The Violent Years
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Bride of the Monster
Glen or Glenda (I Changed My Sex)
Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora
Few biographical movies can afford to take as their title the bare name of their subject, without further adornment or explication. Napoleon, Cleopatra, Abraham Lincoln, Al Capone, Gandhi—and now, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. The inevitable response—Who was Ed Wood, and why did they make a movie about him?—is part of the strategy. Nor does Burton stand alone in his enshrinement of the mysterious Mr. Wood. In addition to his film (now in general release after being shown at the New York Film Festival), Wood’s career has been the subject of two recent documentaries (Ted Newsom’s Look Back in Angora and Brett Thompson’s The Haunted World of Ed Wood), a biography (Rudolph Grey’s Nightmare of Ecstasy), critical essays, and a succession of retrospectives: all this for a man who lived in obscurity and died only sixteen years ago under the most squalid circumstances.
Edward D. Wood, Jr., ex-marine and veteran of Tarawa, one-time carnival geek, sometime professional female impersonator, collapsed and died on December 10, 1978, at the age of fifty-four, three days after being evicted from his Hollywood apartment. He was by then well past what must be called the glory days of his never very visible career: the brief period in which he directed a series of extremely low-budget features including Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1956), Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and The Sinister Urge (1960), movies so marginally released as to be virtually unseen outside the circuit of rural drive-ins and urban “grind houses” devoted to the cheapest of exploitation film making.
In his latter decades, wracked by alcoholism and unable to get financing for such film projects as I Awoke Early the Day I Died and The Day the Mummies Danced, Wood kept himself alive by writing or directing porno (including a series of super-8 shorts for the Sex Education Correspondence School), contributing short fiction to magazines like Bi-Sex, Hot Fun, and Young Beaver, and churning out an extravagant number of paperback novels including Black Lace Drag (1963), It Takes One To Know One (1967), Hell Chicks (1968), and Death of a Transvestite Hooker (1974).
That such a career, or at least a portion of it, would be the theme of what used to be called a major motion picture is a destiny that Wood himself could hardly have imagined in the wildest delusions of his delirious final years. His posthumous canonization was encouraged by his having been pronounced the worst movie director of all time in Harry and Michael Medved’s 1980 book; The Golden Turkey Awards, a heavy-handedly ironic tribute to “the worst achievements in Hollywood history.” In the age of instant celebrity, an indelible formula like “worst director of all time” has the value of currency. It is a unique badge, the very definition of “high concept,” so irresistible that it must be dutifully repeated every time Wood’s name is mentioned in print.
Wood’s dubious claim to celebrity …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.