When you consider the number of artists — filmmakers included — that weren't properly appreciated in their own time, the amount is heartbreaking. Van Gogh, Bach, Poe and Monet are just a few names synonymous with "masterpiece" in this day and age, yet in their own lifetimes were widely rejected and, all too often, died broke and without much consideration.
And then there's somebody like notorious writer/producer/director/actor Ed Wood, a Hollywood legend that, long after his death, is widely considered to be "the worst director of all-time." Though during his lifetime this sort of accolade would likely have been considered an insult, the generation that Wood's low-budget genre films influenced would consider him to be an artist of great interest, easily on par with the more traditional choices for artistic inspiration. Movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster are cheap, amateurish productions that were made for a penny and really only found a cult audience thanks to late-night TV and home video after stupendous box office failure.
You can watch the best lines from Plan 9 from Outer Space on YouTube:
One of those fans was filmmaker Tim Burton, who would go on to craft the story of Ed Wood — along with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski from Rudolph Grey's book — into the eponymous film that I would consider to be his best to date, released in 1994. One only has to watch Plan 9 to recognize how the troubled filmmaker influenced Burton aesthetically, but Ed Wood shows why he serves as brilliant inspiration for so many aspiring directors despite the objective awfulness of his movies.
Passion Trumps Talent
Ed Wood never shies away from Wood's total lack of self-awareness. In fact, Johnny Depp doesn't even portray Ed as all that great a guy. He's fun to watch, but treats his girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) like garbage, drinks too much, and is frustratingly ignorant of his own mistakes. Ed lacks a traditional narrative arc — he hasn't grown at all as a character by the film's end. He's just as delusional about his storytelling and personal troubles as he was at the start. This makes Wood difficult to like on a human level, but the fact that he was able to get his movies made despite everything is what makes this a perfect showcase of his likability on an artistic level.
Above all else, Burton portrays Wood as a man of incredible conviction. Not necessarily conviction to his vision — numerous times throughout the film we see Wood compromise beyond belief just to get his movie made — but conviction to completion. Any artist will tell you that finishing is the hardest part of creating, and regardless of the final product's quality, the most important takeaway from Ed Wood is that it's the story of a man doing what he had the passion to do: Tell stories, no matter what. It's recognition that talent and ability is inherently less important than the commitment to achieving.
Wood spends most of the movie trying to fashion his film career after his hero, Citizen Kane auteur Orson Welles, never quite seeing the apparent disconnect in their respective artistic abilities. It's clear from the get-go of production on Glen or Glenda that Ed considers the crossdressing tale his very own Citizen Kane, a chance to wow Hollywood as a man that can do it all while telling an incredibly personal story.
This is only reinforced when Ed meets Welles at a Hollywood bar near the end of the film, himself knee-deep in production troubles on Plan 9 and Welles struggling with a studio request that he cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican for his next production. Ed's own perceived connection to Welles is underlined when they bond over their mutual studio troubles. Welles reminds Ed that he's the storyteller, not the money men, and Ed finally sees himself as getting the approval he's been seeking as an artist.
Ironically, Heston was eventually cast as a Mexican — in Welles' Touch of Evil. Though the way Ed Wood portrays this scenario is historically inaccurate — all sources point to Heston's casting as Mike Vargas as Welles' own idea — the point succeeds despite the liberties taken with the facts.
It's Not A Biopic
Ed Wood is a work of meta mastery on Burton's part because it is far from a historically acute biopic. It's been well documented that the characterization of Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) is far from accurate, as are plenty of details about Wood's productions and relationships. However, this disinterest in the nitty gritty details is perhaps one of the most important lessons that Burton learned as a filmmaker, partially thanks to Wood, and subsequently put to use during this movie.
I certainly wouldn't go as far to suggest that Burton is keen on shooting entire scenes in one take or entire movies in four days, but — particularly in Ed Wood — Burton's commitment is to the overall vision and theme of the picture rather than the scene-to-scene historical accuracy. Just as Wood was more concerned with seeing a film through to its end rather than how he got there, so too did Burton put the import on what was inside the package rather than how it was wrapped.
Though Ed Wood is ostensibly about a man and the movies he made, the film is as revealing of Burton as it is of the director it explores. In perhaps an appropriate bit of irony, Ed Wood is one of Burton's biggest box-office bombs that has since gained an appreciative cult following.