You can’t really refer to Ed Wood as fading into obscurity. That would imply he had risen above it. Let’s face it; he had not. A declaration that he was the worst director of all time, that his opus Plan 9 From Outer Space was the worst film of all time, was insufficient for that. Actually, the first Ed Wood movie I ever saw—before Tim Burton made his film—was one of the ones featured in it, the classic Bride of the Monster. The very next episode was Manos: The Hands of Fate, which I consider the actual worst movie I’ve ever seen. Still, that was the kind of thing you got with Ed Wood before 1994; his films were destined to appear on a basic cable puppet show. And then Tim Burton got hold of him.
Edward D. Wood, Jr. (Johnny Depp), wants to make movies. He is missing two things, though—money and talent. His girlfriend, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), is running out of support. She’s put up with a lot, and there’s more coming. Ed sees an ad in a trade paper that proclaims that a studio is planning to make The Christine Jorgensen Story. He sells himself to the executive as the only person who can truly make the picture, because he himself is a transvestite. This is, strangely, not good enough. When Ed meets Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) and promises that Bela will star, he gets to make the picture, which is how he confesses his secret to Dolores. The picture, Glen or Glenda?, is a typical Ed Wood film. Meaning it’s terrible. From there, we see the making of Bride of the Monster, the collapse of Ed’s relationship with Dolores, and the making of Ed’s “masterpiece,” Plan 9 From Outer Space.
The real Dolores Fuller would like us to know that this version of her life history is not very accurate, and in fact she dumped Ed because he was an alcoholic. From what I’ve heard, Ed Wood wasn’t always a fun man to be around, and his death was pathetic. He was couch-surfing. Even the declaration that he was the worst director of all time wouldn’t come for a few years, so he wasn’t even that well remembered. And, yes, he died of alcohol-related causes. When he died, he was a drunk and a failure, and that’s not the Ed Wood that Tim Burton presented us with, either.
I assume that Tim Burton sympathizes a great deal with Ed Wood’s obsession. Most creative people probably do. You must ask yourself—what would you do? Ed Wood isn’t even the craziest person in that regard; Sean Young would like to talk to you about that. But Ed Wood did work very hard, doing what he believed he must in order to get his movies made. Yes, they’re bad movies. Extremely. I have seen several, including all three of the movies he makes over the course of this film, and they are none of them good. But he got them made.
I think that is why we are so drawn to Ed Wood in the film, even twenty years later. He gets his movies made. He has a dream, and he fights for it. The twist Tim Burton gives us is that it isn’t a terribly worthwhile dream. In the year Ed Wood was making his turkeys, Roger Corman produced or executive produced seven movies (including MST3K favourite Attack of the Giant Leeches), directing three himself. The Corman films are almost certainly not better. However, Corman had enough savvy, or whatever you want to call it, to succeed, and all Ed Wood had was the moxie to get things made.
The movie itself, regardless of how fictional it is, still holds up twenty years later. Martin Landau is a delight as Bela Lugosi, a man turned surly by typecasting and heroin. Ed has one thing Bela never had, and he shares; Ed has friends. Even as he was dying, he had a couch to go to. Had Bela not had the good fortune to meet Ed, the movie’s version of Bela would have died alone. I argue, in fact, that this is a love story, though not a romance. The movie is about the heterosexual love that can exist between two men, especially when they both share a love of film.