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Before Tommy Wiseau and The Room, there was Ed Wood

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of 12 Years A Slave, The Fifth Estate, Kill Your Darlings, and Camille Claudel 1915—all opening in the next few days—we single out some exceptional biopics.

Ed Wood (1994)

The stories behind bad movies are frequently more gripping—and nearly always more lucid—than the bad movies themselves, which explains why far more people might want to watch Best Worst Movie than its subject, Troll 2, or why they might connect more fully with American Movie than with Mark Borchardt’s short film “Coven.” The real-life story of film director Ed Wood is far more resonant than his films, and that includes the campy, ridiculous Plan 9 From Outer Space. Though Wood’s films were so bad they’re enjoyable, Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood is simply great.


In 1994, Johnny Depp was still friendly with his own muse, not letting it run roughshod over both his choices and his performances, so his turn as the wide-eyed, optimistic director is at once over the top and strangely restrained. Though it skirts the edge of believability, Depp’s interpretation captures Wood’s naïveté and optimism (or at least Burton and the screenwriters’ perception of it) with the perfect spirit. It doesn’t hurt that Depp’s best scenes are played opposite Martin Landau, in an Academy Award-winning performance as horror actor Bela Lugosi. What might have been portrayed as a pathetic relationship between a has-been and a never-was, it instead becomes a smiling fight to create something, with Wood dragging Lugosi along on his quixotic quest. Not even Lugosi’s drug addiction and death could stop Wood: He used footage of the actor intended for other movies in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

In spite of its oddball subject, Ed Wood actually plays like a pretty straightforward biopic. Shot in black and white, it’s intended to mirror the uncomplicated films of Wood’s days in Hollywood. It’s a couple of love stories rolled up into one funny, touching movie. One minute it’s laughing at the ridiculousness of Hollywood (“Is there a script?” “Fuck no, but there’s a poster. It opens in nine weeks in Tulsa!”), the next it’s easily manipulating audiences into rooting for a guy with no real talent but all the enthusiasm in the world. “What if I’m wrong? What if I just don’t got it?” asks Wood at one point. He didn’t have the it he wanted, but he had something else entirely.


Availability: Ed Wood is available on Blu-ray and DVD (which can be obtained through Netflix), for rental or purchase through the major digital services, and to stream in its entirety, for free, on YouTube.