UK Film Review June 1995
Look back in Angora
PICTURE THE SCENE, if you will. In one of the scummiest parts of West Los Angeles, Johnny Depp is being put through his acting paces by director Tim Burton. The air is as thick and grimy as an unserviced U-bend. The ambience as comforting as a shower of warm sweat. As the cameras grind slowly into motion, Depp steps out into the light… wearing high heels, black nylons, a blue dress, a beige corset, a pink blouse and red lipstick.
“It’s strange, but it really doesn’t feel so bad,” Depp says about his stint in the frillies. Will his reputation ever be fully restored in the town of Tinsel?
The actor is playing Edward D Wood, arguably the worst director in the history of Hollywood, who lived and worked during the ’40s and ’50s. Wood directed Z-grade features such as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster and Glen or Glenda, a movie which became a bizarre plea for understanding of his own penchant for cross-dressing.
The role is a bold move for the former teen idol who kicked started his career in the TV series 21 Jump Street, moved on to the silver screen with the original Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and gained celebrity status as the lead in John Waters’s outrageous spoof Cry Baby. However, a shrewd Depp nevertheless expanded artistically in a number of wayward character roles in offbeat movies; the fairy tale fantasy Edward Scissorhands, the romantic drama Benny and [oon, and the rural rites-of-passage piece What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Each role has revealed much more of a depth in Depp than you would have expected from an actor of his calibre. He has been attached to a number of worthy future projects including a powerful drama called It Only Rains At Night and an untitled new movie from Jim Jaramush.
So what was the attraction – if that is the right word – of playing Edward D Wood?
“Essentially, you really can’t refuse anything that Tim [Burton] asks you to do,” Depp explains. “You know he has a solid belief in you, and even if you do have any reservations about the part, he will talk you through them. Sure, it’s a kinda weird role for me, but would you expect anything else from Tim?
“There was such a great ensemble of people working on the movie, too. I’ve turned parts down and regretted them in the future, and I think I would have been sick as a dog if I’d walked away from this one, I don’t think I’ve worked on anything where everyone was so close-knit.”
The twisted family of performers who bring Ed Wood to life are as outrageous as the story itself. Martin Landau plays Bela Lugosi, the morphine-addicted Horror star regarded by most as being well past his sellby date. Bill Murray is outrageous supporting actor John ‘Bunny’ Breckinridge, who was a reputed transsexual wannabe. Model Lisa Marie is Vampira, the late night Horror show hostess who had a seventeen-inch waist, 50s-style ‘headline’, and skin that can be described as dead. Sarah Jessica Parker is Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller, and Patricia Arquette is his wife Kathy.
“It was a very vibrant shoot,” Depp recalls. “I mean, it was really tough. We were filming in some of the most claustrophobic, badly ventilated, most uncomfortable locations in Hollywood. My adrenalin was pumping all the way, but everyone from the ground up was giving the movie 200 per cent. I think it has to be most ensemble picture I’ve made.”
Then, of course, there was the matter of the frilly underwear. Weird, huh?
“Actually, it didn’t feel weird at all,” the actor admits. “In fact, it’s spookily comfortable. The only time it felt weird was when I had to do a striptease. But I didn’t have any fear about what the audience would think. I know they’ll have a good time with the stacle was one he had created himself. Burton wanted to shoot the movie in black and white, and original backers Columbia didn’t see eye to eye on the matter.
“I think it was apt thai we shoot the movie in black and white,” Burton maintains. “I resisted the idea at first, but the more I thought about it, I knew that the characters wouldn’t work in colour. It is a period film. I think that pari of the Fifties’ should be remembered in black and white.
“I didn’t really want to compromise with the movie. I believed that if I compromised in any way, then we would dilute the original idea, and I didn’t want to do that, lowed that to everyone involved, and to the original spirit of Ed Wood.”
The project was eventually snapped up by Disney, who allowed Burton to have a free rein.
A noted perfectionist who never appears to be fully satisfied with his finished work, Burton admits the movie is one of his most accomplished projects.
“You shouldn’t gel too dose to films, especially after they are in the can. But I guess that Ed Wood is the closest thing I’ve made, which has a connection between my childhood and my morematureartisticside. For me, that is a huge accomplishment and one I’d be happy to rest on.”
Patricia Arquette is most certainly at odds with many of the characters she has played on film: notably as the provocative, day-glo-outfitted Alabama in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance and as the heavy-drinking wife of a Hollywood transsexual in Tim Burian’s latest film, Ed Wood. This slightly outrageous style of screen personality is pretty much at variance with the true nature of the twenty-six-yearold actress – and that is very, very shy.
