Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi

Edward D. Wood, Jr. was born in 1924 to a blue-collar family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.  They say his mother, Lillian, dressed him up like a girl throughout his early childhood until people started making comments about it.  Wood grew up during the Golden Age of film.  Talking pictures had just been perfected and his childhood was filled with films that have since come to be recognized as timeless, horror classics – DraculaFrankensteinThe Wolf Man, etc.  As he grew up, however, his favorite genre was the Western.  He and his friends would recreate scenes in those movies in the dark of night.  His friends grew out of these fantasies but Ed Wood never did.  Some think he never grew up at all.

On his 11th birthday Ed received his most precious gift, his first movie camera.  His film teachers were the images that played across the screen at Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon theater.  He paid for these classes with his job as an usher.  When he left work every day he would gather his local cast in the back yard, script the stories and take his place behind the camera.

Soon after Wood turned 17, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.  Immediately following his high school graduation he enlisted in the Marine Corps.  Reportedly, he fought in some of the fiercest battles of the war.  One battle left his leg riddled with machine gun bullets and his teeth knocked out in a hand-to-hand with a Japanese soldier.  At war’s end, he had earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and a number of other medals.  While recovering from his wounds in a naval hospital, he began using a typewriter every day.  His speed and ease with the typewriter would grow to be legendary.  He was discharged from service in 1946 at the rank of corporal.  Within a year he had found his way to Hollywood.  Within two years of his arrival in tinsel town, Wood had written, produced, directed and performed in his first big failure, a stage play.

Ed Wood had an easy time proving his lack of talent and success at failure in Hollywood through several directorial attempts.  His career “lows” culminated with Plan 9 from Outer Space in 1958, his career peak which came to be known as the worst movie of all time.   I’ll add that I saw Plan 9 in a film course many moons ago and had a blast watching it.  Ok, the blast was due to the extreme “badness” of it but I was entertained nonetheless.  It beat a drawn-out lecture, in any case.

After this peak, Ed Wood went into decline, directing soft and later hardcore pornography before his premature death in 1978 at the age of 53.  At the end of his life Ed Wood was an alcoholic and had many different projects in the planning.  As we know, Wood never tasted real success and attained far more fame after he died than he ever had during his life.  But, I think he had a hell of a time making his movies – and that’s something.

Ed Wood, 1994 – Tim Burton, Director

Cast:  Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bill Murray, George ‘The Animal’ Steele, full cast and crew


Movies were his passion. Women were his inspiration. Angora sweaters were his weakness.

When it came to making bad movies, Ed Wood was the best.

Tim Burton presents the story of a man with dreams and aspirations that go well beyond his limitations.  Illusion gone astray.

“Visions are worth fighting for.  Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”

Edward D. Wood, Jr.  would do anything to make a movie – from selling his wife to getting baptized.  Tim Burton presents that outrageousness via a caricature, of sorts albeit, with passion and heart.  Burton’s Ed Wood possesses an innocence that allows him to see the world, and his “art” in a rather unique way, a way that touches us, that’s oddly endearing.

It must have been a blast to direct a film about making bad films.  The style with which Tim Burton directed Ed Wood is very effective for several reasons and on many levels  One is the “cartoonish” aspect of the entire piece.  The way things are exaggerated to match the subject of the film himself – bad Hollywood movies and one particular man who made them.  A straight, somber style wouldn’t have played so well with these characters or subject matter.  Kudos must be extended to screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for their script, a perfect vehicle for Tim Burton.

Truth vs. make-believe

Also worthy of mention is the way Ed Wood makes a point of blurring the lines between reality and make-believe, which is my favorite aspect of the film.  Throughout we see art imitating life imitating art.  I’ll touch upon a few examples of this in a bit but jumping to the end, a particular scene that comes to mind is the very last shot of the movie where the camera pans out from the Pantages Theater, up to the Hollywood sign and up to the sky where the character of Ed Wood appears as the credits begin to roll.  To me this is telling in that it is as though Burton is saying this film was Wood’s accomplishment as well, as though he was giving him credit for a good film about himself – a final homage.  Maybe I’m reading too much into it but I liked what I saw – Wood’s greatest achievement was his own story, not his work.

