Image Credit: Ed Wood: Everett Collection; Alice: DisneyBack in the mid-’90s, I was having a drink with a prominent filmmaker who had risen up in the indie movement, and we started to talk about Tim Burton, whose career at that point, with the recently released Mars Attacks! (a bomb — though seriously underrated in my book), was headed toward a tricky moment of truth. The filmmaker, who was dealing with a few struggles of his own, smiled and gave me a line about Burton that he’d obviously thought of, and used a number of times, in the past. He said: “What’s a director supposed to think when his best movie is his biggest failure and his worst movie is his biggest hit?”
That line was just glib enough to echo and resonate, even if it wasn’t entirely true. The two Burton films he was talking about were Ed Wood (1994), the great, one-of-a-kind biopic of the legendarily awful poverty-row movie director Edward D. Wood Jr. — a movie that I, too, consider to be the highlight of Burton’s career, though one whose reputation dramatically outstripped its popularity; and Batman (1989), the industry-shaking earthquake of a comic-book smash that was really the first, trend-setting example — before Steven Soderbergh, Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, etc. — of a director like Burton, all but defined by the flukiness of his personal vision, crossing the corporate channel to make a megabucks studio blockbuster.
Let me state right up front that I don’t agree with the aesthetically dismissive assessment of Batman. I think it’s a flawed but still marvelous movie — a very grand gem of gothic baroque kitsch, with a performance by Jack Nicholson that’s more than just one actor’s over-the-top, zany-hambone showcase. Even though he was officially playing the film’s villain, what Nicholson, as the Joker, expressed is a playfully demonic, bats-in-his-belfry joy that linked him, in spirit, to every great, bent Burton hero, from Pee-wee Herman to Beetlejuice to (one year later) Edward Scissorhands.
Nevertheless, I think that my director acquaintance was onto something. He was, in a way, almost anticipating the trouble that a filmmaker like Burton would have, in the new franchise-happy Hollywood, attemping to bring his vision to full, prankishly surreal flower in a mainstream context. READ FULL STORY