Biopics can be a problem. Most peoples’ lives are so complex that it’s hard to boil them down to a sizeable book, let alone a two hour movie. On top of that, you’ve got the pressures of commercial filmmaking, which demand that stories follow certain accepted formats. And you’re also relying on screenwriters, actors and directors, all of whom have their own perspectives or agendas, to present an unvarnished account of somebody’s life. So you can see where problems might arise.
Back in the studio era, critics and audiences weren’t as demanding when it came to biopics. In some cases they just accepted the film version as being more or less true, even when there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. And on those occasions where the inaccuracies were really glaring, people would often shrug it off. The attitude was something like, “What do you expect? It’s Hollywood.” Nowadays movies about real people come under much greater scrutiny. Just in the last year extensive debates have played out in the media over the accuracy of films based on or “inspired by” actual events. Writers and directors who even seem to bend the truth can become a target for intense criticism.
So if we’re talking about Ed Wood, the low-budget filmmaker best known for Plan 9 from Outer Space, how important is it to tell the truth? Wood didn’t play a major part in shaping American history. He didn’t even play a significant role in Hollywood history. His shoestring productions have gained a cult following among those who wander down some of the darker alleys of American pop culture, but I’ve never heard anyone claim he was a major filmmaker. If somebody makes a movie about him that really doesn’t tell the truth, does it even matter?
Yeah, I think it does. But I still love the movie that Tim Burton made about Ed Wood. It does follow the general outline of the director’s life. Everyone who knew him agrees, Wood was passionate about making movies. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski make Wood an innocent optimist who’s so obsessed with his vision that reality fades into the background. The humor arises out of the distance between his ambitions and his abilities, but the point they make is that it doesn’t matter how talented he was. The important thing is that he knocked himself out to make the best films he could. This is a great premise, and they develop it beautifully.
You can see why Tim Burton wanted to shoot the script. Not only does it deal with the low-budget horror films he cherishes, but the hero is a director who’s fighting the system to do things his way. Burton handles this offbeat biopic with impressive style and grace. Production designer Tom Duffield lovingly recreates Hollywood in the mid-fifties, the tacky, tawdry urban wasteland that remained after the ephemeral glamour of the studio era had evaporated. Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky captures the bland cheapness of stucco bungalows and low-budget sets, and still imbues it all with a fairy tale innocence. And composer Howard Shore somehow manages to create a blend of cheesy macabre, pop exotica and sinister soundtrack music that’s tongue in cheek without being condescending. He’s having fun exploring all these genres, but he’s not making fun of them.
Johnny Depp is absolutely wonderful in the title role. With a winning combination of charm, tenacity and absurd optimisim, he makes you want to believe in Wood’s madcap visions. It’s a highly stylized performance in a highly stylized film, and Depp pulls it off with incredible elan. He’s helped by an unusually strong supporting cast. Patricia Arquette is completely believable as Kathy Wood, just as innocent as Ed and willing to stand by him to the very end. Bill Murray brings a sense of melancholy resignation to the role of Bunny, the director’s long-suffering friend. Jeffrey Jones plays the Amazing Criswell with marvelous swagger. He’s an unabashed fraud who seems to always be ready for anything.
And of course, there’s Martin Landau’s remarkable performance as Bela Lugosi. While the other characters are essentially comic, there’s much more depth in this portrait of the aging horror star. The studios are through with him, he’s hooked on morphine, and he’s desperate enough for work that he’s willing to take a chance on a charming hustler like Wood. This is the emotional center of the movie. Wood may be exploiting Lugosi, but he also reveres him. Lugosi may harbor doubts about Wood’s talent, but he’s genuinely grateful that somebody still shows him some respect. For the most part the movie is gleefully superficial, but the bond between the two men is genuine, and you can feel the love between them.
Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where the facts are in question. When the movie was first released, Bela Lugosi’s son went public with a scathing critique, saying the filmmakers had misrepresented his father’s life in numerous ways. We can argue about how important the individual facts are, but Lugosi’s son asked why the filmmakers had never bothered to talk to him. He was practicing law in LA. It would have been easy for them to track him down and give him a call. If they really wanted to respect Lugosi’s memory, couldn’t they have spent a few hours interviewing his son?