Another is the scene where Bela and Ed are watching the Halloween movie on television – Bela begins to imitate himself in the movie, recreating the Dracula hand gestures used to make his victims do his will.

Edward D. Wood, Jr.: My Gosh, Bela, how do you do that?
Bela Lugosi: You must be double-jointed. And you must be Hungarian.

Love that – it’s my favorite line in the film.  I’m not sure that he doesn’t think he’s acting at that moment although he’s in his living room.

Also, after Bela flops on the television show, he’s in the club and is asked if he wants wine – he replies “I never drink…wine” just as Dracula said.  When Bela commits himself into the sanitarium there is a great shot that could be right out of one of those sleazy, old horror movies.  The camera slowly approaches the nurse/receptionist and then as it nears there is a shadow of a person that creeps up on her from the side.  The next scene is Bela screaming from his bed and the scream is not a regular scream but a horror movie, exaggerated scream as if a monster is about to attack him. Also, one can compare the first scene Bela is in – him in a coffin trying it on for size.  At the end he is in a coffin because he’s dead.  But aside from the obvious, there is no difference between the two shots – between reality and make-believe – inside and outside the film.

The heart

Despite the absurdity of the story told in this film by way of the “odd” characters, and outrageous dialogue the audience can’t help but care about these people.  The two main characters in particular, Ed and Bela Lugosi, the now-faded horror film icon who was Wood’s “ace in the hole,” the big name he used to sell his ideas to Hollywood, are well-crafted and layered.  Ed’s passion and innocence somehow come through.  I think it would have been easy to tell this story by simply making a spoof about making bad films and the people it takes to make them.  Burton does that but amid the chaos, sense of humor and fast pace, he makes sure heart is always present.

“Haven’t you ever heard of suspension of disbelief?”

Ed Wood asks his backers, Baptist ministers, that question and through his work he asked his audience to do so as well something film audiences have always been willing to do, but Wood’s efforts were too outrageous, although through the years his work has gained a cult following.  Watching his journey, his odd, ridiculous ideas at work prove entertaining in Burton’s film.  We know Wood’s work so it’s not a stretch to believe the drama of how it came to be.

The acting

Martin Landau’s performance in this film is outstanding.  He never goes out of character and his intensity in playing this eccentric man is great.  In his first scene in the movie, when he and Ed Wood meet for the first time, Lugosi is trying out coffins for size.  Clearly he’s just waiting for his life to end (either that or he feels more comfortable in a coffin at this point in his life than he does in the outside world).  Ed Wood gives him a second wind since Lugosi meets someone who is so taken by Hollywood legend and lore that he is still a star in Wood’s eyes.  Everyone else thinks he’s long dead.

The examples of Landau’s acting that really stand out for me are when we see his physical transformation from a broken, old man, hunched over and needing a cane for support – to a man who can take on the world after drugging himself up.  This is seen when he is filming the scene where he fights the octopus in the swamp/puddle.  Even the small gesture of throwing the bottle of scotch back and forth to the cameraman in the near dark shows this is not a man who feels old at that moment.  He has no trouble seeing, his aim is perfect – he feels and acts young and invincible.  Also, in comparison to the rest of Wood’s movie scenes, Lugosi’s struggle with the octopus is quite realistic, which is ridiculous unto itself.

Martin Landau won the Best Supporting actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in the film as well as many other well-deserved accolades.  The New York Film Critic’ Circle Award win is worth mentioning because of their write-up on Landau’s performance, which noted “The oscar goes to Martin Landau, its shadow goes to Bela Lugosi.”  I love that.

