It is hard to believe now, but for a big part of his career, a Johnny Depp movie was not a box office draw. Sure, after a buddy of his named Nicolas Cage advised him to stop trying to be a rock star and get into acting, he quickly found roles. Depp’s very first film was 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the great horror franchise starters. Despite his relatively small part getting killed by Freddy Krueger in a waterbed, he made enough of an impact for director Wes Craven to essentially cast a lookalike in another horror franchise. A few years later, Depp became known to wider audiences as one of the glossy-magazine ready undercover cops in 21 Jump Street. He would not have a hit film until 1990, when he played the title character in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.
Then, for years, Depp built a reputation as something of an outsider star. He had the look of a red carpet star, but he chose offbeat roles in indie films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Benny & Joon. “Johnny Depp movie” had a certain critical cachet, but he would not become an A-lister until 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. During that time, he partnered for the second time with Tim Burton for the single best movie in either of their careers. And ironically, it was a movie about the man generally regarded as the single worst director in Hollywood history.
That movie was Ed Wood, and the man was, well, Ed Wood. It was released in 1994 and was something of a box office bomb, especially compared to the grosses Tim Burton had brought in with Batman and Batman Returns. It was critically well-received at the time and still has a very strong 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. But at awards time, it was overshadowed by an admittedly exceptional year that included Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, The Lion King, and Speed. So what makes this cult film Johnny Depp’s best movie?
In a word, humanity. Ed Wood is a biopic about the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space, a movie so legendarily bad, it was a joke on Seinfeld. But more than that, it is a love letter to the hopers and dreamers of the world. It is a movie that, at its core, deeply believes that no matter how weird you are, how strange your ideas might be, how little talent you might have, it is still worth it to try to create something. You can see why Tim Burton, the crown prince of Hollywood misfits, and Johnny Depp, the not-quite movie star, would be attracted to it.
Johnny Depp gives his single career-best performance in this movie. He plays Wood as a human, where many actors might have leaned into the joke that was his technical incompetency. Depp as Wood radiates earnestness and dedication to his craft. He brings people together to form a chosen family of actors and crew, played by stars like Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Martin Landau. The latter won a Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a horror icon in the twilight of his foul-mouthed years.
But Johnny Depp does not even play Wood as a paper saint, or some kind of holy fool of Hollywood. He shows us the doubts that Wood had, in his own abilities and chance at making it big. It’s not afraid to show how he could be as much of a pest as a warm and supportive person. In short, it takes someone who had become a film industry joke and showed us what it would take to face failure and still keep working.
Ed Wood succeeds on every level, beyond just being a Johnny Depp movie. The black and white cinematography of Stefan Czapsky is gorgeous beyond words, and the film moves with humor and verve that Tim Burton has rarely shown since. The entire cast is working at full power, almost as though they are redeeming the show business failures they portray through their own acting. It even has one of Bill Murray’s funniest line readings ever, which is no small feat.
Time and controversy have reduced both Johnny Depp and his movies. The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise seemed to have encouraged him to play cartoons, rather than the depth and warmth that he displays here. Combined with the horrible turns his reputation and work have since taken, it seems likely that we will not get another performance like this from him. But if nothing else, Ed Wood showed that Depp had at least one masterpiece in him. Even if Ed Wood did not.