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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Depp, Burton Shine Together in Ed Wood

Written by Kirk Baird

Martin Landau insists his 1994 Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood was a “love letter” to the actor forever linked to his role as Dracula.

By the early 1950s, Lugosi was an aging drug addict and persona non grata in Hollywood — at least to major film studios. But Wood, widely regarded as the worst director of all time, changed that, and adopted Lugosi into his menagerie of showbiz outcasts in his film club.

Theirs is the non-romantic love story, Landau says during the commentary on the recently released Blu-ray edition of Ed Wood, of two fast friends who inspired and boosted each other. Wood was a schlocky filmmaker whose career was aided significantly simply by name-dropping Lugosi to potential movie backers, while Lugosi, through Wood, had a second chance at a career.

Their story soars with Landau and Johnny Depp, as Wood, in the leads, and a witty script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski that celebrates their eccentricities. Wood’s transvestism is played not for cheap laughs, but for empathy, and his unintentionally awful films are brought to life in a gentle manner that glows with admiration.

Director Tim Burton, a longtime fan of Wood and his films, is clearly inspired by this story, perhaps because he had a vaguely similar director/fan relationship with Vincent Price, and even cast the aging actor in his final memorable role in Edward Scissorhands.

A quirky and unusual outcast finding his way in normal society is a constant theme in Burton’s oeuvre, but it’s never felt so relevant or personal — perhaps because Ed Wood is the only biopic he’s made.

Depp delivers a high-energy and quickly accessible performance that doesn’t look to audience pity, but rather lauds the filmmaker for his tireless ambition and stubborn perseverance against all odds and critics. It’s among Depp’s finest screen moments. Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, and George “The Animal” Steele lead a terrific supporting cast.

Burton fought the studio to film Ed Wood in black and white; renowned makeup artist Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for his work on the movie, said it was the only way that Landau’s makeup as Lugosi looked natural. On Blu-ray, the black-and-white digitally restored film is simply gorgeous and worth the upgrade alone. Most of the film’s many features are holdovers from the 2005 DVD release, but the commentary by Burton, Alexander and Karaszewski, Landau, and others from the film remains one of the better and more entertaining behind-the-scenes audio tracks available.

Burton and Depp have worked together eight times in their career, and most likely will continue their partnership. With only a few stumbles in their collaborations, Burton and Depp bring out the best in each other. Wood and Lugosi would be proud.

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