One can’t really mention the acting in this film without paying tribute in some way to the make-up, which plays such a key part in characterization.  In particular the make-up done to make Martin Landau look like Bela Lugosi.  He really does look like the real actor and looks very little like the real Martin Landau.  As with other aspects of this film, the make-up is often exaggerated.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that it is a black and white film and the make-up has to stand out but it is very effective in capturing the eccentricities of these characters.  Very simple make-up would have not given the same effect.  In the scene at the hospital when Ed is helping Bela off the bed, Bela is lying there as if he was dead in a coffin and the make-up accentuates this pose.  It is extreme to make sure he looks like a corpse at that moment.  Deservedly, Rick Baker, Ve Neill and Yolanda Toussieng won the Oscar for Best Makeup for the film.

As for Johnny Depp’s acting in this film – his portrayal of Wood is what causes me to think of the film as “cartoonish.”  His gestures and facial expressions are perfectly aligned to the absurdity of the world that is portrayed here, which is a world created by the character of Wood.  For instance, he always has a smirk/smile on his face, even when he gets bad news, as in the scene when he stops filming Ms. King to ask her for the $60,000 she promised him.  She tells him he misunderstood her and that she never had that money.  In reaction, his eyes say “oh, crap” but that smile/smirk never leaves his face.  Another thing I noticed are Depp’s exaggerated facial expressions throughout to match the dialogue.  He exaggerates his eye brow movements, for instance, to go along with his speaking.  His face seems unnaturally animated, is the best way I can put it.  Yet, despite this sometimes ridiculous physicality, he manages to portray warmth and childish enthusiasm.

I’m not necessarily a Johnny Depp fan.  Or at least I’m not one of the people who find no fault in any of his work.  Certainly a good actor in some roles I find him average in others.  His portrayal of Ed Wood, however, is one of my favorites of his performances.

Aside from these two main characters, I thought the rest of the cast did a good job as well.  Even the bad acting is believably bad.  I’m not giving those players attention here but they add a lot to the story, all actors and personalities without whom the story and film would not work.

The Look of Ed Wood

One of my favorite things in Ed Wood is its “look.”  Extreme noir style lighting, lots of deep shadows, light/dark contrasts, people moving in and out of light, half faces being lit and then really sharp, obscure camera angles – all really distinctive and purposeful and all adding to the absurdity of the entire story.  I think the photography in general perfectly captures the look of the sleazy “B” movies of that time. I really liked it.

Although the lights and shadows are seen throughout the movie, here are two examples that come to mind.  The first is the scene where Bela calls Ed for help for the first time.  Ed and Dolores are in bed and the light comes in casting stripes of shadows across the entire room.  I love that look, even to this extreme.  Another example is when Dolores is throwing stuff across the room at Ed after he gives her part in his movie to Ms. King.  Here the room is literally split in half – one half is in light and the other in the shadow.

As with the lighting, the camera angles are often also very sharp.  There is nothing subtle about them.  We are supposed to notice that the situation and/or people are off kilter.  There are many examples of this, one being when Ed Wood is in the phone booth talking to Weiss, a sleazy producer.  The camera on Wood is set really low and so the view we have of him is an extreme one from the bottom up.  On the other end of the line we see Weiss and the camera on him is set high so that the view we have of him is from the top down at a sharp angle.  It’s a great contrast and views of the characters – as if we’re standing in judgment, absolutely outside the story.

Perhaps the best example that shows both the extreme lighting and odd camera angles is the one when Ed arrives at Bela’s house and Lugosi is holding the gun.  Here both the shadows and the camera angles are really skewed, really sharp.  The camera even moves to slightly different angles during one shot of Lugosi.  And, we also see quite a few times during this scene how only one side of their faces is lit at all.

I really like this dramatic way to shoot and light odd situations and odd people.  It either adds credibility to the absurdity of the whole thing – or it adds absurdity to the credibility.  In either case I find it effective and fun.

One other scene that I think is worth mentioning because of the lighting used is the one where Ed and Cathy are in the spook house at the carnival.  Appropriately it’s dark in there as they ride along but then suddenly the light comes on when he tells Cathy about his cross-dressing.  This is obviously showing that he feels he’s finally able to be honest with someone about it from the get-go and no longer needs to hide.  I think it’s also telling that he chooses a spook house as the place to divulge such a personal part of himself.

