One thing Welles and Burton share that Wood never fully understood is, in filmmaking, construct outweighs content. Put another way, how a movie is put together is, ultimately, more important to that film’s success than what the movie is about. True, both Welles and Burton are drawn to specific narrative elements—often non-linear narratives, as both directors are pulled toward film noir, and the narratives are almost always about an outsider, shunned by society—, however, Wood often gave the narrative more power than it should have and, in tipping the scales, did not spend the time developing and refining his own cinematic technique. Nevertheless, he was wildly passionate about films and recognized cinematic greatness in others, and that is surely what drew him to Welles. Therefore, for a man so passionate filmmaking, Burton’s Ed Wood pays well-deserved homage to a man who devoted his life to the movies.
Cinematically speaking, Burton’s technique in Ed Wood echoes the American film style of the 1950s in camera angles and lighting. One of the most noticeable directorial decisions in Ed Wood is the dramatic camera angles. Used in their traditional convention, during moments of powerlessness and instability, such as when Bela tells Ed he wants to end his life, Burton effectively uses low, Dutch angles, highlighting tension, distortion, and the power struggle. Other times, such as when Ed and Kathy go on a date to the carnival, Burton uses just a low angle. In this instance, Ed is elated and hopeful, feeling as though he is on top of the world. Thus, Burton’s low angle looks up at the radiating Ed, making him look majestic, with the lights of the carnival twinkling behind him. Conversely, Burton’s high angles often look down upon the weak and suffering; as Bela lay dying in a hospital bed, Burton captures his Dracula-like (arms crossed over the chest) positioning on the bed through a high angle to communicate to viewers how gravely ill he actually is. Many times, these angles are bold and over-the-top, which works well in the biopic about an over-the-top director, and also greatly echoes the filmmaking style of Wood’s day.
Moreover, the lighting in Ed Wood, which suggests elements of film noir, emphasizes the black and white contrast, and uses plenty of shadows and smoke. Because the film was shot in black and white, Burton employed low-key lighting and chiaroscuro style, during certain scenes, to sharpen the dimensionality of the film, a highly effective technique that Wood himself did not master, but other filmmakers of his time, namely Welles, did. During ominous scenes, and often when Burton captures Wood filming his science fiction/horror movies, this darkened, contrasted tone is set. Other times, when the film regains is casual and upbeat tone, the frames are flooded with high-key and natural light, stepping away from the noir influence.
Burton’s cinematic technique in Ed Wood, without question, is stronger than Wood’s; however, lending his skill to a biopic about Wood feels just. From one perspective, through Ed Wood, Burton gives the late filmmaker the thing he desired most, cinematic prowess. Wood’s legacy continues to carry on, though his cult following, and Burton’s take on Wood’s life does Wood proud. Even if Wood was unable to create a cinematically strong film in his life, Wood’s life was able to create a cinematically strong film.