“This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.”— Ed Wood commenting on his film Plan 9 From Outer Space
“Inspector Clay’s dead. Murdered. And somebody’s responsible!
“Future events like these will affect you in the future! ” —from Plan 9 From Outer Space
It’s not a big list. I’m talking about the list of genuine American war heroes (decorated for bravery in the bloody island-hopping South Pacific campaign) who later admitted to enjoying wearing women’s clothes and went on to feature 400-lb Swedish ex-wrestlers and chiropractors in some of the worst movies ever made. Well, actually, there’s only one name on that list: Edward D. Wood Jr. Ed Wood’s life is almost a perfect barometer of pessimism. Was it a life half empty, or a life half full? In most hands, we’d get the biography of a spectacularly untalented man whose inability to make even a mediocre film ended in a descent into alcoholism and pornography. A career so without honor that Wood’s name was pointedly absent from the original editions of such standard cinematic reference works as David Thompson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film and Ephraim Katz’s massive The Film Encyclopedia. Boxed sets of Night of the Ghouls, Shotgun Wedding, and Orgy of the Dead will probably not be readily available anytime soon. Plan 9 From Outer Space is unlikely to lose its now near-mythic status as the Worst Movie of All Time.
Is it possible to salvage anything out of this seeming wreckage of a human soul, this celluloid scrap yard? Yes. Yes, indeed. Ask Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Martin Landau. Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s best movie. It was one of the best movies of 1994. Burton & Co. saw a life half full and overflowing. Watching Ed Wood is like seeing through Don Quixote’s eyes as he rode against the windmills he thought were giants. Forget for a short while what the dispassionate world sees—a foolish old man and an inept young one—and share the one thing which unites them across four centuries: enthusiasm. They were out to make a better world for us all. Don Quixote would have been Sir Galahad; Ed Wood would have been Orson Welles. Absurd ambitions? Without a doubt. Mean ones? Not at all. How’s this for optimism:
“Hey, it’s [describing a review of his play The Casual Company] not that bad. You can’t concentrate on the negative. Look, [the reviewer’s] got some nice things to say here. ‘The soldier’s costumes are very realistic.’ That’s positive! I’ve seen reviews where they never even mentioned the costumes…Don’t take it seriously. We’re all doing great work!” (Johnny Depp as Ed Wood))
What else but enthusiasm could persuade an ailing 66-year-old Bela Lugosi to wade into a pool of cold water at 2 a.m. to fight a giant rubber octopus? What else but enthusiasm would allow Ed Wood to convince a group of earnest Baptist businessmen, looking to make a series of films on the Gospels, that they could finance their project by bankrolling something caller Grave Robbers From Outer Space? As a mystified colleague remarks, “How do you do it? How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”
Ed Wood was a great believer in the suspension of disbelief. So what if a few cardboard gravestones fell over during shooting. So what if an actor ran into a fake wall and caused the whole set to shake. So what if the cameraman was colorblind. After all, “Film-making is not about the tiny details. It’s about the Big Picture!’ Here was a man for whom four days was a complete shooting schedule. Ed would shoot 20 scenes in the time it would take some directors to set up a single take. Was there some old footage available (bison stampedes, frogs, war scenes)? Use it all! “This is fantastic! What are you going to do. with it? I could make an entire movie using this stock footage!”
It’s tempting to end half of Johnny Depp’s lines with exclamation marks (“Wow! Real camels!”). He plays Wood as a perpetually burning fuse that refuses to be snuffed out no matter how thoroughly it’s doused. And usually with scorn. His smile is a miracle of rare device, both heartbreakingly vulnerable and as irrepressible as the sun. Johnny Depp is extraordinary. A role which could easily have degenerated into caricature in less talented hands becomes instead an ode to joy.
One can only guess what Bela Lugosi thought of it all. The Hungarian actor, who had become an international sensation as Dracula, was a forgotten man when he first met Wood: “I haven’t worked in four years. This town, it chews you up and spits you out. I’m just an ex-bogeyman….Today it’s all giant bugs.” Lugosi had made a hundred films, almost none of them memorable. Most people in Hollywood thought he was dead, He was foundering under the combined weight of poverty and a heroin addiction. Wood didn’t revive Lugosi’s career, but he offered him respect, adulation, and friendship when he needed it most. The relationship between the two men was like that of a grizzled, ill- tempered old German shepherd and a pesky pup. Martin Landau deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi.
