What a great and underdiscussed film. Burton is known for a lot of movies, but this one is rarely discussed when his name is mentioned. He manages to pull off a rare trifecta- choosing to do a movie in black and white in our modern era, pulling the greatest performance from an actor's career late in their life, and taking a hilariously incompetent figure and making him not the subject of ridicule, but instead humor and sympathy.
Wood, voted history's worst director, could easily be a character for attack and ridicule. This movie could have easily been a mean spirited attack on a sad man whose career was a joke. But instead Wood is made by Burton into a sweet, sympathetic figure. His proud cross-dressing is not a matter for societal sanction, but just another part of Ed Wood's quirky personality- probably, we are led to believe, coming from the same place that his will to make films like Bride of the Atom comes from.
But if Wood's hilarious clownish movies are the comedic heights of the movie, its dramatic elements are also worth mentioning. Martin Landau delivers an absolutely spellbinding performance as Bela Lugosi. Lugosi's friendship with Wood came near the end of the respected old actor's career, and he appeared in several of Wood's shoddy horror films. Some of the scenes with Lugosi in Wood's movies are the hardest to watch. Lugosi is trying to channel, just for a second, the fame and fear he received and inspired during the height of his horror career. These schlock pictures are a sad, sad place for one of horror's greats to rest. But this is a movie about how filmmaking is exploitative. Lugosi knows the movies suck but needs the cash to supplement his drug habit. Wood loves Bela, and still honors him as an iconic actor, but this does not stop him from placing Lugosi in humiliating situations in his movies.
The female roles in the movie act in some ways as a chorus debating the merits of the film, and of Wood's moviemaking. Sarah Jessica Parker's character is his long time girlfriend, Dolores. She at first tolerates Ed's poor films while acting in them. She even puts up with his crossdressing. But when Ed finishes Bride of the Monster she leaves him, screaming hysterically at everyone involved in the film that they are living pitiful lives and are amounting to nothing. This truth does not really bother Ed's second love interest in the movie, Kathy (played by Patricia Arquette). She knows Ed has a screw loose but hangs out with him anyway, kind of like the people who enjoy this film, and the viewers who still rent Plan 9 From Outer Space.
I really enjoy this movie. Two scenes stand out to me. One is the introduction of Martin Landau's Lugosi to the film. He is at the time shopping for a coffin. The heavy handed symbolism is not lost on an audience straining to see why Burton wanted to make a movie about Ed Wood. My second favorite scene is one where Tor Johnson, a swedish wrestler (played by George Steele) bumps into the side of a door walking on the set. This ruins the shot. Observers point this out to Ed. He stops, ruminates, and then says that it adds to the reality of the picture because Tor's character, Lobo, "would probably struggle with that problem everyday". A hilarious and touching picture. Innovative directors like Burton should always pursue projects like these with as much vigor as they tackle the Sleepy Hollows of the world.