When you hear moviegoers use the phrase “so bad it’s good,” your mind likely goes to Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room,” or perhaps to even more recent offerings such as “Sharknado” or “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” With the recent release of “The Disaster Artist,” a comedic biopic about the making of “The Room” from actor/director James Franco (“The Vault”), the discussion surrounding films that are so bad they’re good has been renewed. However, the advent of the anti-masterpiece began long before Tommy Wiseau ever uttered the phrase, “Oh, hi Mark.” Rather, those examining the history of bad film should look to one Edward D. Wood Jr., the mind behind B-movie flops such as “Bride of the Monster” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
In the 1994 film “Ed Wood,” director Tim Burton (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) pays homage to Wood, posthumously awarded as The Worst Director of All Time. Starring Johnny Depp (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) as Ed Wood, the movie focuses on several aspects of the director’s life: his transvestitism, his film career and his friendship with actor Bela Lugosi.
Interestingly, the film never sets out to make fun of Wood but to celebrate his life and his uncompromising dedication to his dream. Over the course of the film, audiences see Wood do whatever it takes to film his next scene, whether that be begging for the attention of rich backers or convincing all of his friends to get baptised by a church in order to fund his movie. Depp’s charm makes Wood the ultimate underdog; as he stands behind the camera mouthing along to lines he wrote, pantomiming the facial expressions of his characters, Wood’s unbridled enthusiasm becomes contagious.
It’s this very contagiousness that sits at the center of the film’s message; for all his eccentricity and incompetence, Wood is never alone. He attracts an unwaveringly loyal band of Hollywood misfits from the once-great actor Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, “Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game”) to Tor Johnson (George Steele, “Boston Girls”), a hulking Swedish wrestler. Never mind his ineptitude, never mind his penchant for crossdressing during the puritanical and straight-laced 1950s, Wood’s magnetism and vision make him beloved by an ensemble of characters who don’t just tolerate his eccentricity but embrace it.
It’s in this way that Wood redefines “the artist’s struggle.” It’s not just the monetary struggle of the underappreciated artist, it’s also the struggle to stay true to oneself. This is poignantly depicted in a scene where a frustrated Wood storms off set and hops in a cab to the nearest bar. Upon arriving, he’s surprised to see his inspiration and idol Orson Welles sitting in a booth. Dressed head to toe in women’s clothing, he approaches Welles and the two converse as equals. There’s a certain coat of irony that comes in successful mega-stars playing struggling artists, but it melts away in this scene as we see the lauded Welles speak to Wood as if they were old friends. These artists, for all the disparity that may be present in the quality of their work, bond over common experiences. It’s here that the true message of “Ed Wood” reveals itself: The quality of your work isn’t as important as staying true to your vision.
It’s an important message, and one that likely answers the question of why we gravitate towards films like “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “The Room.” Both Wood and Wiseau were men whose mediocrity at their craft played itself out with such passionate truthfulness that the result is irresistibly magnetic. Through all the raw, unbridled passion these artists hold, we can sense an uncompromising dedication to a dream. As Orson Welles says to Wood when the two directors depart: “Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dream?”