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The Disarming Optimism of ‘Ed Wood’

When Tim Burton made a movie about about the worst director of all time, it was with sympathy, charm and a whole lot of angora sweaters

With more and more movie streaming services popping up, it can feel impossible to keep track of what’s showing where. So to help, this October I’ll be recommending a different film every day from one such service that embodies the spooky spirit of the season. From classic Halloween movies to indie horror to campy dark comedies, this is 31 Days of a Very Chingy Halloween.

Today I’m looking at Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s uplifting biopic about monster movies and transvestism, currently available to stream on Tubi.

In Ed Wood, Tim Burton takes a sympathetic look at the life of Edward D. Wood Jr., a man generally considered to be one of the worst filmmakers of all time. Working in schlocky genre flicks in the 1950s, Wood (played here with an ineffable chipperness by Johnny Depp) was an oddball even by B-movie standards, known for his sloppy directorial style, slapdash productions and a non-sexual penchant for transvestism that found its way into much of his work. The film particularly focuses on the mentor/protegé relationship Wood forms with Bela Lugosi, the aging, drug-addled Hungarian actor who most famously played Count Dracula.

It would have been easy to turn the true story of a bunch of weirdos making low-budget horror flicks into a comedy that gets laughs at the expense of Wood and his friends, but Ed Wood’s greatest strength is the wellspring of empathy it has for its cast. In fact, Burton grounds the whole thing in Wood’s eternally upbeat perspective — the director’s blunders and idiosyncrasies no match for his optimism and kindness.

The film’s most tragic figure and noteworthy character is Lugosi, portrayed by Martin Landau with a gusto and pathos that earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. As my colleague Andrew Fiouzi so eloquently put it in a previous piece, “What’s so special about the performance is how Landau is so seamlessly able to blend what’s undoubtedly a ridiculous character with an inherent humanity that’s too strange, as I can personally attest, to be purely fiction.” The climax depicting the production of Lugosi’s final film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, even serves as a loving tribute to the actor.

While the historicity of some of its details can be questionable — no, Wood never met Orson Welles, and the real Lugosi didn’t say “fucking cocksucker” quite so much — Ed Wood is a more interesting kind of biopic, one that uses flourishes and embellishments to speak to the spirit of its protagonists, if not the absolute facts. Sometimes, after all, it’s enough to just make the art you want to make, even if it’s god-awful. In the case of Ed Wood, maybe the real cinema was the friends he made along the way.

To see a list of each of the previous entries, check out the A Very Chingy Halloween list on Letterboxd.

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