30-year-old Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) wants nothing more than to make movies and be a major Hollywood director just like his idol Orson Welles. While trying to get his big break in the film industry, he tries his hand doing stage plays starring his girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) and friend Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), but audiences stay away and critics aren’t impressed. But when Ed finds out a producer is planning to make a movie based on the life of Christine Jorgensen, a famous trans woman, he knows that he’s the perfect director for the project because he secretly loves dressing in women’s clothing. The producer is looking for a director with experience, but Ed gets the job when he tells the producer that he could get Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), whom he had recently befriended, to appear in it.
During the production of the movie, which ended up being known as Glen or Glenda, Ed battles with the producer because Ed wants to go for honesty and realism, but the producer wants exploitation. Dolores is also shocked when she finds out how much the movie reflects their lives. When the movie fails and he can’t get more work, Dolores suggests he try finding funding elsewhere so he can make the movies he wants to make without having to answer to anyone.
Although Ed is, eventually, able to get enough funding to make movies like Bride of the Monster, Hollywood success and critical acclaim continue to elude him. Along the way, his relationship with Dolores becomes strained and ends, plus he has to cope with his good friend Bela Lugosi’s battle with drug addiction and eventual death. But things start looking up when he meets Kathy O’Hara (Patricia Arquette) and he talks a church into funding a project he really wants to make — Plan 9 From Outer Space, starring his friends Vampira (Lisa Marie) and Tor Johnson (George Steele). The movie also gave him the chance to use some footage of Bela that had been filmed shortly before his death.
But Ed soon finds out that having financial backers doesn’t provide as much freedom as he’d hoped for and he gets tired of the church’s concerns over the direction of the movie. Frustrated, he goes to a bar where he has a chance encounter with his idol, Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio), who inspires him to go back and fight to make the movie he always dreamed of.
Like most Hollywood biopics, Ed Wood isn’t a completely accurate portrayal of his life or the lives of some of his friends. The portrayal of Dolores seems to get the most criticism since she actually had a very active acting career during the time she spent with Ed, which isn’t mentioned at all in the movie. Dolores herself has said that she wished the movie had shown more of the love story between her and Ed and said that the movie didn’t depict Ed’s alcoholism during this time in his life. Bela Lugosi also wasn’t known to curse the way he did in Ed Wood and the movie makes no reference to Lugosi’s son or the woman he was married to at the time of his death.
But despite its inaccuracies, Ed Wood is an extremely entertaining movie. It’s the kind of movie I could easily watch over and over again. I loved Johnny Depp’s unrelentingly optimistic performance as Ed Wood. Depp said he got into character by studying Ronald Reagan speeches, Mickey Rooney movies, Casey Kasem, and Jack Haley in The Wizard of Oz and if you can imagine all of those things combined, you’ve got a pretty spot-on idea of what his performance is like. Martin Landau was also fantastic as Bela Lugosi and he really deserved the Oscar he won for his performance.
A lot of Tim Burton’s most recent work hasn’t gotten the best reviews, but Ed Wood is a great reminder of how good of a director Tim Burton can be when he’s at his best. He’s the only major director working right now I can think of who could make a movie that makes you want to root for the guy who made Plan 9 From Outer Space, a movie that’s often called the worst movie ever made. Plus I kind of respect the fact that Burton said he didn’t want to delve too much into the darker aspects of Ed’s life, or the lives of his friends, because he felt these people had already been ridiculed enough. Too bad Dolores got a bad shake in the movie, though.