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"I've always been misrepresented," Tim Burton says. "I could dress in a clown costume and laugh with the happy people, but they'd still say I'm a dark personality."

When you consider that the most famous laughter in a Burton film came from the deranged clown-like Joker in Batman, and that the happiest characters may have been the band of misfits who comprised the repertory company in the films of Ed Wood, the world's worst director, it's fair to suggest that Burton hasn't really been misrepresented. Even his sunniest films have a dark undercurrent, but his darkest films have their share of light. After all, the homicidal barber of his most recent film, Sweeney Todd, always has a song on his lips. Burton's cinematic universe is populated by misfits, both loveable and loathsome, and it's not surprising that he was something of a misfit himself, a creative kid in a stifling environment who saw that the world wasn't always what it seemed on the surface. 

"I think the atmosphere that I grew up in, yes, there was a subtext of normalcy," he said. "I remember being forced to go to Sunday school for a number of years, even though my parents were not religious. It was just the framework. There was no passion for it. No passion for anything. Just a quiet, kind of semi-oppressive, blank palette that you're living in."

Born August 25, 1958 in Burbank, California, Timothy William Burton did have a passion. He loved to draw and also liked the movies, particularly those that starred Vincent Price. His interest in making films himself started in school when he made a super-8mm movie about magician Harry Houdini rather than write a 20-page report as required.

"I mean, this is kid stuff, but it impressed the teacher, and I got an A," he remembered. "And that was my turning point, when I said, ‘Yeah, I wouldn't mind being a filmmaker.'"

Burton did not abandon his interest in drawing, however. When he enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts, it was to study animation. While there, he was awarded a fellowship from Walt Disney studios where he found himself at work on 1981's The Fox and the Hound and 1985's The Black Cauldron, projects that were ill-suited to his artistic sensibilities.

"I don't know what it was, but I never saw what would be considered A movies," he recalled. "I grew up watching things like The Brain That Wouldn't Die." He was also a fan of Italian director Mario Bava whose films such as Black Sunday and Black Sabbath have acquired cult status. But Disney gave him the opportunity to pay homage to another of his idols with the animated six-minute film Vincent about horror film icon Vincent Price. That was followed by the lengthier (27-minute) Frankenweenie which Disney chose not to release after judging it unsuitable for children. However, the film was seen by Paul Reubens, the comic then famous for playing Pee-Wee Herman, who asked Burton to direct his first feature film, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in which the childlike Herman embarks on an adventure in search of his missing bicycle.

The film was a surprise popular and critical hit in 1985, but it didn't kick-start Burton's career as much as he would have liked. He continued to receive offers, but only for films in the same silly vein.

A project that did appeal to him was 1988's Beetlejuice, a special-effects driven comedy starring Michael Keaton as a ghost who chases the living from haunted houses so the ghosts can live in peace. Thanks to the success of this film, Warner Bros. offered Burton the opportunity to direct Batman.

"These are some of the wildest characters in comics and yet they seem the most real to me," Burton observed of the heroes and villains in Bob Kane's legendary comic book. The highly anticipated project had to generated controversy, however, when it was announced that Burton's Beetlejuice star, Michael Keaton, would be cast in the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Then best-known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom, Keaton's casting seemed to indicate that this Batman would be another tongue-in-cheek spoof on the order of the campy ‘60's TV series starring Adam West.

As the film's release date approached, the anxiety turned to anticipation thanks to a phenomenal trailer that whetted appetites months in advance. The casting of Keaton turned out to be a stroke of genius with the actor bringing a moody and down to earth quality to the larger than life role. It proved suitable to a character whose life is haunted by the murder of his parents. And no one complained about Jack Nicholson as the forever grinning Joker, although some fans thought the flamboyant villain overshadowed the hero.

Regardless of who was the true star of Batman, the film was a phenomenon when it opened in June 1989. Stores were flooded with Batman baseball caps, beach towels, and other merchandise. The media also jumped on the bandwagon, hailing Burton as the new Steven Spielberg.

The critics were divided on the film. In The Washington Post, Hal Hinson praised Batman as "Dark, haunting and poetic. . . a magnificent living comic book," but Vincent Canby in The New York Times said "The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next, as does a comic book . . . It has the personality not of a particular movie but of a product, of something arrived at by corporate decision." Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times cast another dissenting vote. "The movie's problem is that no one seemed to have any fun making it, and it's hard to have much fun watching it." But Ebert acknowledged that "The gloominess of the visuals has a haunting power." Variety concurred: "What keeps the film arresting is the visual stylization. It was a shrewd choice for Burton to emulate the jarring angles and creepy lighting of film noir."

