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Reeling Backward: Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton's most iconic film is a fairy tale about the way art is used to reflect on both traditional society and the artist's inability to fit into it.
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Tim Burton got the idea for “Edward Scissorshands” when he was a teenager living in suburban Burbank. One day he drew a picture of skinny man-creature with long blades instead of fingers. This figure represented the difficulties Burton, awkward and artistically bent, had fitting in to sunny SoCal society.
So he drew himself — whether he knew it was self-portrait or not — as a sort of Goth Frankenstein boy, with pale skin, a vaguely BDSM outfit of leather straps and buckles, and the flyaway black hair that would become his personal trademark.
Decades later, the drawing would be translated almost exactly to the screen with “Edward Scissorhands,” in many ways his most iconic film. Johnny Depp, then known mostly for “21 Jump Street,” studied Charlie Chaplin and other silent film stars in how to emote without using words. He does speak in the movie, but if you were to add up all his dialogue I doubt it would even fill a quarter page.
With this role — its cultural impact immortalized in a “Seinfeld” episode — Depp would go on to become arguably the biggest movie star in the world for the next two decades.
Following the immense success of 1989’s “Batman,” Burton was in a position to do virtually anything he wanted, and this is what he chose to do: a very personal movie that’s about alienation, especially that which artists endure in trying to relate to other people and traditional cultural structures.
The scissorhands that Edward wears — given to him by the old inventor who created him, played by horror icon Vincent Price in his final screen role — are both his curse and source of the artistic genius that makes him special. If Edward had the normal hands the inventor intended to give him before dying of old age, he’d undoubtedly be happier… but also unremarkable.
As a general rule I’m not terribly sympathetic to art that’s all about how terrible the plight of artists is. So many movies of this sort are terribly self-serving and full of it. Oil rig workers and motel maids have inarguably shittier lots, but nobody’s making movies about them.
But “Edward Scissorhands” is indelibly sympathetic because it’s told as a fairy tale parable, but with a puckish modernist twist.
I love the idea that the soaring Dracula-style mansion Edward lives in is at the end of a cul-de-sac in a typical middle-class suburban neighborhood. Shot in Tampa and Lakeland, Burton had the homes painted in a dizzy array of garish clashing colors that practically assault the eye.
The time period is never explicitly stated, but the clothes and cars are all of the 1970s cultural nadir vintage: boxy Ford Fairmonts, bug-like AMC Gremlins, blunt Chevy vans. It’s as if Burton is trying to recall his childhood and label it as utterly lacking in any sense of artistry or aesthetic.
Edward had been created by the inventor with the intention of being some sort of manservant, and from his drawings and castle full of clanking machinery, it seems clear that Edward is not of organic origin. But his sentience and soul are unquestioned, and as we can see from the scars that crisscross his face and several mishaps that occur, if pricked he most certainly does bleed.
It’s amazing that Edward’s scissorhands still seem so convincing, despite being simple prop gloves that Depp wears. They do not technically shear against each other, but he can cut and dice with amazing speed and accuracy. Still, his control of the scissors is not perfect and anyone who hangs around him long enough is bound to get an inadvertent slice.
Peg Boggs, the well-meaning local Avon lady played by Dianne Wiest, toddles up to the peak of Edward’s lonely hideout and immediately decides that he must come live with her family. Alan Arkin plays her husband, Bill, a typical doddering sitcom dad of the time, seemingly unable to even pay attention to what’s going on with those around him. Robert Oliveri is their youngest, Kevin.
Winona Ryder plays Kim Boggs, a high school senior who’s away on a trip to the mountains with her boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), and their chums when Edward arrives. At first she’s frightened and even repulsed by him, but in time comes to appreciate his gentleness and need to create beautiful things, such as the topiaries and ice sculptures around the neighborhood that become his hallmark.
Kim also narrates in the framing device that bookends the movie, now an old woman (in pretty convincing age makeup) relating to her granddaughter the story of Edward, who has now passed into mythology. Apparently Edward’s humanistic qualities do not extend to aging.