“How I got into acting I’ll never know,” admits Patricia. “I was always so reserved. I wasn’t an exhibitionist of any sort and friends from my childhood really can’t believe I played some of these roles.”
Her father is an actor, and so.of course, is her big sister (Rosanna) and lillie brother (Alexis). All have a reputation in the business for being a little … well, quirky.
Patricia admits she could be the black sheep, but something in the Arquette gene pool may be responsible for attracting the middle sibling to some of Hollywood’s more bizarre projects lately.
“I do have a strange sense of humour. I think I share that with my family,” says the actress. “Before I started True Romance, a journalist read me the namesof my co-stars:
Christian Slater, Brad Pitt, Cary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken ..
“He said it was a cross-section of Hollywood’s brilliant crazies, and asked where I fitted in. I just laughed. Maybe they need someone a little more composed to balance out the picture. 1 don’t know. I still find it is funny that journalists think I’m really a little loopy.”
Like her Ed Wood co-star, Johnny Depp, Patricia made her Hollywood splash in a Freddy Kreuger slice ‘n’ dicer. Depp in the originalNightmare on Elm Street; Arquette as the resourceful heroine who dispatched the dream bogeyman in Part III.
She played a couple of wayward roles in Sam Shepherd’s Far North and Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, before bouncing to the attention ofTim Burton for his bioplc of the bizarre cross-dressing director.
“l’m always surprised where I go after each movie,” says Patricia. “I’m not confident or organized enough to map out any career yet. Things just come and I make a choice then. But I don’t think to myself: ‘Oh, this is weird. I’ll give this a shot’.
“But I have such a strange sense of humour that I am usually drawn to stories which are more unconventional than other. With Ed Wood it was simply too good an opportunity to miss. Tim is a great director and I was anxious to do something with him.”
Patricia plays Wood’s second wife, Kathy O’Hara, who nurtured the frustrated filmmaker through the worst part of his strained career. The challenge facing the young actress was to convey a sense of normality in what was a bizarre real-life relationship. Patricia didn’t do much research into the life of Kathy O’Hara.
“Apparently she was a heavy drinker and very judgmental about his past relationships,” she explains. “She’d set out matching night-gowns for them every night.
“Tim didn’t want to trivialize this fact. He also wanted to do it straight, which I can understand and admire. I was encouraged to read up on the life of Edward 0 Wood, but during filming I really st~ck to the script and my own interpretatrbn.”
Like most of the cast and crew Patricia was overwhelmed by the confidence and performance of Depp in the role.
“He was amazing,” she exclaims. “Absolutely amazing. The stuff where he had to wear the woman’s clothing was inspired. He was a natural. I would give him tips on undressing, particularly with the bra strap.
He was very strict who he undressed in front of. “I think he energized everyone on the set. He was as much a guiding force on the movie as Tim [Burton]. We had these very intimate scenes together, and he would get right into the part and stay there for hours.
I’m not that disciplined. I still have fits of laughter during a scene. But Johnny could do it straight.”
If anything, Patricia has learned that she may have been more at home in an Edward D Wood movie than she would have expected. “I’m told that Wood liked to nurture women, specially those who didn’t have as much confidence. He adored actresses. Ithink headored bad actresses more. But he thrived on anyone who had determination and wanted 10 fulfil a dream. They reckon he wasn’t talented, but I think he was an individual who was determined to fulfil his own dream.”
The same notion could also ring true for Patricia, who, in some respects, may now be outshining her more famous sister.
As a young mother (her baby, Enzo, is almost three years old), “struggling to learn her craft and make a living in Hollywood”, as she describes it, Patricia might still have front of. “It’s strange,” she sighs, returning to the original question about her being misunderstood in public profile. “Most people pitch me somewhere between my big sister and Alabama. I’m certainly the most intraverted of my entire family, and still have to pinch myself to make sure that I’m not dreaming. But what I haven’t got used to yet is that look of surprise in everyone’s eye, after they have been talking to me for more than five minutes, and the phrase: ‘Gosh … you are quite normal, aren’t you?”
Will the Real Dolores Stand Up?
DOLORES FULLER met Ed Wood at a casting call. An actress with big dreams, she fell for the man who vowed to make her a star.
“He was the most unusual producer I had ever met,” she tells Flint Revie’w. “They were usually very old and smoked cigars all the time, but here was a young, creative, handsome man with an effervescent personality. Eddie believed in what he was doing, and he made everyone else believe it 100.”
Soul mates from the start, Ed and Dolores shacked up together. She was his leading lady. He was her director. She cleaned up his act. He cleaned up her wardrobe.
