IN THE KINGDOM OF CRANKS: ED WOOD ROAD TO WELLVILLE
By Richard Alleva
From Commonweal, vol 121 n 21, 12.02.1994
America, being the Emersonian land of self-reliance and self-invention, is also a nurturer of spectacular cranks. Think of Brook Farm and Oneida, Bronson Alcott and Aimee Semple McPherson, Christian Science and Scientology. And cranks have always been charming fixtures in the supporting casts of American movies, especially comedies. But, in the last two decades, as American films have become more freewheeling and kooky, cranks have often been the protagonists of Hollywood scripts rather than subordinate characters. And their crankishness often turns out to be justified. What is Warren Beatty as Bugsy but a visionary among thugs, and isn’t the glorified Jim Garrison of J.F.K. a would-be savior of his country?
Now, two minor, eccentric movies give us two more real-life cranks as their heroes.
Ed Wood is the story of Hollywood’s worst director, the man who gave us the sci-fi dud of duds, Plan Nine from Outer Space and the transvestite atrocity, Glen or Glenda? , ineptitudes so klutzily personal that their maker has become a pillar in the pantheon of camp. Tim Burton’s film treats Wood as a sweet simpleton who cannot see his own transvestism as weird or his own lack of talent as anything other than originality. As portrayed in this film, Wood is the patron saint of all who choose to do their “own thing” in the teeth of convention, tradition, or accepted good taste. An Emersonian hero of B flicks.
Ed Wood displays the three most salient qualities of Tim Burton’s previous work (the Batman movies, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands): his visual skill; his unshakably sweet nature; and his fundamental disdain for, or indifference to, truly dramatic storytelling.
First, Burton’s skill. Ed Wood had no real visual flair, but he revered the great stylist Orson Welles for his stubborn individualism in the face of studio pressure. Accordingly, Burton and his cinematographer have created a black-and-white look that miraculously echoes both the underlit, cheesy appearance of Wood’s output and the glorious expressionism of Citizen Kane. Somehow, Burton keeps the two styles from colliding, partly by never allowing either to dominate for too long a time. And, for Ed Wood’s big moments, the Wellesian texture rightly prevails. For instance, when Ed runs down the aisle of the theater that’s about to premier his latest bomb, the choreography mimics Kane’s run into his newspaper office upon his return from Europe. But whereas Kane is hailed by his adoring staff, Ed’s arrival is booed and hissed by a mob of juvenile delinquents. The glory of the A’s has become the humiliation of the B’s.
Burton’s sweetness is evident in his depiction of the bond between Wood and Bela Lugosi, dope-addicted and semi-crazy in the last years of his life. It’s a loving, mutually parasitic relationship in which the old has-been depends on the young producer for roles, income, and a sympathetic ear, while Wood needs Lugosi’s name on his credits to entice investors, but shows real compassion for the fallen star. Delivering the only performance of distinction in this movie, Martin Landau endows Lugosi with ruined theatrical magnificence, Central European gemutlichkeit, and doped-up, boozed-out misery. Because of Landau’s performance, the several close-ups of the hypodermic tracks on Lugosi’s arms aren’t merely disgusting but also redolent of pitiable mortality.
But now the down side. Ed Wood, for all its charm, is ample proof that Burton can’t shape a story to any real dramatic purpose, isn’t interested in character development, and can’t bring his narrative to a true climax. Ed has a few moments of doubt about his abilities after his first fiasco, dismisses them, doubts himself again after the next bomb, revives, and so it goes. The structure of this movie is a seesaw, not a mountain climb. Our hero’s meeting with Orson Welles in which the great man tells Wood to follow his dream against all odds, is meant to be the story’s dramatic peak but only reinforces our perception of Ed as a freak of fatuousness.
Locked into this fatuousness is Johnny Depp, a game actor. He has been allowed (or forced?) by his director to wear an idiotic rictus of a smile from first shot to final credits. This smile embalms Depp’s performance.
Jonathan Swift’s genius for satire was fueled by his disgust for humanity, and that disgust had one source in his revulsion from, and fascination with, bodily functions. Similar revulsion and fascination permeate The Road to Wellville, but certainly haven’t resulted in a satire of Swiftian brilliance.
Set at the nineteenth-century Battle Creek health spa of the vegetarian crusader and antisex fanatic, Dr. John Kellogg, this T. Coraghessan Boyle story is composed of three plot strands: the marital woes of Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick, which Fonda believes will be cured by Kellogg’s regimen; a con man’s plot to use Kellogg’s recipe for corn flakes to make a rival product; and the enmity between the doctor (Anthony Hopkins) and his adopted son (Dana Carvey). I don’t know what Boyle made of these situations in his novel, but they go absolutely nowhere in this Alan Parker adaptation. The most interesting one, the Hopkins-Carvey conflict, is resolved by a cuddle and kiss. (This, after Kellogg, Jr., blows his foster father’s establishment to kingdom come!)
It’s easy to see the satirical point of The Road to Wellville. It’s the same point made nonsatirically by Oliver Sacks in his chapter on the drug L-DOPA in his book, “Awakenings”:
. . . the delusions of vitalism or materialism, the notion that “health,” “well-being,” “happiness,” etc., can be reduced to certain “factors” or “elements” — principles, fluids, humors, commodities — things which can be measured and weighed, bought and sold. . . The fraudulent reduction comes from alchemists, witch-doctors, and their modern equivalents, and from patients who long at all costs to be well.
Thus, in this movie, Dr. Kellogg: “The bowels are our passage to health!” But, once this point is made in the first fifteen minutes, Alan Parker can’t develop it, only elaborate and overelaborate on it. All story developments, most characterizations, all social observation and historical insight are overwhelmed by Parker’s obsessive need to gross out the audience. Viewers are treated to scenes of vomiting, enema insertion, clitoral massage, farting, masturbation (female variety) on a bicycle, masturbation (male variety) within a kind of electronic jock strap, and much examination of feces. I know that Alan Parker began his career in the late sixties and has made at least a dozen movies (three of them — Fame, Shoot the Moon, and The Commitments — excellent). But his latest film prompts just one question: Is Alan Parker fourteen years old?
Anthony Hopkins emerges with credit, not his usual glory. His characterization is a triumph of physical transformation: a Bugs Bunny grin, a Teddy Roosevelt stance, a voice trapped and roaring in the adenoid — you’ve never seen this Anthony Hopkins before. But, I’m afraid, once the lights come up and the final credits roll, you don’t continue seeing him in your mind’s eye. It’s an artfully crafted performance but lacks resonance.
To be sure, no actor can completely survive a director who has lost all perspective on his own material. The tooth-sucking self-satisfaction that Anthony Hopkins quite rightly projects as Kellogg’s is also, I’m afraid, the most salient quality of this movie. While making a film about a supreme crank, Alan Parker apparently turned into one