26 August 2010

"Well, it makes me feel comfortable"

Edward D. Wood Jr. is widely recognized as one of the worst directors of all time.  His films were patched together with little more than a childish aspiration, lacking plausible plots, coherent scripts, filming permits, or even the most basic of film-making techniques.  The finished reels were laughed out of the studios, if they were lucky enough to even be watched, to which they were submitted.  And yet since his death in 1978 his skill and determination to even try to make a film out of a few random reels of stock footage and just the money in his pocket has served as an aspiration to generation after generation of young filmmakers.  

Ed Wood, as he was more well known, would write about his films as if they were the most highly artistic cinematic wonders, despite the fact that everyone around him laughed at their awfulness.  It was this blind optimism and devotion to film that piqued the interest of Tim Burton and made him decide to direct the comedy biopic of Ed Wood.  Rather than focusing on the derision that Wood faced, Tim Burton decided to make a film celebrating his own admiration of the filmmaker.  For anybody with misconceptions of Burton as producing only dark fantasies this film is a nice departure, and in my opinion it is far more successful as an artistic expression than some of his more obvious, if one may use that term, recent productions.

The film was initially in development with Columbia Pictures, however the executives there disagreed with Burton's wish to make the film in black-and-white.  Burton stated that the film had to be made in black-and-white, and he wished to create a film that actually looked like a low budget 1950s production.  Having been shunted by Columbia, the film was shopped around until Disney stepped in and chose to distribute the film under their own Touchstone Pictures, having worked with Burton in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Released in 1994 the film stars Johnny Depp as Ed Wood, Sarah Jessica Parker as Dolores Fuller, and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi.  The script clearly bears Burton's desire to celebrate the early life and works of Wood, creating a rather childlike and innocent Wood who the audience can not help but sympathize with.  Indeed Depp said of his performance as Ed Wood that he based it on the blind optimism of Ronald Reagan, and the enthusiasm of both the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz and Casey Kasem.

I think the role of Ed Wood makes a nice addition to Depp's oeuvre - Wood has a childish optimism that makes it hard to envisage many other actor's being able to tackle such a role.  Yet in a way I find myself comparing Depp's performance of the role to that of his role as John DeMarco in Don Juan DeMarco.  Ed Wood's characterisation within the film has the same type of ostensible misguided belief as John DeMarco, however as in Don Juan DeMarco, as the plot progresses, the audience find themselves opting for that misguided belief, or optimism as it becomes, rather than the more pessimistic view of a harsh reality. 

Parker's performance garnered some criticism from commentators at the time, however if one views it with regards to the production of Burton's film, it is the perfect parody to the naïve housewife of the 1950s silver screen.  Landau was, as expected, fantastic in his role as the past-his-prime and drug addicted Bela Lugosi.  He was able to switch from a vulnerable and elderly addict, to a prima donna actor as quickly as the needle was meant to have pierced his skin.  If you have actually read this far, thank you, I would call you over for a tea party and film night if I could.  I make seriously good masala chai if I may say so myself.

The cinematography as one would expect from a Burton film is nothing short of exquisite.  The decision to film in black-and-white was an interesting choice and Burton utilized the lack of colour to conceive shots that were beautifully painted in light and shadow.  Stefan Czapsky, who worked as director of photography with Burton and Depp in Edward Scissorhands, created scenes which immediately evoked 1950s Hollywood in their framing and camera perspectives.  The film had a rather curious underlying feel of the theatre stage, with sets designs that felt real only for the limits of the scene.  The sensation one feels towards the set design is rather difficult to describe, however it is one of the more unique productions I have seen.  

The costume design in the film was an aspect that I really enjoyed, consisting of very understated yet elegant 1950s attire.  The designer for the film was Colleen Atwood who has created costumes for films as varied as Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Memoirs of a Geisha, Public Enemies and Alice in Wonderland.  I have huge respect for a costume designer who can produce such incredibly varied and complex wardrobes.  Indeed I often find myself wishing that more actual fashion designers would collaborate in film, just to see how their vision as directed by a film would be manifested.   The most interesting example for me in that respect would have to be Jean-Paul Gaultier's work in The Fifth Element, being able to create fashions based upon such a select inspiration and story.

