Tim Burton is an uneven director, in my opinion. I’ve liked about half of his movies, the other half, not so much. This is one of the good ones. It’s a surprisingly affectionate portrait of possibly the worst director ever to shout “Action” who ever worked in Hollywood. (My personal favorite bad director is the great Doris Wishman, who helmed Nude on the Moon and other great masterpieces of bare-breasted nudist films, but she worked mostly in Florida, where the sun-worshippers are. For a teenage boy hungry for images of what was hiding under those pointy bras in the 1950s, she was the ne plus ultra!)
Johnny Depp is very good as the ever-optimistic man whose biggest budget for a film was $70,000 for Bride of the Monster. Most of his small output was made for much, much less than that. He was largely forgotten until the ‘80s, when Plan 9 From Outer Space was named the worst film ever made by Harry and Michael Medved in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. It’s done in black and white, as it should be, which made it hard for Burton to find a backer. Eventually Disney’s Touchstone division sprang for the money. Sadly, it was a commercial bomb.
The key to Ed Wood is his friendship with Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian famous for his horror movies about Dracula, where he was wonderfully menacing. But by the time Wood met him, he was really on his uppers. Broke, drug-addicted, despairing, he was eager to take on whatever parts Wood asked of him. In most of his appearances he had little to do with the “plot,” of which there was very little, and that little largely incoherent, anyway. He died during the filming of Plan 9, so Wood used a stand-in who covered the lower part of his face.
And here is where the movie really shines. Martin Landau won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Lugosi, and richly deserved it. This film is very, very funny for most of its length, but it is also surprisingly moving when we see this poor man, once a big star, reduced to such shit. He checked himself into rehab, the first major star to do so. That took a lot of courage in those days. A picture of him, pathetic and shrunken, appeared in all the tabloids. He hated Karloff, but has had his revenge. He is much more popular now than the bolt-necked, grunting shambler Karloff played.