Ed Wood – 1994, Tim Burton
The Brave – 1997, Johnny Depp
When I first read about the film Johnny Depp directed I immediately though ‘That’ll probably just be a poor man’s Tim Burton film’. Depp has played so many strange characters in so many strange Burton films (seven in total) that anyone would think he enjoyed it so much that he’d inevitably end up making a Tim Burton film when he came to direct his own.
But by the time he directed The Brave, Johnny Depp had played the lead in only two films directed by Tim Burton; Edwards Scissorhands and Wood. So in The Brave, in which Depp also plays the lead, he ends up playing a character closer to the real Johnny Depp than any other he has portrayed.
I don’t mean to accuse Depp of not having range as an actor, but he does play one of two characters in most of his films; brooding introvert or charismatic extrovert, both with appropriate levels of zaniness to suit the film (Donnie Brasco being the one exception that springs to mind). It’s as though Johnny Depp has a dial that goes from 1 (Edward Scissorhands) to 11 (Jack Sparrow).
Tim Burton turns the Depp Dial up to about 5.6 for Ed Wood in which Johnny plays the titular character who in real life directed some of the best worst films ever made, most famously ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’. The film tells the story of how struggling film maker and heterosexual transvestite Ed Wood attempts to realise his artistic vision on a shoestring budget. Depp’s Wood is an eternal optimist who sees the best in everyone and is far too easily pleased, resulting in comically bad movies that flop completely. He doesn’t come across as a complete idiot, just deluded. Depp is always surrounded by a strong supporting cast and this is no exeption, particularly Bill Murray, but when isn’t Bill Murray good? (roll on Gohstbusters 3). Martin Landau excels as washed up, morphine addict, 1930s Dracula Béla Lugosi
The Burton/Depp collaborations are all of such a high quality that choosing one over the others is difficult. Ed Wood Stands out as it is the only one that is not a fantasy. The characters all seem ludicrous but that’s because apparently they were all weirdoes in real life.
At one point, I thought that Ed Wood was going to transcend being a ‘Tim Burton film’ and lead down a path that revealed the extent of Béla Lugosi’s drug addiction and showed the true horror of 1950’s addiction treatment. There’s an excellent shot that pans down a hospital corridor to the sound of screaming that is reminiscent of the horror films that Béla starred in and Ed Wood adored. The screams turn out to belong to Béla as he lies tied to a bed, left alone to go cold turkey. For all the spooky moments in his many creepy films, this is as edgy as Burton has ever been, but just as soon as he truly shocks us, he retreats back to the Wonderful World of Tim and Johnny.
It’s a good film, but I can’t help but feel that it is too generous to the real Ed Wood.
Improving on the original?
In The Brave, Johnny playes a guy who looks a lot like we’d expect Johnny to look like if we saw him in the street. Like the world’s most fashionable gypsy (and this film was 6 years before ‘Pirates’).
The Brave screams ‘first time director’ from the opening 5 minute tracking shot, after which we wait another five minutes before anyone says anything. The next twenty minutes are the best bit of the film, and from then on it fails to live up to the premise it sets. After an exchange with under used character actor Marshall Bell, Johnny is taken to see Marlon ‘I’ll be in your movie, but only for one scene and I’m not standing up’ Brando. Big Marl talks bollocks (which he may well have improvised) and then offers Johnny fifty grand in exchange for his life. You see, Marlon’s character likes to make snuff films. Johnny casually accepts a five grand advance and agrees to return in a weeks time.
Why would Johnny do this? Because he lives in a small caravan in a rubbish dump with his wife and two kids, and $50,000 will provide a better life for his family. The massive flaw in The Brave is that Johnny’s family don’t seem to be too unhappy about their lot in life, and no one would believe for a second that Johnny would selflessly allow himself to be tortured to death. Maybe it works better in the book it’s based on.
Johnny hasn’t directed since.
For all you Johnny Depp die hards; Part 2 (Part 1 is just credits/lingering shots of the desert)
and Part 3. Imagine what Marlon would be like if he gave a shit.