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Ed Wood is a great movie about the worst film director ever. A skillful mix of humor and drama, the film features another exceptional performance from Johnny Depp and an Oscar-winning take on Bela Lugosi by Martin Landau.

Strangers in a Strange Business

Ten-year anniversary edition adds interesting features to a very good movie
Ten-year anniversary edition adds interesting features to a very good movie

Most movies about movies are self-absorbed exercises full of inside jokes, celebrity cameos, and an ego-driven sense of importance. Ed Wood is none of that and it ranks as a nearly buried treasure, an overlooked tribute to the madness and therapy of filmmaking.

First released in 1994, Ed Wood wound up being a movie Disney’s Touchstone Pictures simply didn’t know how to handle. Sure, it was directed by Tim Burton, the mega-successful director of the Michael Keaton Batman flicks, and the film reunited Burton with his Edward Scissorhands star, Johnny Depp. But Ed Wood was shot in black and white and it tells the tale of a cross-dressing wannabe movie director who befriends a morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi. It also earned an “R” rating for strong language.

That’s a tough sell and the end result was Burton’s weakest box office performance; Ed Wood took in less than $6 million in its initial run. Proving commerce and art aren’t always good bed buddies, Ed Wood still stands as one of Burton’s most solid films. The story and the characters are perfect for Burton’s own fanciful style of filmmaking.

Staying relatively close to the facts (with a fictional off-chance meeting between Wood and his idol, Orson Welles, thrown in for a moment of gosh-darn-good cinema), Ed Wood traces the man’s life from his historic Glen or Glenda to Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s a story full of incredibly unique characters and a contagious case of upbeat, oblivious optimism in the face of adversity not seen since Francis Ford Coppola put car maker Preston Tucker’s life on screen in the equally stylistic Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

Dream Out Loud

In addition to Depp and Landau, Ed Wood is full of A-list actors who help bring to life Wood’s F-list world.

At the forefront is an early quasi-dramatic turn by Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) as Plan 9 actor Bunny Breckinridge, a woman stuck in a man’s body. Then there’s the pre-Sex in the City Sarah Jessica Parker and the typically offbeat Patricia Arquette, who are both up to the challenge of playing Wood’s extremely understanding girlfriends.

Even famed wrestler George “The Animal” Steele is surprisingly effective as Tor Johnson, the big, brawny bald guy who appeared in Wood’s Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Ed Wood is a treat that, 10 years on, has aged extremely well. There are classic scenes of humor here, particularly Wood’s tenacious pursuit of financing that finds his Plan 9 cast being baptized by the Church of Beverly Hills, an unlikely source of funds for what would become the legendary worst movie ever made.

Burton and his crew go for the heart and humanize a man who has otherwise found fame only in his ultimate derision for making horrible movies. Ed Wood is a sweet tribute to Wood, a man whose star never rose, and Lugosi, whose star both rose and fell with whiplash-inducing speed. The film is also a heart-on-the-sleeve salute to those who relentlessly pursue their dreams and, driven by an innate passion, blindly follow their bliss.

DVD Extras

After many delays on its way to DVD, the final cut of this Special Edition was worth the wait.

Of the many supplemental materials, the best is the running commentary, which features Martin Landau (in character as Bela Lugosi as he introduces his fellow commentators); director Tim Burton; writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; director of photography Stefan Czapsky; and costume designer Colleen Atwood. Among the nuggets of insight on tap are numerous anecdotes about the real life players, most notably Wood and Lugosi, and an explanation as to why the film was shot in black and white. (The truth is a little disappointing: the movie started filming in color, but the Lugosi makeup didn’t look right in the dailies; Burton flipped the switch to black and white and voila).

Also on hand are five deleted scenes. They’re well worth a look, especially a dinner scene with Wood visiting Tor Johnson’s family.

Let’s Shoot This F#*%@r! is a 14-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie that features a funny little intro by Depp in costume as Wood in a lovely angora sweater. It’s simply a collection of behind-the-scenes footage that offers a better insight into the on-set atmosphere than most of the puff pieces that have become standard DVD filler.

Other featurettes include an interesting piece on the theremin, the space-age instrument that found its home in many science fiction movies in the ’50s. A segment on Martin Landau’s transition into Bela Lugosi offers some good insight from both Landau and his fellow Oscar winner, makeup artist Rick Baker. Finally, Pie Plates Over Hollywood is a fun look at the film’s production design, including efforts to recreate the sets seen in Wood’s original films.

Rounding out the package are the film’s original theatrical trailer (unfortunately in full screen and not in perfect shape) and a bizarre music video featuring Howard Shore’s main theme. Of special note: the video was co-directed by Burton and Toni Basil (famous for that one-hit wonder, that cheerleading anthem of the ’80s, Mickey).

Picture and Sound

The film looks nearly pristine in glorious black and white with a widescreen picture (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 screens. Filmmakers shouldn’t forget that black and white, in the right hands, can still be used to great effect.

The creepy theremin-laced score comes alive in the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound, but it’s not a surround sound showcase.

The DVD also includes English and Spanish subtitles.