Wood, Ed (1924-1978)

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Wood, Ed (1924-1978)

The director of some of filmdom's campiest flicks during the Tarnished Age of the "B" movie, the cross-dressing Edward D. Wood, Jr. is remembered by a loyal cult following as the "worst director of all time" for such unforgettable creations as the transvestite epic Glen or Glenda (1953) and the mock-serious science-fiction drama Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958). Replete with bad dialogue, moralistic narration, infamously cheap special effects, and starring an eclectic group of Hollywood outcasts, including an aging Bela Lugosi, Wood's films rank among the most dreadful spectacles in cinematic history. His films mouldered in relative obscurity for decades, known only to "B" film buffs, until the 1994 biographical comedy Ed Wood triggered a resurgence of interest in his work. This film showed how, in the words of Boston Herald film critic James Verniere, sometimes "a dream can take you further than talent."

Born in 1924, Wood spent his formative years in New Jersey, cultivating his love of both Hollywood and angora sweaters. Although he was always a heterosexual, he admitted finding comfort in women's clothing. As a marine in World War II, Wood feared being injured in battle lest medics discover the bra and panties underneath his combat fatigues. In 1946, fresh from the service, Wood arrived in Hollywood with nothing but his unbreakable optimism and a change of lingerie. He spent a few years on the backest of back lots, paying his dues, producing some short films, and planning his first major feature. The opportunity finally came in 1953 when Wood released Glen or Glenda, in which he himself starred as a cross-dressing businessman also known as Danal Davis. It was during the filming that Wood met Lugosi, at that time an aging, drug-addicted actor desperate for the dignity of regular work. Enamoured to have crossed paths with the star of Dracula, the 1931 horror classic, and desperate for publicity, Wood immediately invented a part for Lugosi. In the final scene of Glen or Glenda, when Wood's character divulges his obvious secret to his girlfriend, and she dramatically hands him her prized angora sweater, Lugosi appears as an obviously out-of-place supreme being, inexplicably chanting "pull the string."

Over the next few years, Wood refined his unique style of moviemaking by working on several short films, including the high-camp horror flick Bride of the Monster (1956). With neither studio connections nor talented talent, Wood was forced to work entirely outside the Hollywood system, accepting financial backing from any willing sponsor and collecting old stock footage to fill screen time. He also assembled his own unusual Hollywood "family," including future wife Loretta King, the morphine-addicted Lugosi, Criswell, a fake television psychic who once predicted an outbreak of cannibalism, Bunny Breckenridge, a drag queen, and Tor Johnson, a 300-pound Swedish wrestler turned actor. Despite the lack of production values, experienced actors or quality scripts, Wood truly believed his pictures could make a difference, often relying on blatant narration to illustrate his point. Ever the optimist, Wood never once did a second take, because in each instance, he truly believed the first take was perfect.

In 1955, Wood released his most renowned film, Plan 9 from Outer Space, about aliens who transform the dead into killer zombies to teach the warmongers of Earth a lesson. Originally entitled Grave Robbers from Outer Space, Wood was forced to rename the film after his unlikely sponsors, the First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills, opposed the original title for religious reasons. Lugosi died shortly after filming began, but rather than remove the only remotely marketable name from the marquee, Wood substituted his wife's chiropractor—who was a full foot taller—for Lugosi in the rest of the scenes. Ed Wood "fans" have practically made an industry of ridiculing Plan 9 from Outer Space for the cheap sets, simplistic dialogue, and especially the laughable special effects, like the UFOs, which were nothing more than spinning hubcaps dangling from very visible strings. The film is Wood's true "masterpiece," a perpetual candidate for the worst film of all time.

Wood went on to direct several more movies, including Violent Years (1956), a tale of the "untamed girls of the pack gang" which nonetheless preaches a return to family values, and Night of the Ghouls (1959), a film that announced that it was "so astounding that some of you might faint." As low-budget as they were, Wood's films rarely made a cent. By the late 1960s, Wood was broke and resorted to making soft-core pornography films and writing a few "adult books" including Death of a Transvestite. Wood himself descended into alcoholism and died in 1978 at the age of 54.

A few months after his death, Wood was chosen the "worst director of all-time" by the Golden Turkey Awards. Over the next decade, his films appeared in "B" movie festivals around the world and gained a small cult following, which included director Tim Burton. In 1994, Burton released Ed Wood, a comedic tribute in which Johnny Depp was cast as the starry-eyed Wood. The film details Wood's life between 1952 and 1955, focusing on his relationship with Bela Lugosi. Although it did not last long in theatres, the film drew considerable critical acclaim, making many critics' top-ten lists for 1994. Rather than patronizing the obviously untalented director, Burton presents Wood as a naive and charismatic man with true affection for Lugosi and the rest of his coterie of "misfits and dope fiends." Martin Landau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his mesmerizing portrayal of the drug-addicted Lugosi, bitter at the Hollywood world that had cast him aside. In the words of film critic Phillip Wuntch of the Dallas Morning News, Ed Wood "succeeds as a salute to filmmaking and, on a personal level, as a valentine to the uncrushed human spirit."

Thanks to the 1994 film, the public gained some respect for the "worst director of all-time." Many of his films became available on video, and Wood has become the center of a small but devoted cult following.

—Simon Donner

Further Reading:

Alexander, Scott, and Larry Koraszewski. Ed Wood. Boston, Faber and Faber, 1995.

Cross, Robin. The Big Book of B-movies. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Grey, Rudolph. Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. New York, Feral House, 1994