Cult films to see before you die: Ed Wood

James Oliver 

Johnny Depp stars as the notorious Edward D. Wood, winner of the Golden Turkey Award as Worst Director of All Time. So, why has Tim Burton’s story of his life achieved cult status? James Oliver explains…

Hollywood biopics are usually made for one of two reasons. The first, more traditional, motive is to salute the achievements of the virtuous and to inspire us with their example—think Gandhi, for example, or Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom; they’re like lives of saints for a secular age.

Then there is the more explanatory biopic, the films that seek to understand how and why their subject accomplished the things for which they are known, whether or not that person is conventionally decent. For instance, Raging Bull, a film about boxer Jake La Motta is a horrified exploration of the man’s violence and rage.

Read more: 21 Greatest films about political leaders

Johnny Depp stars in Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton
Image via Projected Perspectives

The life of Edward D. Wood Jr. lends itself to neither of these categories. He worked in a variety of fields—theatre, film, literature—and was undistinguished in each of them. His notoriety stems mainly from his movies, which were rediscovered after his death and attracted a small cult following from people for whom they were ‘the worst films ever made’ (a cruel and wrongheaded reason to watch any film, by the way).



"Burton had the rare luxury of being able to do whatever he damn well pleased"



His was not a life which offered any obviously rousing lessons, nor was there any clamour to understand the processes which led him to his ‘art’. That he was immortalised in a Hollywood biopic owes less to market forces than the caprices of that film’s eventual director, Tim Burton.

After the success of Batman (the 1989 vintage with Michael Keaton) and its 1992 sequel, Burton had the rare luxury of being able to do whatever he damn well pleased, a privilege accorded to him on the assumption that ‘whatever he damn well pleased’ would not be a biopic of someone who really, really didn’t deserve a biopic.

As might have been expected, the film was but a modest success—a film about ‘the worst filmmaker of all time being something of a tough sell—but as Ed Wood himself knew, profit means nothing to a true artist: this is a lovely film and quite the best thing Burton has done.

Johnny Depp stars in Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton
Image via

We follow Ed from his earliest days in pictures (his first film was cross-dressing drama Glen or Glenda) and climaxes with the night of his greatest triumph, the premiere of his anti-masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space. Like so many of Burton’s most personal films, it’s about an outsider, an eccentric who doesn’t conform to mainstream society and doesn’t care to.

Whereas Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s earlier film about outsiders, showed an outsider destined to be alone, Ed Wood is more inclusive. Ed forms a family of fellow bohemians: the flamboyant Bunny Breckinridge (played by Bill Murray), fraudulent psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), TV ghoul Vampira (Lisa Marie) and so on.



"Martin Landau is tremendous as Lugosi, even if the Oscar he won for the role is still controversial"



Ed’s closest relationship in the film is with his star actor, Bela Lugosi. No longer a big name, Lugosi is a broken-down old man trading on distant glories when he meets Ed and, as they work together, a genuinely touching friendship develops, one that ‘Eddie’ is determined to honour even after Lugosi has gone to the great film studio in the sky.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau star in Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton
Image via

Martin Landau is tremendous as Lugosi, even if the Oscar he won for the role is still controversial: he beat Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (probably just as well we didn’t have Twitter back then…) Depp, too, is excellent.

His Ed Wood is relentlessly upbeat and quite indomitable; he isn’t concerned with what others think: he has a vision and he’s going to fulfil it.

That leads us to the film’s most celebrated scene, where Ed meets his hero Orson Welles in a bar. It is a magical moment: a meeting between a man who made what is often hailed as the best film ever made meeting—what? His mirror-universe equivalent? But Welles inspires Ed, reminding him that ‘visions are worth fighting for…'

Read more: Orson Welles's life in pictures

It would have been easy for Burton to mock Wood but his film is all the greater for refusing fashionable cynicism. Instead, he celebrates the ‘filmmaker’ as an innocent, an oddball who managed to find a way to be happy. The films of Ed Wood are terrible. The film Ed Wood, though, is simply glorious.


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