Going into this film, I knew absolutely nothing about it, other than Johnny Depp starred in it. I didn’t even know that Tim Burton directed it.
I love the opening title sequence. It’s unique, paying homage to 1950s B movies of all kinds: horror, science fiction, and creature features. Johnny Depp is Edward J. Wood Jr., a playwright and aspiring filmmaker who compares himself to Orson Wells. He also likes to wear women’s undergarments, which he believes makes him the perfect choice to direct a picture about a transvestite: Glen or Glenda (changed from the original title: I Changed My Sex!), starring his new friend, Béla Lugosi (Martin Landau—in excellent makeup).
As they begin filming Glen or Glenda, we find out a bit more about Béla, who is rather washed up after his long career. He’s turned to drugs, and he hates Boris Karloff, who arguably replaced Lugosi as the star of the horror genre. Ed is greatly excited to have written, starred in, and directed a film, like his idol Orson Wells did with Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, the studio executives actually think Glen or Glenda is a practical joke, and laugh through the screening. However, he gave himself an idea for another film (making it up on the spot after being turned down for Dr. Acula) Bride of the Atom.
After being turned down for Bride of the Atom, Ed’s girlfriend Delores (Sarah Jessica Parker) convinces him to raise independent support, as he’s clearly not the studio-type. He schmoozes a bunch of buyers, including Loretta King (Juliet Landau, Martin Landau’s daughter—Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), to whom he gives the part formerly written for Delores. He recruits a motley crew and completes his B movie despite all the odds (not that the movie looks great, because everything goes wrong that can go wrong).
When Lugosi dies, Wood tries to get funding from a Baptist church, and begins to make Plan 9 From Outer Space. He can’t deal with their micromanagement, and finally meets Orson Wells (Vincent D’Onofrio) in a bar, who convinces him not to give up on his dream.
Johnny Depp is very young looking in this film. This is before his foppish days in Pirates of the Caribbean, and he has overtones of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with his too perfect, slightly creepy smile and too-eager-slightly-crazy googly eyes. This is his second movie for Tim Burton, after Edward Scissorhands (two films in a row playing an “Ed”), and I think he gives an excellent performance: he’s eager, believable, and just corny enough.
Bill Murray is a fun side character, one of the costume designers. He’s controversial for the time period and, inspired by Glen or Glenda, decides to go to Mexico and undergo a sex change. He returns, unsuccessful, to aid Ed Wood in his ambitious plans. (I love Bill Murray!)
The film has some interesting things to say about Hollywood, such as when Béla Lugosi checks into rehab for morphine and methadone addiction. He claims to be the first actor to do such a thing, and that no press is bad press. It’s almost as though he’s starting a trend. Martin Landau absolutely scores in his role as Lugosi. He’s endearing, funny, and tragic throughout.
I really liked the movie. It felt like both a tribute to Citizen Kane, as much as to Ed Wood himself. It also worked as a period piece, not overly slick or stylized with the black and white. I think that Burton really had a fun time going to the roots of filmmaking with cheesy special effects and grainy film. I think this is a great film, worthy of a place on the Top 100 (maybe not at the top of the list, but it’s certainly singular).