The 1994 film Ed Wood is an odd masterpiece. Johnny Depp is at his most manic and lovable in that film. He plays the titular writer and director of some of the most famous bad movies of all time, including Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. All of the movies he had a hand in making are so bad they’re good, which is why you’ll find several of them featured on episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Ed Wood was critically praised, won a couple of Academy Awards, and is one of Tim Burton’s best films.
And now The Disaster Artist is getting rave reviews. It’s a film about the infamous filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and his equally infamous magnum opus The Room. Based on this trailer, it looks like it’s going to fall into Ed Wood territory.
It’s funny because the audience knows that Wiseau’s performance is absolutely atrocious in that scene, but the crew is just so glad that he got the lines right that they don’t care that they were delivered in the worst way possible.
Let’s turn our attention back to Ed Wood to see why the struggles of bad filmmakers to make their movies lend themselves perfectly to good drama and comedy.
Everybody loves a good underdog story. Rocky, Rudy, Ed Wood – they all have the same thing in common: they’re about losers who try hard to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s inspiring to think that someone with seemingly no talent who is literally or figuratively out of their league can stand a chance purely by their grit and resolve.
They’re all really likable in their own ways. Rocky is a bit of an ogre with a heart of gold. Rudy refuses to quit against insurmountable odds. And Ed Wood is eternally optimistic despite his lack of skill. Film executives, friends, even his own girlfriend tell him he’s no good. And yet he persists. He fancies himself the next Orson Welles, and he just wants the chance to prove himself.
The one thing that separates Ed Wood from other underdog stories is that the audience knows that he’s doomed to fail. And not just fail in an honorable way like Rocky, who just wanted to go the distance knowing he didn’t stand a chance of actually dethroning the champ. No, Wood never amounted to anything in his lifetime. And after his death, he’s not remembered iconically, but ironically. People adore him for his heartfelt attempt at making real movies and utterly failing at it. It’s rare to find honest-to-goodness sincerity in films and there’s something really funny and sad about seeing someone try their hardest and produce something that is objectively terrible. Ed Wood is the ultimate underdog story because it’s about a man who can see so clearly what he wants, and he never rises to that level. He will always remain an underdog who is dwarfed by the very town he wishes to make his mark upon.
Ed Wood shows how the director managed to make his three most famous films. A big part of the fun of Ed Wood is all of the winks it gives to the audience. Anyone who’s seen Glen or Glenda or Bride of the Monster or Plan 9 from Outer Space will be delighted to get a behind-the-scenes look at what happened before, during, and after famously awful scenes were filmed. For example, Bela Lugosi loses his temper to the point of shouting at a crew member just before filming his monologue about pulling the string in Glen or Glenda. He pulls off the scene beautifully without even missing a beat, and it takes Wood’s breath away. That’s just one example from the film. There are many scenes that we get to see Wood filming.
The effect is amazing. Scenes are recreated quite faithfully while also cutting loose a little by showing Wood being enthralled by the performances and by just hearing his lines of dialogue coming to life before his eyes. Check out this video someone made comparing the scenes in Ed Wood to the actual scenes from the three films as Wood directed them.
The climax of the film comes as Wood has a chance encounter with his idol Orson Welles at a bar. They both express their frustrations to each other about outside interference on their creative expression and the many other problems they both face. Very few people outside of Wood’s close circle of friends have ever said anything positive about his work. So when he hears Orson Welles tell him to never give up on his dreams, but fight for them, it gives him the courage to soldier on and complete his masterpiece of bad cinema, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
He completely believes in what he’s doing, which makes it that much more heartening and heartbreaking to see him finally declare it finished. We think we know what’s coming next. At the big screening in front of an audience of cultured people, it’s going to be mocked and ridiculed, just like both of his previous films. But the film does something very smart. It doesn’t show the audience’s reaction. We only see Wood’s reaction. He’s so elated that he proposes to his girlfriend right then and there, and the two leave to get married. It’s an ending that tugs at the heartstrings and leaves us with a hopeful impression. After all of his struggles, he’s finally found happiness. We’re informed at the very end that Wood did not have an easy or successful life after the end credits roll, but he lives on in people’s imaginations. Even if he is mostly the subject of ridicule, he is still remembered just as much as his idol.
A Worthy Film
Ed Wood is a black-and-white film, in honor of the way all of Wood’s early films were made. It’s a worthy film of his talents that I could see him actually appreciating. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more loving tribute to an incredibly flawed man as this film. Hopefully The Disaster Artist will capture that same spirit of having fun with its subject while also finding an odd respect for what that writer/director managed to accomplish with his own film.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again… in the future.
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