(A bit of a personal aside: my sister served as Ryder’s stand-in for part of the shoot, mostly because they had matching tiny sizes, and it was the rare role where Ryder had blonde hair. My sis’ recollection is the actress, then at the height of her Gen-X icon stage, didn’t talk to the riff-raff and mostly just smoked a lot.)
When I first saw the movie, I thought the romantic pairing between Ryder and Depp’s characters to be its weakest link (despite the fact the were a real-life couple at the time, which helped fuel interest in the film.) Certainly they do not share a lot of screen time together, but their scenes do have plenty of emotional pull, driven mostly by scenes of them staring wordlessly into each other’s eyes.
Much Edward’s appeal lies in his contrast with Jim, a standard-issue brutish jock type who only cares about himself and whose interest in Kim extends no further than the carnal access she allows. Like many people, I hadn’t seen Hall in anything since his skinny dweeb days of “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Weird Science,” and joined them in astonishment at his physical transformation in the intervening years.
(During one stretch in the ‘80s while still a teenager, Hall joined and left the cast of “Saturday Night Live” and turned down the lead roles in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Full Metal Jacket.” That must mark some sort of Hollywood record for epic whiffs, reportedly because he was terrified of getting typecast. He soon learned the parable that it’s better to get typecast than not cast at all.)
In addition to the other bits of mythology Burton, who wrote the story, and screenwriter Caroline Thompson include are references to the legend of Beauty and the Beast. Edward is more outwardly freakish but Jim, like Gaston, is the true monster.
Burton would go on to work with Thompson and Depp in a number of other films. It was also his first of many collaborations with cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who helped create the movie’s signature German Expressionism-meets-Kmart style.
The rest of the cast mostly serve as a sort of Greek chorus who are alternately amazed, delighted and frightened of Edward, depending on what stage of the storytelling.
Kathy Baker is Joyce, the resident lonely sexpot; Conchata Ferrell plays Helen, a blunt-talking proto-Roseanne Arnold type; O-Lan Jones is Esmeralda, the religious fanatic who occasionally emerges from playing organ in her neon-lit house full of crucifixes to warn about Edward’s demonic disposition; and Dick Anthony Williams plays the local cop, the only Black character who tiredly puts up with the populace’s shifting moods and seems to harbor genuine sympathy for Edward as a fellow otherized figure.
Baker’s Joyce is a real piece of work. She leads the charge in championing Edward’s artistic renaissance, helping him move from snipping bushes to pets to women’s hair. Her long, clickety-clack fake fingernails are an ersatz imitation of Edward’s more authentic appendages. When she throws herself at him and the lad, who’s probably wholly innocent of all things sexual, rebuffs her it turns Joyce into the leader of the backlash movement.
With their DayGlo homes, ugly clothes/cars and fantastically weird hairdos courtesy of Edward, the suburbanites come to resemble the Whos from “How the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Although I’d say their relationship to Edward is less like the Grinch than Frankenstein’s monster.
Or perhaps I’m getting it all wrong. Really, how the people feel about the man-boy from up on the mountain most closely hews to how they regard his art. Before he shows them anything, he is simply an object of mystery and intrigue. Once they see what he can do, Edward instantly becomes a celebrity whose reputation borders on worshipfulness. But when he becomes ostracized — mostly owing to Jim and Joyce’s machinations — and begins sabotaging the art, Edward is soon reviled and shunned.
I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb here in saying this dynamic is also a reflection of Burton’s own ambivalent feelings about his newfound status as an A-list director and wunderkind.
As long as the artist is delighting people and giving them what they want, they are showered with praise and fortune. But if people are exposed to the complex emotions and fragile mental states that often accompany the artistic mind, their sympathy and patience soon evaporate.
In a sense, Edward’s strange, sharp hands are the artistic impulses that drive people like Tim Burton to create inspired scenarios and push the boundaries of what is defined as beautiful. These implements can astound, but also can be damaging to their relationships with others and their own sense of self — quite literally, cutting both ways.