I’m not the first to call Tim Burton “baby’s first auteur,” and I’m certainly not alone in saying he was the first live-action filmmaker I ever learned to love. The reason’s obvious of course: few other directors have put such a broad and recognizable stamp onscreen, to the point that Burton’s more brand now than man. There’s a bittersweet irony to an artist with such a deep love for American kitsch seeing his own personality become a kitsch object. My adolescent love of Burton has stuck with me through my movie-watching career, and it’s shaped my understanding of other directors’ films as well: it should be no secret by now that I prefer movies that create their own worlds onset to the ones that record the one we all live in.
Ed Wood’s a bit of a departure as far as that goes, which may explain its status as the favorite Tim Burton movie of people who don’t like Tim Burton movies. This doesn’t just take place in the real world, it is, at least nominally, based on real events. This means that where most Burton productions take place in settings that don’t, and can’t, exist outside the studio, the world of Ed Wood is more or less recognizable as the Los Angeles that actually existed fifty years earlier. The Universal-horror shadows, off-kilter camera angles, and strangely unreal performances, would, of course, would look wildly stylized from anyone else. But for Burton, this counts as dialing back. There’s only a few moments that really display the typical Burton style of set dressing: the recreation of Plan 9 from Outer Space switches out the original bland backdrop for a scratchy, off-kilter drawing that looks to have come from Burton’s own hand. The House of Horrors where Ed takes his future wife is as pure Burton as you might expect, with the skull-shaped car translated directly from this production sketch (or, more accurately, doodle). And the opening credits combine the original credits to Plan 9 with the formula Burton had established with the Batman movies and Beetlejuice, and would use again in Mars Attacks, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and many others, letting the music swell as the camera tracks through an artificial landscape, complete with stop-motion octopus.
As much as the formula-bound biopic genre tames Burton’s weirdness, it’s hard to imagine a weirder subject than Ed Wood. These movies exist to celebrate the best, the most influential, the most successful. Ed Wood was none of these things: in fact, his legacy rests on his reputation as the worst director who ever lived. Like all biopics, Ed Wood plays fast and loose with the facts, of which few survive to begin with, turning the tragedy of a failed director into the comedy of an artist who might be misguided or merely misunderstood. But Burton sees this as more honest, not less, than a more factually accurate film would be.
You know what, I hate most biopics. I find that most biopics are stodgy and really boring, because people, in my opinion, take too much of a reverential approach, and it’s fake… There’s something about it, the sheer fact that it’s a movie and that an actor is portraying someone, means there’s a level of façade and fakery to it, I decided to go along with that a little more and not to treat these people so reverentially or in a documentary style. In some ways, I’m a purist. I wasn’t there, I don’t know them, but I have a feeling about them. So that’s what I’m doing, I’m doing my feeling. I’m sure these people were more horrible than the way I’m portraying them. But these people should feel good, because they’ve been made fun of their whole lives, and I’m certainly not going to do that to them. I like them.
This means that Wood’s alcoholism and disreputable career shooting porn to make ends meet don’t come into play. And it means that Burton takes a cue from another goth icon of the nineties, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: “All her stories have happy endings. That’s because she knows where to stop. She’s realized the real problem with stories—if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.” Ed Wood gets its precision in choosing where to end down to the second, closing at the very moment Ed walks out of the first screening of Plan 9, letting us see him in the afterglow of his belief he made a masterpiece before the audience’s response can get back to him. (The scene, set in an opulent old-style movie palace, is already 90% fantasy, especially coming off the heels of a completely invented meeting with Orson Welles.)*
Getting back to Burton-as-auteur, even if he’s dialing back some of his more ostentatious trademarks, it’s not hard to see the themes that drew him to the script. He’s cited the kinship Ed Wood’s relationship with Bela Lugosi had with his own with Vincent Price: two struggling young directors who were lucky enough to meet with the horror icons they’d grown up idolizing before they took up permanent residence among the tombstones. That’s not the only relationship that resonates, though. The film takes Bela Lugosi’s legendarily terrible monologue from Bride of the Monster, and in Martin Landau’s heart-shaking delivery, gives it a new and deeper meaning. “Home? I have no home.” The entire cast of Ed Wood are the kinds of characters Burton has spent his career celebrating: the outcasts and weirdoes who have no home in the social order but who jerry-rig a kind of family for each other, an alternate society in the shadow of the one that rejected them. Here, the queer subtext of these themes becomes text; “queer” can, after all, also be a synonym for “weird.” Ed himself is coded queer, with his high, feminine voice and love of women’s clothing. As a Certified Straight, any of my attempts to parse whether that’s more or less than code would only be putting my foot in my mouth and then shooting myself in it. Fortunately, Bill Murray is less ambiguous as Bunny, an extremely openly gay man, or possibly, as we learn after a disastrous trip to Mexico for a sex-change operation, transgender woman.