Batman quickly took its place as one of the biggest grossing films of all time, and Burton's status as an A list director was secure, though the comparisons with Spielberg proved premature and more than a little inaccurate. Burton's background in the visual arts always guaranteed that his films would look magnificent, but his sensibility was less mainstream than the populist Spielberg, and his films less likely to strike gold at the multiplex.

With his next film, 1990's Edward Scissorhands, Burton began a long, productive working collaboration with actor Johnny Depp who has become John Wayne to Burton's John Ford, or perhaps the Bogart to his John Huston. This reworking of the Frankenstein story also gave Burton the chance to work with one of his idols, Vincent Price, who played the role of an inventor who creates human life but dies before completing his creation, leaving him with a pair of sharp shears in place of hands. Edward can't express physical affection without drawing blood and takes his life in his hands when gently brushing aside a falling hair, but his isolation is momentarily relieved when his talent for cutting hedges and hair makes him popular in a community that eventually banishes him as a freak.

In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers hailed Burton as a "true movie visionary with uncommon insights into hearts in torment," adding that "Edward Scissorhands isn't perfect. It's something better: pure magic." Travers also noticed a somewhat autobiographical tone to the film. "Burton, a misfit kid from California who took solace in drawing cartoons and watching Vincent Price horror movies, clearly relates personally to Edward's situation."

If Edward Scissorhands was a personal statement for its director, Batman was the cash cow. With the 1989 film holding down position number six on the list of the top grossing films of all time, a sequel was inevitable and Batman Returns arrived in theaters in June 1992.

"It stands as evidence that movie properties, like this story's enchantingly mixed-up Catwoman, really can have multiple lives," wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times who joined other critics in finding the sequel superior to the original, though Roger Ebert wondered if Burton and Batman were compatible. "I think Burton has a vision here and is trying to shape it to the material, but it just won't fit."

This time, there were two villains  - Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) - and they stole the movie from the character whose return the title heralded, enough so that Michael Keaton refused to don the cape and cowl a third time. Burton also bid adieu to Batman with this film, but though he would not have a box-office hit of the same magnitude, his finest work was still on the horizon.

The next year, Burton produced the popular animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Selick, a former colleague in the Disney animation department.

Ironically, one of Burton's greatest films was made in honor of the man widely known as "The Worst Director of All Time." When it was announced that Burton would direct Ed Wood, it seemed inevitable that Burton would make the hapless auteur of 1959's  Plan 9 from Outer Space a target for derisive laughs. Instead, the black-and-white film was a valentine to movie lovers everywhere, including those, like Wood, who stepped before the camera themselves with often pitiful results. In something of an understatement, Burton said, "Nobody had (Wood's) style."

"Wood is an easy target that this sympathetic and endearing movie bravely resists," wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. "Burton's freewheeling take on Wood's life is comic without being cruel, satiric without being superior and moving without being maudlin."

Superbly cast with Johnny Depp as an endearingly vulnerable Wood, Bill Murray as the effeminate queen, Bunny Breckinridge, and, most notably, Martin Landau in his Oscar winning role as washed-up horror icon Bela Lugosi, Ed Wood was undeservedly ignored by audiences, but is one of the best films of its decade and a uniquely insightful look at Hollywood in the late 1950s.

Burton returned to the same era with his next film, Mars Attacks!, but the results were less impressive. Based on a series of Topps bubble gum cards, the film attempted to pay homage to the kind of schlocky science-fiction films that were as much a part of the ‘50s as rock and roll. As always, Burton and his team of production designers perfectly captured the look of such films, but as Roger Ebert noted, "A movie like this should be a lot better, or a lot worse." In Salon, Scott Rosenberg was more receptive to the film's charms: "The title pretty much gives the game away, yet Burton's junk-pop genius pulls a surprise out of this old hat nonetheless."

If Mars Attacks! didn't succeed as well as it could have, it still has plenty to recommend it, including an all-star cast with Jack Nicholson as the president, Pierce Brosnan as a bespectacled, pipe smoking scientist, Rod Steiger as a blustering general, and even a cameo by singer Tom Jones.

Sleepy Hollow was better, though, and once again reinforced Burton's image as a dark personality. Very loosely based on Washington Irving's legendary tale of a headless horseman, it re-teamed Burton with Johnny Depp who was cast as Ichabod Crane who, in Burton's film, is a New York City constable investigating a series of bloody beheadings in the Dutch community of Sleepy Hollow.

