In light of the most recent effort from Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, and the fact that today is Mother’s Day and the movie features a sweet Mother looking after a misunderstood son who’s always getting into trouble through absolutely no fault of his own (LOL!!!), my choice for this week’s MTESS column was an easy one.
1990’s nouveau classic, “Edward Scissorhands”.
Director Tim Burton studied character animation in college and began his career as an animator and storyboard artist for Walt Disney Studios. His desire to express his personal vision led him to pursue his own projects, however, and after a handful of shorter films Burton was selected to direct the big screen debut of Paul Reuben’s character “Pee Wee Herman”. “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” (1985) was a surprising success, earning favorable reviews and seven times its budget at the box office. It earned him another comedy, 1988’s “Beetlejuice”. Like “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”, “Beetlejuice” was a financial success that garnered praise from critics. It earned back five times its budget at the box office during its theatrical run.
The success of those two films earned Burton the opportunity to helm a blockbuster. Warner Brothers gave him the chance to bring his sensibilities to “Batman”, a high profile, enormous project with a massive budget (for the time). It was released to extraordinary fanfare and earned spectacular returns at the gate. It was the largest opening weekend at the time, the highest grossing movie of the year, and was one of the highest grossing films of all time (it remains in the top 50 today when adjusted for inflation).
Three movies, each more successful than the last, culminating in one of the biggest box office hauls of all time. In 1990, Tim Burton could make any movie he wanted. The movie he chose to make was “Edward Scissorhands”.
“Edward Scissorhands” was the first movie Burton directed that he (co)wrote as well. It’s obviously a very personal film. The character sprang from a drawing Burton did as a teenager, and it reflects his own feelings of isolation and alienation growing up.
To play the character, Burton cast Johnny Depp. It marked the first time they worked together… the two would eventually go on to seven more collaborations (“Ed Wood” 1994, “Sleepy Hollow” 1999, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” 2005, “The Corpse Bride” 2005, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” 2007, “Alice in Wonderland” 2010, and “Dark Shadows” 2012), making them one of the most prolific actor/director pairings in history.
“Edward Scissorhands” was one of the first movie roles in Johnny Depp’s illustrious career. He had had several bit parts, and a lead in John Water’s “Cry Baby”, but was probably still best known at that point for “21 Jump Street”. It was totally against his pretty boy image at the time, and his memorable performance helped set him on his way to the A-list.
Burton brought back Winona Ryder, whom he had previously worked with on “Beeltejuice”, to star opposite Depp. It was a decision made easier by the fact that the two stars were romantically involved in real life at the time. It was Johnny Depp, reportedly, who convinced Ryder to drop out of The Godfather Part III in order to be in this film (a wise choice in retrospect).
The story is set in a garishly colorful, ridiculously conformist suburbia. Gossipy neighbors populate a housing development composed of pastel painted yet exceedingly similar houses. Far atop a rocky hill sits dark, Victorian mansion. When an intrusive Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) braves to go to the darkened castle, she discovers a meticulously kept garden of sculpted hedges within the courtyard, and something even more unique within.
Living in the mansion, alone, is a young man with scissor blades for fingers. Edward.
Edward was a creation of an inventor (Vincent Price), who never had the opportunity to finish him. He died of a heart attack just as he was about to give Edward his hands. Now she can see that Edward lives alone, isolated from the rest of the world.
In an act of compassion, she offers him the chance to come home with her.
His interjection into the family – and the neighborhood – is initially well received. After a brief, awkward introductory period, the locals are more than willing to allow him to sculpt their shrubbery, groom their pets and cut their hair. He even draws the affection of the neighborhood cougar (Kathy Baker), and becomes a bit of a local celebrity by making an appearance on a talk show.
He has a more difficult time being accepted by the family’s teenaged daughter Kim, though (Ryder). After getting off on the wrong foot by startling her in her own room, she and her friends reject him as an odd, freakish outsider. He, however, begins to fall for her, admiring her beauty from afar.
When she and her bully boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall) convince him to help them rob the boyfriend’s father’s house, Edward naively agrees. Things go awry quickly and he’s trapped within by the house’s security system, while the others flee. The cops arrive, and Edward is arrested alone.
It’s here he begins to see how fickle the neighbors affections are.
Gossip runs rampant, and the people who had befriended him turn to rumor mongering and false accusations. Kim’s boyfriend refuses to confess to the police, leaving Edward on the hook for the crime. The situation and the changing social climate cause Edward to act out, damaging the family’s house he’s staying at with his bladed hands. This strains his relationship with the family, as well.
However, as he loses the admiration of the neighborhood, he begins to gain the affection of Kim. Through it all she’s begun to see that Edward is sweet and kind, and that it’s her boyfriend that’s really the monster. When she finds him carving an ice sculpture in their yard, the spray of shavings reminds her of snow… which she’s never seen before. She dances and spins in it in joy, and from that point forward she recognizes the beauty within Edward. She begins to fall in love.
Of course, the idea of a romance between them is doomed… not only due to the obstacles his deformity pose, but because the town has turned against him now. He saves the family’s son from being run over in the street, but everyone assumes he’s attacking the boy. The police begin to chase him, and Edward is forced to run back to the dark castle from which he came.
No one is content to leave him in peace, however. The neighbors chase him to his door. It’s the suburban version of the villagers chasing Frankenstein’s monster. Fearing for his safety, Kim follows him into the mansion. Her boyfriend follows as well, only… looking to kill him.
It’s a frightening and violent climax, where Edward is finally pushed to harm another in order to defend himself, with tragic results. Kim’s boyfriend is killed. Knowing that they can never stay together, Kim leaves, telling the mob outside that Edward died in the confrontation as well. It’s the only way they’ll leave him alone.
But before she goes, she professes her love for Edward. He is left to live alone, but he knows he’s worthy of love. The bedtime story bookends of the movie reveal that Kim never stopped thinking of him, either.
It’s a bittersweet ending to a uniquely twisted take on classic monster romances. “Scissorhands” follows in a long lineage of films where monstrous men or creatures fall for beautiful women… there are shades here of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein… many, many more.
But it’s most special for being Tim Burton’s image of what it’s like to be an outsider. Edward is an artistic loner, who doesn’t fit in well with the “normal” people. He’s an odd, dark, solitary figure, incapable of conforming because that’s not who he is. But he’s also gentle, soft-spoken, sweet, and naive. His pale, scarred visage is oddly beautiful. In contrast to the ridiculous generic surroundings, Edward stands out in a way that should be seen as wonderful. Beauteous. His differences are a gift to a world blighted by smothering sameness.
It’s a tragic romance that imparts deeper themes of socialization and conformity. It’s one of the trademark films of one of our most visionary directors, and marks the first collaboration between he and his frequent star, Johnny Depp. It’s dark, offbeat and bittersweet, but at the same time, moving and unforgettable. It’s structured along the lines of many classic tales, yet somehow feels unique and new. It’s a very special movie that’s inspired a great deal of affection from audiences over the years.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.