Ed Wood (1994)

edwood_DVDDepp 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.

Well, that's just swell! - Johnny Depp as director Ed Wood

Well, that’s just swell! – Johnny Depp as director Ed Wood

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.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau as Wood and Lugosi.

Johnny Depp and Martin Landau as Wood and Lugosi.

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.”
–Martin Landau
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.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Edwards Scissorhands (1990)

Edwards Scissorhands (1990)

In the same year that saw Depp hit the screens in John Water’s Cry-Baby, the actor was busy teaming up with another eccentric director with a very distinct style – Tim Burton. Having previously directed the off-beat and commercially successful, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetle Juice (1988), Burton was coming off his Hollywood blockbuster, Batman (1989) when he directed Edward Scissorhands (1990)

For those that may be unfamiliar with the premise (are there seriously people that haven’t seen this movie?), Edward Scissorhands (Johnny Depp) lives alone in a decaying mansion on the edge of suburbia after the sudden death of The Inventor (Vincent Price). Physically incomplete – with unwieldy scissors for hands – and emotionally stunted due to lack of social interaction, Edward is part Frankenstein’s monster and part Pinocchio. Edward’s isolation is interrupted when neighbourhood Avon Lady and bored housewife, Peg Boggs (Dianne Weist), desperate for a sale ventures up the desolate mountain to the run down mansion. When she discovers Edward alone and abandoned she does the only thing in her bored suburban life that makes logical sense and takes him into her home.

Team Edward - Johnny Depp as Edwards Scissorhands

Team Edward – Johnny Depp as Edwards Scissorhands

Despite his ‘grotesque’ appearance, the novelty of a stranger in the suburban enclave with its pastel painted houses generates enough attention and envy from the other bored house-bound women, that Peg soon finds her social status elevated. As Edward tries to gain acceptance and fit in he discovers his talent at sculpting things with his scissors – first topiary, then dog grooming, and finally hairdressing. Each talent bring him increasing popularity within the neighbourhood and notoriety outside it.

Edward’s rising fortunes take a turn for the worse when he gets mixed up with Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) and her boyfriend Jim (Anthony Michael Hall). His fall from grace snowballs and is eventually cast out of the neighbourhood when Jim and the neighbours turn on. Despite Kim and Peg’s continued acceptance and understanding of Edward, they are unable to mend the rift. The ending, which I will try to avoid spoiling for those that may not have seen it (go watch it now!), is heartbreaking it’s a fitting end to Edward’s story and avoids any Hollywood cliché that may have otherwise been attached to it.

The film runs the gamut from dramatic to comedic and everything in between. The humour is often derived from Edward’s reaction to unfamiliar situations and people’s reaction to him, but it never feels forced in Burton’s colourful fantasy world.

Depp’s performances up until now have only hinted at his chameleon-like abilities as an actor, but have mainly alternated between clean cut boy-next-door and bad boy heart throb. As Edward, Depp relies heavily on facial reactions to convey much of his characters mood, and when he does speak, Edwards soft, child-like voice makes a big impression. While I haven’t counted them myself, it’s been said that Edward has fewer than 126 words of dialogue in the entire movie. Depp draws inspiration for his Edward Scissorhands character from silent movie greats Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

While the film primarily deals with the themes of isolation and self-discovery, there is also underlying themes of art and the power of creativity and imagination. In the early scenes, we are shown the brightly coloured houses of the subdivision in contrast to the dreary muted greys and blacks of the mansion. The subdivision gives the impression of being alive and vibrant while the mansion appears deserted and decaying. When Peg arrives a the mansion we see how alive and creative the mansion is, with its sculptured topiary and lush greenery. Burton’s visual style seamless blends 1960s, 70s, and 80s styles together in the look of the subdivision and the fashions to give it a retro feeling that I find actually works to make the film feel timeless in a way.

Not the last time Depp would play a character with barber skills.

Not the last time Depp would play a character with barber skills.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Depp playing the iconic role now, but it has been reported elsewhere that before his involvement other leads had been considered, including Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Robert Downey Jr., and William Hurt. While I personally would love to visit the alternate universe in which Robert Downey Jr. plays Edward, I am thankful Burton and Depp found each other since they would go on to make a total of 8 films together (so far).

There’s a million other things I want to say about this film and could probably write a thesis on it, but I’ll leave it at that for now and we’ll move on to our next film in the journey and one I have not seen before – Arizona Dream.