Burton was the ideal director to bring such a dark tale to the screen. In Variety, Todd McCarthy called the film "an entertainingly eccentric horror tale that envelopes the audience in a dreamy and bloody nightmare," while also noting that "Burton's films are always visual marvels. . . ."

Burton's love of old horror movies was also evident in the casting of Hammer horror legend Christopher Lee, as well as Michael Gough (Konga) who had previously played Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred in Burton's two Batman films.

Burton explored another familiar tale in 2001's Planet of the Apes, a retelling of the lesson in reverse evolution first told in the 1968 film starring a loincloth wearing Charlton Heston. This time, Mark Wahlberg crash-landed on the planet where men are the beasts ruled over by superior apes. Burton insisted that it was less a remake than a "reimagining," but Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian found it a "dumbed-down, screeching, gibbering, banana-peeling, PG Tips-drinking festival of nonsense." Todd McCarthy in Variety thought the new version was "listless and witless," adding that it lacked the director's "trademark poetic weirdness and bracing flights of fancy."

A box-office hit, Planet of the Apes emerged as one of Burton's most conventional films, and, not surprisingly, one of his least memorable.

When Big Fish opened in late 2003, it was greeted with considerable Oscar "buzz," but The Hollywood Reporter judged it a "misfire." As Roger Ebert pointed out, the film had Burton's "fantastical visual style that could be called Felliniesque if Burton had not by now earned the right to the adjective Burtonesque," but observed that the old man with a fondness for telling stories "is a blowhard. There is a point at which his stories stop working as entertainment and segue into sadism."

The film benefitted from a great cast, including Albert Finney and Jessica Lange, but it was more conventional than Burton's best work and fell a little flat for many viewers.

In 2005, Burton once again visited classic territory with a remake of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Previously filmed in 1971 with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, Burton's more eccentric version starred Johnny Depp as a more demented incarnation of Dahl's candy wizard. As Peter Travers observed in Rolling Stone, "Gene Wilder put a blunt comic edge on Wonka in the underrated 1971 musical version. But Depp goes deeper to find the bruises on Wonka's secret heart." The Village Voice praised the film as "the topsy-turvy equivalent of a three-course dinner in a single stick of gum." Burton locked horns with Warner Bros. executives over his vision of the film. "They thought. . . Wonka should be more of a father figure. I'm sitting there thinking, ‘Willy Wonka is NOT a father figure. . . Willy Wonka's a weirdo.'"

Burton's next film, Corpse Bride, was sweeter and gentler than its title. In this animated tale of a boy's visit to the world of the dead, Burton paid tribute to another of his early heroes, "dynamation" wizard Ray Harryhausen, a master of the stop-motion animation that is now considered obsolete in an era of computer generated effects, but have a quality that modern technology has never managed to equal.  Burton lamented the decision by Disney several years ago to close down its hand drawn animation unit in the wake of Pixar's success with computer animated films like Toy Story.

"They forget that the reason they have been successful is because Pixar makes good movies. Someday someone will do a beautiful cell-animation film that connects with people and then someone will say, ‘We have to go and do that again.' The number one priority should be that the story and the medium are compatible."

Music and murder are not always considered compatible but they blended beautifully in composer Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the controversial musical that became the basis for Burton's most recent film. Called a "funny, moody musical blood bath" by Carina Chocano in The Los Angeles Times, the film was another visual feast highlighted by a Gothic style that proves that few filmmakers are as at home on the dark side as Burton. Johnny Depp earned an Oscar nomination as the throat slitting barber. As J. Hoberman observed in The Village Voice, "Burton is also a graphic artist in the tradition of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey - and here he's successfully incorporated Sweeney Todd into his own distinctively dank and spidery gothic world."

Burton once recalled that as a youth, "I had these two windows in my room, nice windows that looked out onto the lawn, and for some reason my parents walled them up and gave me this little slit window that I had to climb up on a desk to see out of. To this day, I never asked them why. I should ask them."

One can't help but think that Burton's films are an attempt to find the answer. Perhaps his parents feared that beyond those walls lurked the kind of characters who would populate his films: tormented superheroes, blood thirsty barbers, and boys with scissors for hands. He seems to have almost admitted as much by saying that "Movies are like an expensive form of therapy for me."

 


--by
Brian W. Fairbanks



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