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This Week in Genre History: Edward Scissorhands cut right to the core of teenage isolation
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
There is an old writing maxim that says “the best way to make your story universal is to keep it deeply personal.” Before Tim Burton was a filmmaker, an artist, or anything other than a scared teenager in suburban Burbank, he drew a picture of a thin man with long hair, a sad face, and... scissors for fingers. The drawing was, as so many adolescent creations are, a manifestation of loneliness and isolation — that feeling like no one understands you and no one ever will. It was just a drawing. But Burton, as he got older and became an animator and then an extremely successful film director, never could quite get the image out of his mind.
Thus, when his career reached the point when he seemed to have his maximum leverage — though it turns out that point would come later — Burton brought that drawing to life. Burton’s passion project was Edward Scissorhands, which came out 30 years ago this week, Dec. 7, 1990. Ordinarily, a movie as successful and influential as Edward Scissorhands was would be the subject of all sorts of 30-year retrospectives. But a lot can happen in 30 years. Your personal vision that touches a chord in millions of fellow teenagers can start to lose its power 30 years later... particularly when the man-child at the middle of it starts to lose the innocence that made him so relatable and beloved. Specific stories, it turns out, can sometimes only be universal for so long.
Why was it a big deal at the time? There was no more exciting, up-and-coming, superstar filmmaker on the planet in 1990 than Tim Burton. His first two films, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, weren’t just huge hits, they were quirky and interesting and unusual and seemingly very much the work of a pop artist who had his finger on the pulse of something about America. Audiences loved both films, which were weird but accessible, specific but relatable, and his aesthetic, which we’ve all gotten used to now, felt legitimately revolutionary at the time. (You’ll have to forgive us: We had no idea Hot Topic stores were coming.) Burton felt like the dawn of... something. And then Batman became a global phenomenon and cemented it: Burton wasn’t the future of Hollywood, he was its present.
Which, like many superstars directors in the past, got him thinking back to his passion project. “I think that Edward Scissorhands was sort of a veiled autobiography of Tim’s,” Burton’s longtime art director Tom Duffield said. The film needed to be uniquely Burton’s but also still accessible, which led him, at one point, to imagine it as a musical. Instead, he worked with young novelist Caroline Thompson on sketching out a story, and then a full screenplay. The studio, understandably, thought the whole thing was too strange and wanted to make it as audience-friendly as possible, at one point even trying to cast Tom Cruise in the lead role. (Burton and Cruise even met to discuss the part.)
But Burton stuck to his guns, and he came across his ideal choice to play the role: A former TV star who had just filmed a John Waters movie named Johnny Depp, who was just otherworldly enough, yet beautiful enough, to fit the role like a glove. (Well, maybe not a “glove” given the titular Scissorhands.) The movie was instantly one of the most anticipated films of the year: It was, after all, a Tim Burton movie.
What was the impact? For all the talk of the inherent weirdness of the film, test audiences loved Edward Scissorhands. And 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, at first was tempted to make it a tentpole blockbuster, “like E.T.,” according to then-president Joe Roth. But, this was ultimately still a movie about a pale guy with crazy hair and scissors for hands, so Fox ended up being more cautious in its approach to releasing and promoting the movie. This may have ultimately cost them some money, but it sure helped the film in the long run. It allowed teenagers — teens who might have had pictures of Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder on their walls — to discover the film on their own... to give them ownership over it. The movie ended up making a profit, but what it really did was secure Depp, Ryder, and Burton's statuses as true icons of the era. It made them feel like true visionary artists, working within the Hollywood system, in multiplexes everywhere.
They all just got more powerful and were given more freedom afterward. Ryder’s next three films were for Jim Jarmusch, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Burton would make a Batman sequel and then two more weird, wonderful movies in Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! But the film catapulted Depp more than anyone. He immediately became the biggest art-house leading man in Hollywood, drifting from Jarmusch films to Benny & Joon to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (crossing paths with Leonardo DiCaprio, just starting out on his similar trajectory), before finding his franchise in Pirates of the Caribbean. That would lead to a whole different phase of his career, and one that has done him no favors. These days, his connection to Edward Scissorhands seems further away than ever before. He largely has himself to blame for that.
Has it held up? The film can’t help but feel a little less special, a little less weird, when we’ve seen countless movies in the past 30 years trying to copy its passion and aesthetic, many of which were made by Burton himself. In fact, the film in many ways feels less like a lasting document and more like a time capsule of 1990; all these figures, Burton, Depp, and Ryder, are etched in amber at that exact age at that exact time. The film reminds you of how you felt about it without necessarily evoking those feelings again. It feels like staring at an old picture of yourself before you got old and life got so much harder.
A large part of this is due to Depp’s problems as well: It’s just not particularly pleasant to see him as this innocent, too-sensitive-for-this-world figure anymore, knowing what we know now. This is extra-textual, but it matters: We responded to the film back then because Depp, his castmates, and Burton’s whole aesthetic all seemed so fresh and new, so we respond differently now that we know they are not. Still, you can’t help but wonder if Burton, still the kid making that drawing in Burbank, feels Edward Scissorhands just as powerfully as he did when he made it. That’s the thing about making something personal that goes universal. Someday, the universe may move on. But in the end, it is still yours.
Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.