Hats off to Tim Burton for lovingly stealing every B-movie cliché of the 1950’s. To Stefan Czapsky for the “authentic” black & white photography. To Howard Shore for a wonderfully idiosyncratic musical score featuring Lidia Kavina’s theremin solos. And to the stellar supporting cast.
Ed Wood died of a heart attack, December 10th, 1978, at the age of 54. Everything he owned fitted into a suitcase. Three days prior to his death, he and his wife had been evicted from their apartment. Seventeen years later, thanks to Tim Burton, he is back from the dead. His friends are still loyal. It turns out that Ed Wood’s life is the best Ed Wood movie of them all.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I’m taking a little different approach with this second look at Ed Wood. I’ve spent a few days watching the “classic” Ed Wood movies, which are all available for free streaming, and reading Rudolph Grey’s excellent oral biography, Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy. I wanted to get my thoughts down here before I went back to Tim Burton’s take on the man often called the world’s worst filmmaker.
Although images of poor old Bela Lugosi struggling with a fake octopus might not be on a par with Death playing chess in The Seventh Seal, Ed Wood was the real deal when it came to being a filmmaker. He never had much money, and he probably didn’t have a whole lot of talent, but his entire life revolved around putting stories on the screen the best way he knew how. If he had to steal a rubber octopus from some studio’s prop department, so be it. If he had to hire a financial backer’s son as a lead actor, why the hell not. If he ran out of flying saucer models, a Cadillac hubcap would do just fine. Nothing ever stopped him from making movies, in the same way nothing ever stopped him from writing a long string of sleazy sensationalistic or pornographic dime store novels with titles like Orgy of the Dead and Purple Thighs. He was an author. He was a director. He did the best he could with what he had. I don’t know if he actually ever scared anyone with his horror pictures, awed them with his science fiction, or riveted them to their seats with film noirs, but we’re still checking in on his creations and we’re still talking about him.
He paid for his notoriety. He died of a heart attack at 54. There was too much booze. Too much partying. Too much womanizing. Too many worries about where the next dollar was coming from. Maybe too much tension trying to reconcile the man who performed medal-winning heroics as a Marine in the Pacific War and the man with an uncontrollable fetish for women’s undies and angora sweaters. I suspect he would have fared poorly under the current scrutiny of the treatment of young women in the entertainment industries.
Given the chance, though, I don’t know that he would have done anything differently. He lived his life as if it were a headline story straight out of one of the Men’s Adventure Magazines whose lurid covers were actually tamer than some of the stuff he wrote and filmed. I’m not saying that we don’t have every right to laugh at his dumber-than-dumb aliens, stock footage rip-offs, cardboard sets, and voice-of-doom narrators. In Wood’s memory, we should be partying with triple bills of his films, throwing popcorn at the screen, shouting out lines of dopey dialogue, and laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. But—and this an important “but”—we should also pause every now and then to acknowledge that occasionally Ed Wood hit on themes that other directors in the late 50’s wouldn’t dream of tackling. No one acknowledged this more frankly than movie critic Danny Peary. In his Guide for the Film Fanatic, Peary wrote of Glen or Glenda (1953), Wood’s debut as a director, “Surprisingly, the picture’s treatment of transvestism is serious and sensitive. Indeed, the film dares defend transvestites, saying that if allowed to wear women’s clothing they’ll be credits to their communities and government….one must be impressed by this film for the very reason that it takes a stand on a subject that surely was in 1953 not even acceptable enough to be considered controversial.” Talking about the speech that’s given by the alien Eros near the end of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Peary wrote (in Cult Movies), “Don’t let the fact that Eros is a maniac throw you off—at rare moments, he is as sound a visionary as is Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Wood just had to make Eros crazy to camouflage his political message so that he wouldn’t have trouble with censors. I believe that in this one scene (in the spaceship), in this one godawful, terribly made, poor excuse for a picture, Edward D. Wood is more critical of America’s government and military strategy (that calls for an arms buildup and further nuclear experiments) than any other director dared to be….Plan 9, dreadful as it is, is something far more significant, and therefore better, than ‘The Worst Film of All Time’ could possibly be.”
Ed Wood came out of the era of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. Could it be that the current Trump era is birthing its own cinematic paragon of bad taste and subversive content? Looking at Wood’s life and oeuvre, it’s hard to know if he would have celebrated Trump’s America or been appalled by it.