Beyond that, the film’s portrayal of Wood is an idealized fantasy that only resembles the real man in its general outlines. It keeps us on his side by presenting him as a grown up kid. He may be a hustler, but he’s still innocent at heart. The reality is a lot more complicated, and not so appealing. They don’t show that Wood was a stone alcoholic. They don’t show him joyriding with a bottle in the car. They don’t show him staggering around a set, too wasted to direct anybody. And the supporting characters in Wood’s real life were a lot less wholesome than the amusing band of eccentrics we see in the movie. The real Ed Wood and his buddies were all hanging on to the bottom rung of the Hollywood ladder, and they lived out some pretty twisted scenes.
Who knows who made the decision to clean things up. It may be that Alexander and Karaszewski felt they needed to maintain an air of innocence to give the film a fairy tale quality. Or maybe that was Burton’s choice. Or maybe they all wanted to do something grittier, and the studio told them to scrape away the grime to make it more marketable. As much as I love the movie, I wish they’d just invented a fictional character to hang their story on. You may be wondering why it’s such a big deal for me. If the world isn’t getting the whole truth about Ed Wood, does it really matter?
Again, I think it does. If you care enough about somebody to make a movie about them, you need to really make a movie about them. If not, then stick with fiction. That way you can make up whatever you want.
But if Alexander, Karaszewski and Burton don’t tell the literal truth about Ed Wood, the story they do tell is a beautiful parable with an important moral for all those who are struggling to do what they love. I’ve seen the film many times, and I still get emotional during the scene when Wood runs into Orson Welles at Musso & Frank’s. We may think of them as coming from completely different worlds, but Welles immediately understands the difficulties Wood is facing, and utters these immortal words.
“Ed, visions are worth fighting for.”
Whatever you may think about the movies he made, Ed Wood fought hard to make them. His trials and tribulations on the fringes of Hollywood led him to some pretty strange places, and I’m sure there are many things he did that he wasn’t proud of. We’re all flawed, and we all get beaten down by reality. But those who struggle to do the things they’re passionate about should never let reality get in their way.
If you’re interested in learning more about this absolutely unique man, there are a couple of good resources for further study. First, I highly recommend Nightmare of Ecstasy, an oral biography by Rudolph Grey, which the movie was based on. The author talked to many of Wood’s closest associates, and weaves the interviews together into a mind-boggling account of the director’s life and times. Some of the stories are shocking, and the details of Wood’s last days are terribly depressing, but the book offers a convincing, complex portrait of this man. On top of that, the book paints a fascinating panorama of the world the director lived in. This isn’t the fantasy Hollywood that the media promotes. This is the actual, physical place called Hollywood, where people struggle in poverty for years hoping to some day hit it big. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is true to life.
I’d also recommend The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr., an excellent, imaginative documentary. It, too, features interviews with many of Wood’s associates, and doesn’t shy away from his critics. Some people complain that the views are contradictory and don’t offer a clear picture of the director. I think this approach is more compelling, because the filmmakers allow for ambiguity instead of trying to reconcile the contradictions. There were people who loved him and people who hated him, and others who just didn’t know what to make of him.
David Cronenberg is fascinated by altered states of consciousness. His characters’ view of the world may be shaped by technology (Existenz) or drugs (Naked Lunch) or mental illness (Spider). Throughout his career, Cronenberg has made films about people who perceive reality in different ways, and he seems completely uninterested in making judgments. In fact, at times he may be asking if their perception of the world might not be valid. In Crash a man and a woman who survive an auto accident find themselves irresistibly drawn toward the violence of car culture. The hero of Eastern Promises has to walk a tightrope between the demands of a Russian crime syndicate and an American law enforcement agency, trying to survive in the space between the two. But survival isn’t always a priority for Cronenberg’s characters. Sometimes they just surrender to their fate.
