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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Ed Wood' a Curious Hybrid Of Documentary and Dream

At first glance, it might seem a strange subject for a big-budget Hollywood movie biography: the life and work of Ed Wood Jr., universally recognized as the worst film director in cinema history. But since his death almost 20 years ago, Wood has been at the center of a growing cult of fans, drawn by the very badness of his films and, perhaps even more so, by the fascinating quirks of his personality and those of the jolly crew of misfits he worked with.

And so we have "Ed Wood," the 1995 Tim Burton film now available on video in Moscow. This production -- stylish, stylized, lavishly done -- probably dropped more cash on a single scene than Wood spent crafting his entire oeuvre. The result is a curious hybrid (not unlike Wood himself): part homage, part parody, combining elements of documentary and dream.

Johnny Depp stars as the director, whose current fame rests on a series of incomparably awful movies he shot in the 1950s: "Glen or Glenda?" (an examination of transvestism, with Wood, himself a devotee of angora sweaters and lingerie, in the title role), "Bride of the Monster," and the jewel in his tarnished crown, "Plan 9 From Outer Space," which has topped many a critic's list as the worst movie ever made.

These films were shot on threadbare budgets (the money often scammed from witless backers) at breakneck speed (Wood rarely shot a second take, even if his actors walked into walls or props fell down during a scene), and fleshed out with often unrelated stock footage scrounged up from studio vaults. For their sheer, imbecilic incompetence, they are wonders to behold.

Wood, at 30, was a nobody going nowhere fast when a chance encounter changed his life -- he ran into horror movie icon Bela Lugosi on the Hollywood streets. Lugosi, long past his glory days as the star of the classic "Dracula," was by this time a drug-addicted old man barely scraping by in a desiccated suburban tract. Wood's friendship with Lugosi is presented as largely an act of compassion, although he also seizes on it as an opportunity to jump-start his career.

With a "name" star like Lugosi on board, he is able to convince an unsavory producer of schlock drive-in fodder to bankroll "Glen or Glenda?" From that point on, Lugosi is shoe-horned into every Wood production, whether there is a proper role for him or not. (Indeed, he "stars" in "Plan 9," which was filmed after he died.)

Lugosi is played by Martin Landau, and it is a magnificent, luminous performance (for which he won an Academy Award). He brings a sense of ruined grandeur to the role -- plus a great deal of sly humor -- while never neglecting the pathetic decay and grasping weakness of the slowly dying man. He is, in fact, the heart of the film, by far its most entertaining -- yet most human -- element. His performance alone would make the film worth seeing, even if the topic and milieu were not of interest.

Depp's performance is another matter. He plays Wood like a cartoon character, a caricature of the bright-eyed, happy huckster who believes his own malarkey. He does capture well the sense of obliviousness that must have characterized the real Ed Wood, who apparently (and mercifully) had no idea of his complete lack of talent, originality and competence. And it is true that such a figure must live almost entirely in his own world. But Depp's rendering is utterly opaque; we get no glimpse into that inner world, no clue as to what drives him or troubles him, no depth of feeling behind his gestures and reactions.

Perhaps this is deliberate; perhaps Burton and Depp mean to say there is simply nothing "there" behind such staggering mediocrity. But even if this is so, it leaves a hole in the center of the film, and means that the supporting players are far more interesting than the hero.

Fortunately, these supporting players are uniformly good. Bill Murray stands out as Bunny Breckinridge, a would-be transsexual (the operation never quite gets done), Sarah Jessica Parker is Wood's almost-normal girlfriend, and Patricia Arquette is the woman he eventually marries (and shares a wardrobe with).

G.D. Spradlin does an excellent turn as the pastor of Beverly Hills Baptist Church, which was the most unlikely backer of "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Wood told the church's deacons they could use the profits from this "hit" to finance a series of films on the Apostles. To convince them, he had himself and the entire cast-- the blasphemous Bunny included -- baptized by the reverend in a swimming pool.

"Ed Wood" is a quirky movie, well worth seeing, full of wonderful moments and a few flat passages. It both celebrates and dissects a whole substratum of American popular culture, an element -- once on the fringe, now squarely in the mainstream -- where the images of art, commerce, sexuality and emotion become divorced from their sources in reality, and simply replicate each other in ever-widening spirals of artificiality. In this sense, Wood was the talentless "father" of the many clever, talented "children" whose flashy manipulations of media-besotted images fill our screens today.

"Ed Wood" is available for rent at Video Express, located in the Post International Store at M. Putinkovsky Per. 1/2. Tel. 209-9168.