To give one an insight into the work involved in creating the costumes for a film such as Ed Wood it is interesting to note that the first costumes Atwood worked on were that of the clothing Depp would wear in drag.  Ed Wood was to proclaim to the world in his film Glen or Glenda his heterosexual transvestism and predilection for angora.  When Wood was young, his mother, having wanted a girl, used to dress him in skirts and dresses, something that he took with him into adulthood, finding comfort in the practice.  Indeed he even alleged that, during his service in World War Two, he would wear a brassiere and panties beneath his army uniform.

I loved the dresses and hairstyles of the women within the film, although that may just be more of a fascination with 1950s fashion than Atwood's work specifically.  It was interesting to see the opposition of Parker and Juliet Landau's characters, not only in terms of their personalities, but also in terms of hair colour and style.  The two characters have something of a rivalry within the film, and whilst on the one hand is the blonde Dolores Fuller with her understated and classic dress, on the other is the brunette Loretta King with her more glamorous attire.

One of the casting decisions that I really admired was the choice to pair Depp and Parker for the characters of Ed Wood and Dolores Fuller.  Whilst in women's clothing it is curious to see how Depp's softer facial features makes him seem so much more feminine than Parker.  Indeed the styling of Depp in the angora sweater further softened his look, so that in one scene where Parker has her shoulders and arms revealed, her frame and dominant facial features make her seem the more masculine of the two.  Such play on gender performances was integral to the film and it was fascinating to see how Burton chose to depict it.

The costumes for Depp's character were seriously, and I realize this is a fluid term but I can think of no other word, stylish.  Early on in the film he mostly wears a simple black lounge suit with a white shirt and white pocket square - classic and understated.  However his tie is relatively wide with a jeweled tie pin that really stands out in black-and-white.  I think such a detail is meant to serve as a nod to his transvestism, along with the two rather large and feminine rings that he wears, especially when placed alongside the flamboyant dress of the character played by Bill Murray, who wishes to undergo surgery to become a woman.

As the film progresses and we see Wood working on his films, as opposed to visiting studios, his attire is far more relaxed yet equally classic in its styling.  I was particularly fond of the plain black wayfarers on the open collar white shirt and black v-neck sweater.  His working attire of the sweater vest and slightly high waisted, wider leg, wool trousers was also really nice.  Even his at-home attire of the white vest and houndstooth gown was interesting to see.  I suppose it was refreshing to see such classic dress as opposed to the casual styling of so many films today.   

Despite the small nods in the early parts of the film where Wood wears the jeweled tie pin and two rather feminine rings, his attire is decidedly masculine.  However as we find out, Wood often feels far more comfortable when wearing women's clothing, in particular angora sweaters.  Indeed in one scene, overcome by pressure, he walks off the set of the film he is directing in order to change into an angora sweater, blonde wig, large earrings, black skirt, tights and high heels.  His transvestism is however centered mainly around angora within the film, with him finding comfort in its fluffy tactility.

The real Ed Wood

Whilst cross-dressing is not really my thing, I have to admit that the angora sweater was rather alluring.  Soft and cosy, it seems the perfect fabric for those late Autumnal days.  In fact I may need to try a find a long sleeve crew neck angora sweater in a duck egg blue or a dusty pink... 

Currently playing: Hello Good Morning ft. T.I. - Dirty Money



  1. I love this film! Oh and thanks for sharing the real Ed Wood photo, I have never seen that before. :)

  2. You know everytime I drop by I am reminded that I need to be more cultured and watch more films! I should watch this one.

  3. Never seen this movie but have totally heard of it. I need to add it to my Netflix!

  4. I keep wanting to see this film but I always get distracted by something else but it's on my must watch list (along with Sunshine and On the Waterfront) but thank you for this post :) I've already added this to my download queue!

    Also, it's Johnny Depp. How could I not watch it?

  5. Nicholas Hoult in A Single Man - the perfect masculine, dusty pink angora sweater! perfection...

  6. I agree on the angora sweater.

    There are some great vintage men's mohair cardigans out there. The mohair is longer on vintage ones and it doesn't shed as much as angora.