Set details

There are certain things in film I rarely notice if they are done well.  Sets are one of these.  But there are several things I notice in Ed Wood, details added to interior sets that I think are so telling to the characters that I think they should be mentioned.  A few of them, at least.  For instance, there is a poster in Weiss’ office for a movie titled “The Pin Down Girl.” Considering Weiss, the producer, doesn’t hide the fact that he makes, and is interested in, crappy films I found this pretty funny.  The posters in Ed Wood’s office are of Citizen Kane, what many consider the greatest movie ever made, and Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.  Obviously this is very appropriate because these are his two idols and are a reminder, of sorts, that he does take his craft seriously, regardless of how others feel about it.  I also thought Bela’s house was perfectly set to fit his character.  There’s no question that Dracula was the highlight of his career, and perhaps even his life, as shown by the huge painting of him as that character right in the center of the room.  I thought the furniture there was appropriately old and worn, as it would be for a man who’s well past his prime.  The exterior of his house is also quite effective in depicting an old, lonely man living the deepening gloom of a has-been actor’s life.  These shots are particularly sad to me – a space that’s barren, void of life, joyless.

Tim Burton’s film is not.  Joyless, that is.  It’s a bit disturbing, very funny, outrageous and poignant.  A film worthy of a look, in particular for fans of old Hollywood.  Outrageous or not, it is about making films.  Finally, an interesting tidbit – Tim Burton’s, Ed Wood, cost more to produce than all of Edward D. Wood Jr.’s films put together.  As I mentioned earlier in this write-up, Ed Wood’s story, his journey proved his greatest achievement.

Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi was born Bela Ferenc Deszo Blasko on October 20th, 1882 in Lugosi, Hungary.  His father, a banker, was very strict so Bela ran away to the city of Resita at the age of eleven.  He never again returned to his hometown.  In Resita, Bela worked as a miner for a few years but eventually began work in the theater.  He was given bit parts in plays, but was laughed off the stage most of the time.

In 1898 Lugosi attempted to return to school but stayed there for only four months.  Upon leaving he began to work on the railroad but this too didn’t last.  He joined a theater company and was now adored by audiences.  He was subsequently accepted into the Academy of Performing Arts, and it is during this period that he changed his name to Lugosi.  He began to play larger roles in larger plays and eventually became the top-billing member of the theater group.

In 1914, Bela Lugosi enlisted in the Hungarian army.  He was discharged in 1916, after convincing officials that he was mentally unstable.  Soon after his discharge he started appearing in movies.  His first picture was A Leopard directed by Alfréd Deésy in which he played the lead role.

He emigrated to the United States in December of 1920.  His first American film was the 1923 film, The Silent Command directed by  J. Gordon Edwards, a suspenseful spy movie in which Bela played the bad guy.  He officially became a U.S. citizen on June 26, 1931.  But it was in 1929 that he took on the role of Count Dracula in Horace Liveright’s play in place of actor Raymond Huntley.  It played for 33 weeks on Broadway.  Soon after the run was over, Universal Studios picked up the rights to the play.  Universal wanted Lon Chaney to play the lead role, but Chaney died of throat cancer in 1930.  It wasn’t until after Chaney’s death that Lugosi was even considered for the part of Count Dracula.

After much consideration and nagging (on the part of Lugosi), Bela was given the lead part in Tod Browning’s, Dracula (1931).  He was paid a total of $3,500, much less than the second-billed David Manners received.  Lugosi skipped on the part of the monster in Universal’s film version of Frankenstein, a decision that many believe was the greatest mistake of his career.

The character of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood continually puts down Boris Karloff and the Frankenstein monster, then later laments that he turned down the role of the monster himself. In reality, Lugosi did play the monster (years after Karloff), in William Neill’s, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Incidentally, he also played the role of Igor in Rowland V. Lee’s, Son of Frankenstein (1939) against Karloff’s final portrayal as the monster.  I might as well mention that to this day Bela Lugosi memorabilia far out-sells Boris Karloff memorabilia.  Some irony to that.

