“This is the One I’ll Be Remembered For”: Resurrection and the Biopic in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood delivered some of the worst films of all time during his illustrious career. That quality, or lack thereof, is also what makes his films so fantastic. They might be bizarre, ill paced, and outlandish, but those are the very aspects which make them memorable. Ed Wood inspired trash and cult cinema, two genres which remain equally entertaining and controversial. His work went on to influence directors like John Waters and Tim Burton because of his unadulterated love of film and for his love of Old Hollywood Horror.

No matter how many times people told Ed Wood to stop making films, or to make films differently, he remained constant and passionate about his version of filmmaking. That is the real subject of Tim Burton’s 1994 Ed Wood biopic, which examines why Ed Wood’s enthusiasm is so important to understanding to his work and influence.

What makes Ed Wood memorable is that his failure allowed his films to outlive him. Even if you lack the skills or ability to make a film, the passion you have for an idea is enough. If it speaks to you, it might very well speak to another person, even if that person does not take the idea seriously.

I want to focus on two scenes from Burton’s film which highlight Wood’s love of cinema and his interest in legacy. Both scenes examine what it means to live and die in Hollywood, and how fickle the movie industry can be, not just to figures like Wood.

The Ex-Boogeyman

In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, Ed Wood passes by a funeral home and finds Bela Lugosi trying out coffins. This image, of Bela in the coffin, summarizes multiple things about Bela’s career. Not only his is career currently dead, but most of his roles involved being in a coffin. Death is just his final role, and he wants to get comfortable.

Bela is most widely known for playing Dracula in the Universal Studio’s monster movies. He made a career by playing the same character over and over. Unlike figures like Boris Karloff, Bela was always the unsympathetic, foreign, and evil figure in a movie. Burton’s film challenges this typecasting by unraveling who Lugosi was at the end of his life and why he clung to this persona. Much like his character, Lugosi was a loud figure whose performance essentially extended into his life.

The scenes between Wood and Lugosi demonstrates that Burton’s film is not just a biopic about Wood, it is very much about Lugosi and old Hollywood. Just as Wood fights for artistic freedom and the ability to make movies, Lugosi represents the by-product of this industry. He embodies the old system, one which is no longer included in contemporary Hollywood.

As Lugosi notes in the scene, the reason his career ended was because audiences changed. They were no longer interested in traditional monster films because cultural anxieties had shifted.  Horror films in Wood’s era focused on aliens and mutation, where the monsters were mundane but bigger than life. Giant flies, animals, and sea creatures were the most popular monsters in the last years of Lugosi’s life. This represents a broader shift in American culture, as audiences were no longer afraid of the European monster of the post WW2 era. Instead, they were worried about the American power complex during the Cold War, and the possible consequences of advanced technology and science.

Wood’s interest in traditional monster movies illustrates that his projects are death obsessed in more ways than one. Not only are his characters involved with death and rebirth, so too are his actors and sets. Things like graveyards, coffins, and castles were all outdated and creatively dead by the time Wood was using them. This means that Wood’s films focus on subjects which no longer have life in them, at least for Hollywood. Wood treats Lugosi a bit like one of these sets, as he respects him, but also uses him for his reputation.

Later in the scene, Wood tells his girlfriend that he met Lugosi, who she assumed was already dead. Wood’s reply, “He is very much alive. Sort of”, summarizes what biopics do. They bring the dead back to life, sort of. We get to see the dead in a new shape and context, and see how they interact with different moments in their life. It is like reanimation, and that is one of the reasons Burton’s film is so effective.

Ed Wood is a defense of Wood’s career and subjects, and a discussion on what it means to bring back the dead. Wood brings back dead archetypes and gives them a new life. He does the same for Lugosi. So, while Burton’s film is a biopic, so are Wood’s projects. His Lugosi film returns to many of the tropes and beats associated with classic Lugosi projects. By recreating these moments and tropes, Wood is inadvertently making a biopic about Old Hollywood and Lugosi, just as Burton is making a biopic about Wood and his world.

The Worst Meets the Best

Lugosi is just one of the famous people Wood encounters in the film, as he later stumbles across famed director Orson Welles. The scene mirrors the earlier one with Lugosi, as Wood is star struck both times and views himself in conversation with these figures. He is a huge fan of Welles’ projects, despite the glaring difference between him and Welles. While Welles remains one of the greatest directors of all time, Wood remains one of the worst. It is such an interesting premise, particularly as the film suggests that these figures share similarities rather than differences.

Although Welles has no idea who Wood is, they both deal with the same issues in Hollywood. The industry is such a bureaucratic and toxic environment, that neither the best nor the worst can produce the work they want to. They are both in difficult positions and are forced to fight for their artistic vision.  

What I especially love about this scene is that Welles is not critical of Wood or his films. Unlike the rest of Hollywood, who views Wood as an unsuccessful disgrace, Welles sees him as an artist. The two are not so different even though they represent different kinds of films. What unites them is that they share a love of cinema, and that neither are producing work just to make money. They are artists, and although they are artistically different and rarely compared, they are willing to make that comparison themselves.

In a broader sense, this implies that film is a welcoming medium open to every kind of artist, the best and worst. Ed Wood highlights that the very concept of best and worst is created by other people. While value is subjective, love of film is not. If you love film, go forward with that love and create. Maybe it is terrible, maybe that does not matter. Ed Wood seemingly failed, yet we still talk about him today. That leaves the question, did he really fail if his legacy lives on?