“He tried to hide his cross-dressing from me for about a year or so,” remembers Dolores. “I’d been a health nut all my life, I cooked him meals every night and tried to keep him from drinking, and I guess it wasn’t easy for him to admit something so unusual to me.”
But admit it he did, and life went 0n ..
“He only wore my angora sweater while he was working late at night. It was cool and he wanted to feel cosy – he said it turned him on and helped him to write. I didn’t mind it though, I felt he only wanted to do it in the privacy of our own home, and that nobody would ever know about it,” the irony stops Fuller dead in her tracks, “And then that picture came out … ”
That picture.written and directed in about a week and a half, turned out to be Glen or Glenda, Ed Wood’s semi-autobiographical tale of love and transvestitism, co-starring the writer/director as Glen (and Glenda)and the writer/director’s girlfriend as his fiancee.
“I didn’t want him to use our life and put it in front of the camera,” explains Dolores. “I was very, very uncomfortable about that and I begged him not to use me, but he said that nobody would ever see it, that it would only play in way out markets, and then he said, ‘Please do this for me, because then I will get a writer/director credit, and we can go on to better things, and make much better movies.”
The gift of hindsight informs us that Ed Wood never did cross paths with those better things, but what did Dolores know? She stuck by her man, and that was that.
“But I still didn’t like doing it, and he didn’t let me on the set when he was doing the cross-dressing. In fact, I didn’t really know about all thai until I saw the picture. I had never seen him in a wig or dress before, only the angora sweater.”
The revelatory first screening of Glen or Glenda (available on video from May 15 as part of the Ed Wood collection from Pickwick Video) surprised just about everyone, but even though Dolores admits that at the time she felt like “crawling under the seat”, she stayed with Wood long enough to make the likes of Jail Bail before finally running away to New York to study acting and write songs for Elvis (remember Rock-a-Hula Bnby and Do the Clam?)
Yet she never forgot Ed (she just never spoke to him again).
“His dreams were my dreams, but they weren’t high enough quality to suit me .. at least he had ideas in his pictures.”
Stars: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray Director: Tim Burton
Running Time: 2 hrs l mins Opening Date: May 26
The story of the worst film-maker in Hollywood history.
It is something of an irony that generations of cinema-goers will henceforth associate the works of Edward D Wood Jnr – the man responsible for the cross-dressing ‘classic’ Glen or Glenda, and the execrable Plan 9 From Outer Space – with this very enjoyable movie. And Tim Burton’s affectionate bio-pic is certainly that, not only for the technical proficiency that contrasts with Wood’s own amateurism, but for the superb casting and wonderful ensemble playing.
In reality Wood (wonderfully played by Johnny Depp) was a decorated war hero, who landed on the Pacific beaches in 1941 as America fought Japan in the East, and unbeknownst to his comrades wore a frilly bra and panties under his uniform – a fetish that was to inform his artistic vision in the years to come.
Driven by a reckless optimism and a belief that a good movie was anyone that got made, Ed surrounded himself with a stalwart repertory company of similar Tinseltown misfits – Bela Lugosi among them – and raised his finance privately. With disastrously memorable results.
If audiences come to this film knowing little or nothing about Ed Wood to begin with they may balk at the awfulness of his work and the extreme oddness of his friends and co-stars. Yet Tim Button has done the writerdirector proud by making this most eccentric of men both likeable and believable
Choosing to shoot the film in black and white and recreating the kind of cheesey score that Ed would probably have liked to use himself, Burton introduces us to the array of wel1- played oddball characters. Bu t Depp’ s wonderfully upbeat performance holds the movie together. The casting of Ed Wood was obviously crucial but it is hard to imagine any other actor of Depp’s generation being able to wear an Angora sweater with such authority. He manages to be comic without being outwardly funny, and is immensely charming in the role.
Martin Landau – a deserving winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Bela Lugosi – is also quite wonderful. He becomes the ageing Hungarian actor before our very eyes, and soon forms a tight bond with his adoring director. And all the while a voice in your head reminds you that however outlandish the screen antics might seem, the reality was far more odd, far more unbelievable and probably far less entertaining.
Without seeming to have taken too many liberties with the facts Burton and his screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who might now be forgiven for the Problem Child movies, have woven a charming tale around the strangest of Hollywood characters. Which is rather like describing Wood as the tallest player on a basketball team.
Amusing, sometimes poignant and always totally absorbing.Ed Wood may show that Ed himself was no great shakes as a movie-maker but it proves once and for all the consummate talent that Tim Burton has become.