During the years after his role in Dracula, Lugosi appeared in many B movies, some being above-average films but some were pathetic, as we see in Ed Wood.  He made a total of 103 movies.  During the late thirties and into the forties, Bela had a lot of trouble finding work.  What little work he did find paid him next to nothing.  As Tim Burton’s film depicts, in the mid-fifties Lugosi met and started working with Ed Wood and appeared in three of his movies, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space, his last film.

As we know, this did absolutely nothing for Lugosi’s career and, in fact, it is the strong opinion of many that Wood exploited Lugosi’s fame to further his own interests.  While much of Burton’s film centers of the relationship between Wood and Lugosi and the fact that Wood throws Lugosi’s name around to gain recognition (or get his foot in the door), the film shows a very sympathetic Wood who lends assistance to Lugosi on several occasions.  Yes, the assistance is not without personal interest on the part of Wood but still, it feels as if he actually cares.  I am a fan of Bela Lugosi’s and this makes me very sad so it could well be I’m a bit (conveniently) naive in this instance.  Bela Lugosi will always be my favorite Dracula and no one can deny the role he played in making the Count a pop culture phenomenon, a character who has a hold on media unlike any other.  This would not have been so without Lugosi’s unforgettable portrayal.

I’ll add, as I heard Martin Landau say once (paraphrasing), that if given the chance, perhaps through work in the classics, Bela Lugosi could have shown the world he was a great actor with range beyond horror.  I know I would have liked to see that.  The distinctive voice and accent that made his Count Dracula so unforgettable may well be to blame.

In April of 1955, Bela Lugosi committed himself to the Los Angeles County General Hospital to help him recover from a morphine addiction.  Not long after his release he married Hope Lininger, a fan who had written him letters every single day that he was in the hospital.  She would be his fifth and final wife.  Bela died at the age of 73, on August 16, 1956.  He was buried in his Dracula cape.


I want to add a side note to this post as to why I am posting it now and why together.  There are several reasons for that.  Aside from the obvious Horror theme of the post because both major players mentioned had some type of impact on the genre, which makes this somewhat of a natural October post, both Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi celebrated birthdays this month.  Ed Wood on the 10th and Bela Lugosi on the 20th.

13 thoughts

  1. Wonderful piece on these two extraordinary men and the film, Aurora. I’ve come to believe, even among all of visually marvelous work, this is Tim Burton’s finest film. Well done. Thanks for this.

    1. Thank YOU for your support, Michael. I’m glad you liked it and I agree, this is the best of Burton for me as well. Although I really like his animated films.


  2. Great write up on Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. I’ve seen Ed Wood more than once and it’s a terrific film. As you mentioned, great leading performances by Depp and Landau. I’ve got to see this again soon now, as it’s been a while.

    P.S., if there’s anyone who hasn’t seen Plan 9 from Outer Space, it’s worth a watch just for the humor of the sheer ‘badness’ of it.

    1. Thanks, Joel. I agree with all you note. The “sheer badness” of Plan 9 turns out to be quite enjoyable indeed.


  3. This is a fascinating read for someone like me who knows absolutely zip about either man and their careers. I’ve never seen any of the films, not even Ed Wood, but now I’m curious. Enough to watch a Johnny Depp movie 🙂 (Technically, I’m still not speaking to him for even thinking about remaking The Thin Man)

    I guess I better see Dracula too! I hear it’s very popular in some circles 🙂 You’re opening my mind to movies I’ve never even thought about seeing, but now I feel like I just have to see. I like it 🙂

    (p.s. Thanks for the tip on Mildred Pierce, the book, Aurora. I loved the movie, and even though the book is a bit different, I love it too!)

    1. Sarah,

      I didn’t know about Depp wanting to remake The Thin Man. That’s beyond unacceptable. He better watch it, I don’t love him already!

      Yes! See Dracula. I’m so glad you read Mildred Pierce. It is different but a worthy read if only for comparison purposes for fans of the film.


  4. I’m a fan of both Bela Lugosi and Johnny Depp in the roles for which they seem well-suited. And I love the campy cheese of Plan 9. But I’ve never seen Ed Wood and I truly must see it after reading your blog. Another great piece, Aurora!

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