MOVIE REVIEW : 'Ed Wood': '50s Blithe Spirit : Director Tim Burton Captures the Eccentric Charm of a Bad Filmmaker

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Though most Americans manage to shuffle through their lives without having heard of him, to a devoted few (a very few) the name of Edward D. Wood Jr. is worthy of veneration.

A 1950s filmmaker of such unstoppable ineptitude that people who ponder extremes consider him the worst director ever ("Glen or Glenda," "Plan 9 From Outer Space"), Ed Wood had a strange personality and a startling lack of talent that turned him into a cult figure for those fascinated by the outre and aberrational.

There is, for instance, a loving biography called "Nightmare of Ecstasy," whose author scorns Wood's critics as "jackals of bourgeois sensibility"; a set of 36 trading cards with realistic portraits of him and his cohorts; even a video on his life, "Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora," the title referring to the director's trademark fetish for women's angora sweaters.

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The strangest chapter of Wood's singular life, however, is still being written. Director Tim Burton, no slouch himself when it comes to the bizarre ("Beetlejuice" and the "Batman" films), has just spent $25 million to celebrate in loving detail the story of a cross-dressing cineaste for whom $25,000 was a top-of-the-line budget.

Even more unexpectedly, the black-and-white "Ed Wood" turns out to be a thoroughly entertaining if eccentric piece of business, wacky and amusing in a cheerfully preposterous way. Anchored by a tasty, full-throttle performance by Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, "Ed Wood" is a fantasy for the terminally disaffected, proof for those who want it that an absense of convention and even talent need not be a bar to happiness or immortality.

An additional component of "Ed Wood's" cracked charm is that it realizes how its hero and his beyond-the-fringe cohorts are simply a reduction way past absurdity of the classic Hollywood story. As one of the film's executives put it, "What if someone had the drive and ego of Orson Welles and none of the talent?" What indeed.

Though the original idea was not his, Burton was captivated by the clever Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski script. He was especially taken by its notion, similar to his own "Edward Scissorhands," that Wood (played by "Edward" star Johnny Depp) was an almost holy innocent, an unnaturally optimistic Pollyanna who thought that being a director was a wow beyond words.

"Wow" turns out to be one of Wood's favorite expressions, along with wonderful and similar terms of enthusiasm. So what if his play, "The Casual Company," is showing to just about nobody as the film opens, or if his actress girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) keeps wondering why her angora sweaters are so stretched out. "We're all doing great work" is Wood's mantra, and he sees no reason to let reality change his mind.

This blithe spiritedness in the face of frequent disasters is the touchstone of Wood's character. And though Depp captures the gee-whiz-kid quality of a man who smiles winningly while relating that he wore women's underwear as a parachuting World War II marine, he is probably too hellaciously cheerful to support a feature by himself. That's not necessary, though, because Wood soon stumbles upon one of his idols, the great horror actor Bela Lugosi. Trying out a coffin.

No, the star of "Dracula," isn't dead yet, just terminally cranky about being forgotten by the business he was once big in. Arrogant, blasphemous (which the real Lugosi apparently wasn't) and addicted to morphine with a Demerol chaser, Lugosi gives Landau the opportunity for a wonderfully rousing yet poignant performance and gives "Ed Wood" the kind of passionate energy Burton films have been known to lack.

The real Lugosi was an opportunity for Wood, too, who used the actor's name to help finance skimpily budgeted four-day wonders, a process that "Ed Wood" relates in tongue-in-cheek detail. The films range in madness from "Glen or Glenda," about a regular guy who (surprise) likes to wear his girlfriend's angora sweaters, to the legendarily inept science fiction "Plan 9," which, as Wood himself predicts, is "the one I'll be remembered for."

These films starred more than Lugosi, for Wood had almost a radar for has-beens and never-weres wayward enough for Nathanael West. With friends and stars like Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele), a professional wrestler who could barely grunt English, and Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a suave psychic who specialized in end of the world predictions, it's no wonder that Wood's girlfriend Fuller ends up screaming "I need a normal life."

With these roles and others, including Bill Murray as one of "Plan 9's" stars and Patricia Arquette as a more understanding woman, this film has been cast with an eye toward physical resemblance. And its beautifully stylized black and white look, masterminded by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, production designer Tom Duffield and art director Okowita, has exactly duplicated the details of Wood's more celebrated films, though, in an irony he would have appreciated, it has cost a whole lot more this time around.

Undoubtedly a labor of love by a director who had a relationship with Vincent Price similar to the one Wood enjoyed with Lugosi, "Ed Wood" is a lot more enjoyable than its subject's films and also smoothly avoids dealing with the real Wood's unhappy descent into pornography, alcoholism and unrealized projects with names like "The Day the Mummies Danced" and "I Awoke Early the Day I Died." Wood died at age 54 in 1978, almost completely forgotten, a fate this sweet and goofy film insures will never happen again.

* MPAA rating: R, for some strong language. Times guidelines: It is a sweet film, though transvestism is a major theme.

'Ed Wood'

Johnny Depp: Ed Wood

Martin Landau: Bela Lugosi

Sarah Jessica Parker: Dolores Fuller

Patricia Arquette: Kathy O'Hara

Jeffrey Jones: Criswell

Bill Murray: Bunny Breckinridge

A Burton-Di Novi production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Tim Burton. Producers Denise Di Novi, Tim Burton. Executive producer Michael Lehmann. Screenplay Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Howard Shore. Production design Tom Duffield. Art director Okowita. Set decorator Cricket Roland. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.

* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City (310) 553-8900.

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