In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer lives in a universe shaped by the ceaseless flow of cyber-capital. He spends most of the day riding through Manhattan, the financial center of the US, in a gleaming white limousine. It glides along the streets in sleek, soundproof isolation. While he can see what’s happening outside, he barely hears it when protesters are banging their fists against his window. We meet this brilliant young billionaire on the day when his financial empire is quickly imploding. Instead of freaking out, he ponders his misfortune with an odd detachment. Not only is he unruffled by the loss of his millions, he’s amazingly calm about the fact that an assassin is trying to kill him. He takes almost everything with an unsettling calm, and he insists on driving across Manhattan in spite of all the obstacles. “We need a haircut,” he tells his chauffer/bodyguard. Nothing will keep him from that goal.
Robert Pattinson gives a beautifully focussed performance as Packer, riding across Manhattan, consumed in melancholy meditation of a reality that appears to be coming apart at the seams. He’s a control freak who realizes that he’s losing control, and rather than screaming and crying, he seems fascinated by the circumstances of his downfall. In the course of his journey he picks up various visitors who accompany him part of the way. Juliette Binoche does a funny, raunchy turn as the art dealer who shows up to have savage sex with Packer, and then discuss the purchase of a painting by Rothko. Samantha Morton maintains an eerie serenity, a disturbing clarity, in her role as the financial philosopher who carefully breaks down the way money is changing our perception of time. She rides along in the limo, cradling her drink, talking calmly about how our reality is altered by the massive pressures of the markets. Morton plays this difficult role with perfect ease, staring off into space with shining eyes, an intellectual entranced by the beauty and the violence of capital. Abdul Ayoola gives a quietly moving performance as the chauffer who takes Packer on the last leg of his journey. And Paul Giamatti has just the right presence to play the grimy loner who wants to kill Packer. Though he’s filled with rage at the way the world has treated him, he seems unnerved when he finally comes face to face with his prey.
I haven’t read Don DeLillo’s book, but I’d really like to. Published not too long after the dot com bubble burst, the author was obviously exploring the new ways in which the markets were changing our world. The film was released in two thousand twelve, and I’m sure many people read it as a comment on the more recent financial meltdown. But Cosmpolis isn’t a morality play about the soulless rich. Packer’s problem isn’t that he has no soul, it’s that his soul is starved. He’s a brilliant young man who spends his days analyzing the ebb and flow of markets, riding waves of currency. Existing almost completely in this alternate universe, this gleaming, abstract future created by the endless flow of capital, he begins to realize that he’s living in a vacuum. We see that there are plenty of women who want to have sex with him, but the one woman he really wants to have sex with, his wife, is out of reach. The bodyguard he’s hired to protect him becomes a nuisance to overcome, an obstacle that keeps him from experiencing the world. And when he finally arrives at the barbershop, we realize it’s not the haircut he needed, but the amiable grin of the guy who gives it to him, a man who knew his father. This chatty old man may be his only friend.
Composer Howard Shore has been working with Cronenberg so long they seem to understand each other perfectly. The director doesn’t care about drama, or driving his points home. In Cosmopolis the narrative moves forward on its own terms, relying on its own logic, and the music reflects this. Instead of a conventional film score with its dramatic highs and lows, Shore gives us an abstract soundscape that hovers in the background. Relying largely on color and texture, he creates a shifting sonic fabric that echoes the main character’s zoned-out state of mind.
Packer realizes that he’s come to inhabit the world of capital so completely that he’s estranged from simple, physical experience. He turns homicidal, then suicidal. He’s desperate to connect with somebody, even somebody who’s trying to kill him. But through all of this, Cronenberg avoids making judgments. He doesn’t care about putting Packer on trial. He’s more interested in getting inside this boy’s head.
