Edward Wood Junior was the legendary '50s director famed as the world's worst, and this biopic charts his friendship with faded horror icon Bela Lugosi, his transvestism and his unswerving determination to make films.
A black-and-white biopic of Edward D. Wood Jnr., arguably the world's worst filmmaker, the cross-dressing director of such Z-grade cult classics as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen Or Glenda, was always going to be a tough sell. And so it proved - reflected by its disastrous box office performance in the US from a director who had previously been blessed with the Midas touch.
Which is a shame, because this is perhaps Tim Burton's finest film to date, a delightful, funny, bizarre, touching, magical, moving insight into one of cinema's most maligned filmmakers from a director whose work has always shown him to have a true affinity with the outsider. And, in Hollywood terms at least, they came no more outside than Ed Wood, a charming auteur with Orson Welles aspirations and a dearth of talent who died in 1978, and whose films only truly gained their infamy and cult status in the early 80s.
The film follows the inept, if ever optimistic Ed (Depp) through the production of three films - Glen Or Glenda, Bride Of The Monster and Plan 9 - and finishes on the most upbeat note possible, with Ed driving away from the premiere of Plan 9 believing he's made his masterpiece, when in reality his life from that point on only became more tragic.
Episodic in structure and more than a tad liberal with the truth, the film is more character study than Tinseltown expose (though Burton deliciously recreates the filming of Wood's three most infamous movies), focusing on the delusional director and his bizarre coterie of hangers-on and wannabes, among them the Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, TV horror host Vampira and failed transsexual Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), and succeeds in the main due to its performances. In particular an Oscar-winning turn from Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, the morphine-addicted star of Universal's 1930 Dracula, who Ed resurrected at the tail end of his career, helping him stave off destitution and addiction.
And it's their relationship that's the core of the film. Depp himself gives a truly mesmerising performance, both in and out of drag, notching up another distinctly oddball role that again reveals the measure of the actor's talents.
The script by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander crackles with witty one-liners and is often laugh out loud funny, playing up Ed's transvestism and fondness for angora sweaters, but never stooping to being nasty or judgmental. Burton shows a lightness of touch and a healthy sense of humour in his direction, and gets from his cast (which also includes Patricia Arquette) the most fleshed-out, rounded performances in any of his films to date. There's no doubt Burton loves these characters. The surprise is you will too.
The film keeps away from the real darkness of its source biographical material, but presents a run of great anecdotes anchored by a bravura turn from Johnny Depp. A sublime treat.