Depp and director Tim Burton teamed up again in 1994 to bring to life the story of Ed Wood a 1950s writer, director, and producer of cheap Hollywood films that relied heavily on recycled stock footage. Wood is best known for Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) which has been dubbed by many as the worst film of all time. Wood gained a cult following after Plan 9 and some of his other movies began making the rounds on late night TV in the early 1960s and were later again lampooned by shows like Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in the 1990s.
Burton’s film Ed Wood follows the director on his journey as he tries to get his pictures made, hustling to finance and shoot his movies on the cheap and make a name for himself. Early on in the story Wood encounters Bela Lugosi, famous for his portrayal of Count Dracula nearly 25 years earlier, trying on a coffin for size in the window of a funeral parlour. Striking up a conversation with the legend, Wood ends up befriending Lugosi, convinced the actor’s comeback is just around the corner and that his name and image lend some credibility to Wood’s planned productions.
Depp plays Wood with such blind optimism and over the top enthusiasm that it’s little surprise to learn that Depp drew on the personalities of Ronald Reagan, The Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, and Casey Kasem for inspiration. Whether he’s pitching ideas for his films or touting Lugosi’s comeback there is no doubt that Wood believes in what he’s selling. It’s only when things fail to go his way do we begin to see the cracks in his optimism. Depp plays these moments of frustration to great effect, alternating between manic meltdowns, to quiet desperation.
Depp’s outstanding acting is overshadowed by Martin Landau’s Oscar winning performance as a frail, vulnerable Bela Lugosi. Award winning makeup/sfx artist Rick Baker, a huge fan of Lugosi and classic horror movies, helps make Landau’s transformation all that more convincing. Although Depp’s performance was overlooked, Landau didn’t hesitate to sing his praises when accepting his Golden Globe for his performance as Lugosi.
“This is for us, Johnny. No matter what happens tonight, this is for us because, I mean, you know, if you play tennis by yourself it doesn’t work. That guy is the best young actor in this town. Not only that, he comes in prepared, he’s ready to work, and he’s willing to take chances, and I love him.”
1995 Golden Globe acceptance speech
The relationship between Lugosi and Wood form the emotional core of the movie and is a times touching and tragic. For me as much as I love the film, I find the film feels sluggish in parts as it tries to reenact both men’s intertwined stories with enough detail to draw the audience in. As painful as it is too watch Wood struggle at times, I couldn’t help but wonder what an entrepreneurial film maker like Wood might have done if he had access to the crowd-funding options and tools of today.
I still rank Ed Wood high on my list of favourite Depp films more for his performance than the overall execution of the film.