Bunny and the other characters are almost inexplicably loyal to Ed, following him from flop to flop. And if the connection to Burton’s own process isn’t clear, just look at the credits. The costumes are designed by Colleen Atwood, who would collaborate with Burton on another dozen films, and a cast including his offscreen fiancee Lisa Marie, future Mars Attacks star Sarah Jessica Parker, and Johnny Depp, just after Edward Scissorhands kicked off a partnership so long-lived most of the internet seems to have trouble telling him and Burton apart. Notably absent is composer Danny Elfman, partly because he was busy trying to reconcile his new career in Hollywood with his old one as frontman of the New Wave band Oingo Boingo. But there was also a personal falling-out after Burton replaced his dialogue as Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas with Chris Sarandon. They eventually patched up and only became more inseparable: this is one of only two movies Elfman didn’t score for Burton, and he probably would have composed a soundtrack for Sweeney Todd too if it didn’t come with one already attached.
Though he may be the most spectacular failure of them all, Eddie’s far from the only bad artist in the Burton canon. He’d reteam with Ed Wood’s screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to tell the story of legendary kitsch painter Margaret Keane in Big Eyes. Jack Skellington’s attempt to create his own Christmas leads only to disaster; Willy Wonka is capable of creating impossible wonders and uses them to make candy, which might lead some viewers to side with his father in calling it a waste of time. The Joker dubs himself “the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.” Edward Scissorhand’s lawn sculptures are pure cheese, and the hairstyles that get him so much acclaim from the local housewives are downright hideous. A third Ed, Big Fish’s Ed Bloom tells extraordinary stories of his past life hoping to connect with his son but ends up alienating him instead, his art only recognized as he lies on his deathbed. Detractors might have a good laugh about why these characters appeal to Burton, but he has his own explanation: “Any of my movies could go either way, they really could, and so the line between success and failure is a very thin one. That’s why I responded so much to him. I believe that, and who knows, I could become Ed Wood tomorrow.”
So far I’ve been turning the auteur theory pretty heavily in Tim Burton’s favor, but one of the best jokes of Ed Wood is that putting your heart and soul into your art doesn’t guarantee it’ll be any good. Ed gets the director chair on the sex-change thriller Glen or Glenda? because of his inside experience with cross-dressing. His movies are true passion projects that he will beg, steal, or borrow for by whatever means necessary. He’ll even draw from his personal life when it makes no darn sense — at one point, he describes how the monster in a horror movie will calm down because he, like Ed, “has an angora fetish.” The Baptist elders funding Plan 9 are the ultimate studio bean-counters, constantly questioning the artist’s vision, but the thing is, almost all of their objections are completely right! Tor Johnson is unintelligible, the graveyard is obviously cardboard, and the chiropractor does look nothing like Bela Lugosi. And yet, Orson Welles’ words to Ed when he complains about their kibbitzing still ring true: “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?” Maybe, the film says, that’s all that really matters. Even if you dream of flying pie tins and clown-car crypts.
* There’s another subtle joke in there too: Ed has idolized Orson all his life, and Ed Wood looks at least as much like one of Welles’ films as one of Wood’s.