There is a scene in After Hours where the main character, Paul, is asking a bouncer whether he can enter a club, and the bouncer responds by paraphrasing Kafka. This might seem like just an academic in-joke, but actually I think it has a lot to do with the spirit of the film. Joseph K., the central figure in Kafka’s novel The Trial, is a mid-level bureaucrat who finds his life slowly being consumed by a vast bureaucracy he can’t begin to understand. Paul, the central figure in After Hours, is an office worker who goes out one night to meet a girl and finds himself caught up in a web of events that threaten his sanity and his life. Both characters start as young, smug, middle-class men. Both run into situations that overwhelm them, eventually turning their world upside down. Both end up realizing how little control they really have over their own lives.
Joseph Minion’s script for After Hours starts by showing us Paul in his office, training a co-worker, completely bored with his situation and disengaged from the people around him. Later we see him alone in his apartment, impatiently flipping through the channels on his TV, looking for something that will hold his interest. Finally he goes out to have a cup of coffee and read a book. (The book is Tropic of Cancer, and to my mind the fact that Minion references both Henry Miller and Franz Kafka in the same movie says a lot about the conflicts the author is dealing with.) Unexpectedly, a young woman, Marcy, starts speaking to him. Paul is immediately interested, and she ends up inviting him to the loft she’s staying at. But what he thought would be a simple rendevous turns into an extremely uncomfortable, emotionally charged situation. Paul tries to back out, but it’s too late. From that point on, everywhere he turns there’s a new challenge, and it seems there’s no way he can win. Minion draws us into situations that at first seem completely realistic, then slowly become incredibly bizarre. But the development is so carefully structured that we’re with the film all the way.
Minion’s script meshes beautifully with director Martin Scorsese’s vision. At the time he got involved with After Hours, Scorsese had seen another project fall through and he was anxious to get started on something else. He was given the script and it impressed him. He may have recognized something of himself in Minion’s work. The story has elements that are familiar from the director’s other films. Like many other Scorsese heroes, Paul’s finds that the pursuit of sex can be dangerous, even life-threatening. He meets an attractive woman, and all he wants to do is go to bed with her. But the kind of encounter he’s looking for, the easy comfort of holding his body against someone else’s, keeps eluding him. In Scorsese’s world, the flesh is inherently corrupt. There is no such thing as simple sex. Paul goes to the woman’s loft hoping to hang out for a while and then slide into her bed. But in the course of talking to her, he finds out that she has some major issues. What’s more, she may be a burn victim. Paul is attracted to her physically, but he’s freaked out by what he might discover if she takes off her clothes. And the crazy thing is, he still wants to know.
For Scorsese and Minion, the body is a seductive, fragile, creepy threat. Marcy’s roommate is a wiry New York artist who makes sculptures of human forms writhing in agony. In a restroom, Paul glances at the wall and sees a drawing of a frightening castration scenario. Hiding on a fire escape, he watches as a woman shoots her husband. Symbols of sex, violence and death permeate the film. There is no safe haven. Even places and people that might at first seem benign slowly morph into ugly encounters. A friendly waitress becomes a clinging psycho. An ice cream truck roams the neighborhood carrying angry vigilantes.
The beautiful and scary nighttime landscape that Paul finds himself lost in is photographed by the amazing Michael Ballhaus. The film was shot on a really low budget, and Scorsese needed somebody who could work fast. Fortunately he connected with this talented German cinematographer, who gave the film an eerie, haunting beauty. Ballhaus’ work appears to be simple and straightforward, but he has an amazing knack for capturing subtleties of light and color. He was the perfect choice for After Hours. Howard Shore’s sinister score complements the look of the film nicely. The music is fairly minimal, and that was the right approach to take. The subtle synth tones that accompany Paul’s manic journey through the dark Manhattan streets are an effective counterpoint to his increasingly frazzled state of mind.
As the light of dawn creeps over the city, Paul, tired, exhausted, tattered, is dumped out of a van in front of the office building he works in. He slowly picks himself up off the street. The massive front gates swing open magically. And Paul, rather than questioning the situation, rather than cursing his fate, walks quietly inside. He takes the elevator up to his floor, walks across the empty office, and sits down at his desk.
He’s stopped struggling. He’s learned acceptance.