October 10, 1924– Ed Wood:
“No, I’m all man. I even fought in WW II. Of course, I was wearing women’s undergarments under my uniform.”
Ed Wood is only really referenced by hardcore film fans, and even that group has probably only seen one of his films. Creepy Conservative Republican Michael Medved’s book The Golden Turkey Awards declared Wood The Worst Director of All Time, and his film Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) the Worst Film Ever Made. People seemed to grab hold of those titles and they still get repeated.
The Golden Turkey Awards was published after Medved’s The 50 Worst Films Of All Time, a book in which Wood’s name, nor any of his films are even mentioned. Before Golden Turkey, no one had heard of Ed Wood. Wood’s films weren’t screened all that often, not even at revival houses, but they were sometimes shown on late night television horror programs. The royalties wear cheap because Wood never had them copyrighted.
But since a certain Tim Burton biopic, Wood has become a camp and geek favorite. Yet, Wood’s legacy is filled with myths and misinformation. He did not use pie tins as UFOs in Plan 9 From Outer Space, but hobby shop plastic models. Near the end of his life, Bela Lugosi may have had a morphine addiction, but he was never shooting-up formaldehyde. Lesser directors, if forced to make films under the conditions Wood faced, would just have given up.
I find Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) starring Johnny Depp, with the late, great Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, and featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, and Bill Murray, is a sweet love letter to Wood, low-budget filmmaking, Hollywood sleaze, and dreamers of all stripes.
Ed Wood, the film, not the man, was in development at Columbia Pictures, but the studio passed when Burton insisted on shooting it in black-and-white. Ed Wood was picked up, ironically, by Disney Studios. The film was released to critical acclaim, but was a box-office bomb, making only $6 million against an $18 million budget. But, it won two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Landau and Best Makeup for Rick Baker.
It really is a fabulous, funny film, with outstanding cinematography (something missing in Wood’s movies). But, it still plays on the idea that Wood was the Worst Director of All Time and Plan 9 From Outer Space is the Worst Film.
Woods was no James Ivory, David Lean or even Ken Russell, for sure, but let’s be honest, Jerry Bruckheimer’s, Michael Bay’s, Roland Emmerich’s stuff is not nearly as entertaining, fascinating, even thought-provoking as any of Wood’s.
As a child, Wood loved films and it shows. He was born Edward Davis Wood, Jr. in Poughkeepsie. Legend has it that his mother always wanted a girl and until Wood was 12-years-old she dressed him in girls’ clothing. Young Ed got a job as a movie theatre usher. He also played musical instruments and formed a band called Eddie Wood’s Little Splinters. Wood received his first film camera as a gift on his 17th birthday and his first “film” was of the crash of an airplane. When he was 18-years-old, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Wood joined the Marines.
After WW II, Wood chased his embrace of all things bizarre by joining a freak show with a traveling carnival. He played the role of the bearded lady and created his own prosthetic breasts.
During the 1950s, he wrote, produced, and acted in a series of extremely low-budget Science Fiction, Horror, and Western films. Today, these movies are loved and derided in equal measure for their many obvious flubs, cheap special effects, odd dialogue, miscasting, and insane plots. Wood struggled to make ends meet and was often forced to turn out screenplays in a single night to keep on schedule.
In 1952, Wood was introduced to actor Bela Lugosi by writer-producer Alex Gordon, Wood’s roommate at the time, who went on to help start American International Pictures, producer of low-budget fare aimed at teens. Lugosi’s son, Bela Lugosi Jr., claimed Wood exploited his father’s fame, taking advantage of the fading actor when he could not refuse any work. But others who knew them say that Wood and Lugosi were genuine friends and that Wood helped Lugosi through the worst days of his depression and addiction.
Wood worked as an actor in his own films under different pseudonyms, including Ann Gora and Akdov Telmig (The backwards form of his favorite drink, the vodka gimlet).
He made 10 films in less than a decade. My favorite, of course, is 1953’s Glen Or Glenda (originally titled I Changed My Sex!) which starred Wood, billed as “Daniel Davis”, his girlfriend Dolores Fuller and Lugosi as the narrator. The film was loosely based on pioneering transwoman Christine Jorgensen. While panned by critics then and now, considered as one of Wood’s worst films, it is plenty camp, but also notable for its groundbreaking empathetic look at LGBTQ issues at a time when no one else dared.
Wood really was a cross-dresser, who found comfort rather than excitement from Angora fabric. The only time he directed a film while in drag was during Glen Or Glenda, when he was directing himself in the Glenda scenes. Wood was not shy about going out in public dressed as Shirley, his female alter ego. Shirley also appeared in many of his screenplays and stories.
When his film career ran out of steam, mostly because of no funding, Wood turned his prolific creative energy to churning out sex novels, pulp fiction, and horror stories. The lack of money took its toll and Wood struggled with his health because of alcohol addiction. Eventually he and his wife were kicked out of their apartment and had to move in with a friend in North Hollywood where he drank more and wore women’s clothes less. It was there that Wood was taken by a heart attack on December 10, 1978. He was just 54-years-old. When his wife found him, she writes:
“I still remember when I went into that room that afternoon and he was dead, his eyes and mouth were wide open. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. He clutched at the sheets. It looked like he’d seen hell.”
Wood’s legacy continues. In 1998, Wood’s previously unproduced script I Woke Up Early The Day I Died was finally filmed, starring Christina Ricci, Tippi Hedren, Bud Cort, Sandra Bernhard, and Karen Black. Of course, it did not receive a commercial release. Wood can’t even catch a break in death.
The Film Department at USC holds an annual Ed Wood Film Festival where students write, film, and act in an Ed Wood-esque short film based on a predetermined theme. His bizarre transvestite-themed sex novels have been republished.
People can laugh about Wood’s pictures, but after all the super hero reboots, mutant origin stories, and Alien sequels are forgotten in a generation, fans will still be watching Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen And Glenda and they’ll still be having fun.