Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Celebrating the Worst of the Worst

Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker): How can you walk around like that in front of all these people?

Ed (Johnny Depp): Well, hon, look around. Nobody's bothered but you.

Dolores: Ed, this isn't the real world. You've surrounded yourself with a bunch of weirdos.

I've never been a fan of Sarah Jessica Parker, but I have to admit that I felt a certain empathy for her character in "Ed Wood."

She was Ed's long–suffering, nearly endlessly supportive (and painfully naive) girlfriend, Dolores — and like the enablers you hear about in tales of addiction, she made excuses for his often inexplicable behavior and found ways to justify the unjustifiable.

Ed's addiction wasn't to alcohol or pills, though. It was to the make–believe world of movies.

Dolores was into that stuff, too, although not quite to the extent Ed was. I think my favorite scene with her was early in the movie, when Ed and his gang of "misfits and dope addicts," as Dolores called them, were waiting for the first press run of reviews of a play they were staging. They all read in a silence that was broken first by Bill Murray, who disparaged the reviewer.

Parker glanced up from the review with a stricken look on her face. "Do I really have the face of a horse?" she asked no one in particular — which was good because no one replied.

(My answer to that question, had I been there, would have been, "Well, yes, dear, but don't concern yourself with it. It isn't so noticeable in profile, and it is not a deal breaker.")

Her character stayed with Ed — who, in real life, directed movies that were so bad that people actually remembered them because they were so bad. I know I remembered them. Of course, I was probably about 5 or 6 years old when I first saw one of his movies on TV, but they sure did make an impression on me. Many of the sci–fi images I've been carrying around in my head most of my life are due to Mr. Wood's work — characterized by cliche–ridden scripts and tacky special effects.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp in the movie) became synonymous with cheap, trashy filmmaking. When I first heard that a movie based on his life was being made, I figured it had to be some kind of goofy spoof on his life — especially when I learned it would be directed by Tim Burton. But it was, in the words of film critic Roger Ebert, "a film which celebrates Wood more than it mocks him, and which celebrates, too, the zany spirit of 1950s exploitation films."

That was kind of unfortunate, I guess, for Parker. Her character lived with Wood in the early '50s and provided tons of material to be scoffed. From what I have read, the movie apparently told the truth about her, too.

Dolores tolerated all kinds of quirks in Wood's personality and encouraged his often nutty movie ideas — but never managed to put two and two together concerning his transvestism. Wood's character, at one point, acknowledged that he frequently wore Dolores' sweaters, and she never figured out why they were always stretched out of shape.

She finally found out before she was cast in Wood's "Glen or Glenda?" She went ahead and appeared in his movie even though he popped up on the set wearing women's clothing.

Anyway, Burton's movie premiered 20 years ago today. I liked it, but it wasn't what I expected. Like Ebert, I suppose I expected "a camp sendup, maybe a cross between 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' and 'Sunset Boulevard.'"

To my great surprise, it wasn't like that at all.

I watched it again this summer — first time I had seen it in years. And, once again, I felt that empathy for Parker's character. If it was true to life, Dolores must have really had it bad for Ed — and that wasn't good. Because when you've got it that bad for someone, you're more likely to ignore things that should set off alarms in your head.

Those bells must have been ringing louder and louder because Dolores finally gave up on Ed — when he cast someone else as the female lead in his movie "Bride of the Monster" and relegated Dolores to a small part. That's when she left him.

She needn't have taken it personally. Most of Wood's filmmaking decisions were determined not by talent but by financial considerations, and he thought the actress, Loretta King (played by Juliet Landau), was going to provide money to produce his movie; it turned out she had already given him her life savings, $300, when he was expecting tens of thousands.

Wood was very flexible about everything if it meant money for one of his movie projects. If a backer was willing to finance a movie, the backer could pick the stars — and that could usually be described in a single word: nepotism.

(One of my favorite scenes showed Wood trying to get backing from a meat packer, played by Ron Howard's father, who said he would finance Wood's movie only if his son played the lead and the movie ended with an explosion.)

For her part, Dolores claimed she couldn't handle Wood's transvestism, and that is how Burton's movie presented their breakup. (Don't feel too badly for her, though. She went on to enjoy some success as a songwriter, writing songs that were recorded by Elvis Presley, Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee and others.)

Wood's deep love for movies was clear, and Burton treated it with respect. Wood just never had the talent to make his dreams and ambitions become realities.

Wood's tendency to use stock film footage of any and all types in his movies was handled with a kind of gentle deference — wholly unexpected from the guy who brought us "Beetlejuice" and "Batman."

But Wood's filmography was so bizarre that Burton needed only tell the truth — for it really was stranger than fiction.

I haven't seen them all, but, judging from the Ed Wood movies I have seen, he did surround himself with a genuine freak show. Astonishingly, they were all real people. Burton didn't have to make up any of them, nor did he have to embellish their stories.

Purely by chance (at least, in the movie — and, perhaps, in real life), Wood met Bela Lugosi, who became his friend and participant in three of his movies. Lugosi (Martin Landau in the movie) was the only one who had any sort of fame beyond the Los Angeles city limits when he hooked up with Wood; the rest were unknown and probably would have remained so if Wood had not been recognized as the worst director of all time, fueling a cult–like interest in his movies.

Wood also met — at least in the movie — his idol, Orson Welles, and, for a second or two, as Wood and Welles compared notes about the movie business, it was tempting to regard Wood as a man of integrity. Except he had none. Only a childlike faith in the magic of the movies — not unlike a child's innocent belief in Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.

Among Wood's entourage were Vampira, the hostess of a local horror movie TV program (she once sued Elvira for stealing her act); Tor Johnson (George Steele), a pro wrestler who was persuaded by Wood to appear in a couple of his movies, including the widely panned "Plan 9 From Outer Space"; The Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a psychic who had earned a reputation for making predictions that were always way off the mark.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie came when Wood, to appease financial backers from a Baptist church, agreed to have everyone in the company get baptized. The ceremony was held in a swimming pool.

"Why couldn't we do this in the church?" Vampira asked Criswell.

"Because Brother Tor wouldn't fit in the sacred tub," he replied.

They all had their moments, but I must make special mention of Bill Murray, who played Bunny Breckenridge, another real person who tried unsuccessfully to have a sex–change operation.

Bunny was openly gay and descended from some prominent figures in American history — John Breckinridge, attorney general under Thomas Jefferson, was his great–great–great–grandfather, and John C. Breckinridge, vice president under James Buchanan, was his great–grandfather.

I thought Murray did an especially good job of playing Bunny. He could have given in to the temptation to really ham it up — but that would have been hard to do, considering how flamboyant the real Bunny was.

When he grieved his failure to acquire a sex change in Mexico, the viewer empathized — even if he/she had less in common with his character than with Parker's. Bunny's grief seemed sincere.

For a movie about the worst director of all time, it was successful. "Ed Wood" won both of the Oscars for which it was nominated — for Best Supporting Actor (Martin Landau) and Best Makeup.

But, fittingly, given the subject of the movie, it lost money — grossing about one–third of what it cost to make.