Efren’s Cult Corner: A Series on Cult Movies with Small Cult Followings
By Efren Ponce, Staff Writer
Tim Burton, whose artistic style of films has won massive fandoms and grossed over $1 billion altogether, has directed some of the most beloved cult classics of the past three decades. With a career that spans just as much if not even more, there are bound to be smaller projects that don’t get the same recognition as others.
One such movie is 1994’s “Ed Wood,” starring frequent Burton collaborator Johnny Depp as the title character and the late Martin Landau as real-life actor Bela Lugosi of “Dracula” fame (a role for which Landau won an Academy Award). Famous for taking on stories about outsiders, Burton directed the film as a passion project and refused to receive a salary for his work on it. He connected to the story of a motivated director working with his acting idol, as he himself directed his favorite horror movie icons Vincent Price and Christopher Lee up until each of their passings. “Ed Wood” ultimately bombed at the box office despite a low budget, but it hasn’t stopped hardcore Burton fans and cinephiles at large from discovering it in the years since its release.
Though “Ed Wood” excludes the darker events that transgressed in the real director’s life, it explores the creative drive of an artist as he attempts to make his filmmaking dreams come true. Wood, who is regarded as the worst director in Hollywood history, had movies that were received so poorly he moved on to the adult film market within a few years of his directorial debut. His work was campy and had special effects that looked like they were made for a middle school skit, which has only grown his cult following as a result. Depp plays him with great sincerity, letting audiences in on the vulnerability Wood carried that allowed his ambition to supersede the rejection he faced.
The film starts with Wood, an unemployed husband married to a struggling actress, who approaches a religious film producer to make his first movie. With the impression that themes of Christianity will be present in the project, the producer grants him a modest budget that is soon increased due to Wood’s wild creative vision. It turns out to be a financial disappointment, but following last chances, Wood gets a couple more works released. Throughout his short-lived directing career, his marriage ends, he endures Bela Lugosi’s drug addiction, and gets even farther from making his dreams come true.
The film contains very worldly views of what it means to be successful not only in Hollywood, but life in general as well. Ed Wood wishes he could be the next Orson Welles, contributing respectable classics to the motion picture medium in his 20’s, but he must grapple with the reality that, simply put, he lacks the talent it takes to turn out favorable masterpieces such as that of “Citizen Kane.” Lugosi, a typecast and heavily seasoned European actor still alien to his American life decades after his successful acting days, doesn’t know what else he can do now that he’s aged out of the only role he made a living off of, choosing drugs over futilely waiting for the non-existent role that will bring his career out of its buried coffin (pun intended). Both of these men yearn to get what they can’t receive because the world doesn’t accept what they have to offer. Wood’s niche taste for entertainment and Lugosi’s limited acting range places them in tight manacles they can’t break free from, and as a result, their rags to riches (or in Lugosi’s case, riches to rags to riches) stories never materialize. However, where they lack talent they make up for in grit. Woods continues making movies until no one will finance them any longer. Lugosi, though not strong enough to end his use of heroin, believes in Woods’ promises to bring him back to stardom. Anyone with the drive to do something in light of negativity will find these artists inspiring.
Another topic “Ed Wood” showcases is the cross-dressing community. What made Wood uniquely quirky was the fact that he was a cisgender, heterosexual man who loved putting on makeup and donning a wig in spite of his gender identity. The nuances of what it means to be male as presented by the film effectively promote a version of masculinity not based on what society deems to be conventional for men, but how each man chooses to express himself. Characters like Wood aren’t front and center in many movies or TV shows today (nor have they ever frequently been), so it marks this ‘90s depiction as special and revolutionary for anyone questioning what it truly means to be a man or woman.
With a strong story and likable characters, “Ed Wood” is able to establish itself as a must-see classic from the Tim Burton canon and is a fun look into a bad director’s creative endeavors. Today, he has a small but strong fanbase that will always admire the determination it took to make raunchy sci-fi flicks like “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and “Bride of the Monster.” As Wood himself once said, “Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It’s about the big picture.”
Image courtesy of the Creative Commons