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,1 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 was clinched by the revelation that he was a transvestite obsessed with angora sweaters who frequently directed in drag. (An actor in one of Wood’s porno films reminisces: “He was very gentle, very patient. I hate to say this, but for him to direct in the pink baby doll outfit, it just seemed normal.”)2 The angora was just the right fetish to add a personal touch, colorful, unusual, but unthreatening: a kinder, gentler perversity.
Tim Burton’s movie represents the culmination of a sophisticated and highly self-conscious process, by which an unworthy figure has been elevated to an emblematic fame. The Wood phenomenon might be seen as a subversive experiment in manipulating the machinery by which people become famous in America, a collective act of cultural vandalism comparable to dropping LSD in the water supply or writing in a farm animal as a political candidate.
The Wood cult—if it deserves the name—began as a satiric response to the solemnities of academic film criticism, complete with mock criticism, mock retrospectives, and mock awards. The joke was simple reversal: the most blatantly amateurish elements of Wood’s films—their robotic acting, incoherent dialogue, and flimsy sets, their overall atmosphere of desperate and impoverished improvisation—would be singled out for exaggerated praise. The Medveds’ 1980 tribute, for instance, was a none too subtle pastiche of the kind of orthodox auteurism that might argue, for instance, that the unconvincing process shots in Hitchcock’s late films are a deliberate distancing effect:
[Wood’s] mise-en-scene is particularly intriguing in Plan Nine when he shows studio floodlights above his haunted cemetery set. It is also pure genius to instruct an actor to trip over a tombstone, causing the cardboard replica to bend notably.
In the spirit of a collegiate prank, Wood’s partisans enacted a revenge on the solemnities of aesthetic veneration, on the very notion of greatness. Call it mass-market camp, terminal irony, or the ultimate triumph of The Gong Show, the televised amateur contest of the late 1970s where honors accrued to the freakiest, tackiest, and most singularly ungifted contestants. Camp, which implied a rarefied appreciation of the poetry of fakeness, was succeeded by a delight in stupidity for its own sake, as something to which even the densest spectator could feel superior. The witless, elbow-in-the-ribs narration of Look Back in Angora unintentionally emphasizes the point: watching Ed Wood movies can make anybody at all feel like some kind of genius. (Whether Wood actually lives up, or down, to the claims made for him is another question, addressed further on.)
The notion of badness as consolation, of the transparently witless and contemptible as an object of sincere affection, isn’t to be confused with the discovering of unperceived beauties in ignoble places. It’s a style of response that seems to spring from the entrenched but largely unsung ritual of prepubescent children, mostly boys, sitting around in the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies watching terrible movies on television and cracking each other up with their sarcastic comments. The lingering traces of that ambience seem to be everywhere these days, from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, with their casts of gangsters and lowlifes taking time out for endless dissections of old TV shows and pop songs, to the popular cable television series Mystery Science Theater, which supplies not only clips from terrible movies but suitably sarcastic running comments, as if today’s viewers were deemed too passive to concoct their own wisecracks.
But even a one-joke affair such as “the Ed Wood resurgence” (as it is often portentously described) doesn’t remain simple for long. Once Ed Wood is placed on a pedestal people start to look at him differently. His apotheosis may have been intended as a mockery of fame, but pseudocelebrity turns out to be indistinguishable from any other kind of celebrity.
Tim Burton’s Ed Wood confirms Wood’s ersatz legend by adapting it to the most ersatz of classic Hollywood forms; the biopic. By giving Wood’s existence the same kind of glamorously fake treatment once allotted to George Gershwin, George M. Cohan, Thomas Edison, and Abraham Lincoln, by turning his miserably unsuccessful life into a journey through adversity toward artistic triumph, Burton succeeds in creating a benign parallel world where the last are the first and the insulted and injured become the recipients of all-star tributes. In his pitch-perfect parody, the awe and exhilaration appropriate to the invention of the light bulb or the birth of jazz are lavished on the completion of Bride of the Monster or on Wood’s heroic decision to wear drag on the set. To cap the effect, the most risible scenes from Wood’s movies are reenacted as if they were Jenny Lind’s American debut or the world premiere of Rhapsody in Blue.
The most remarkable thing about Burton’s film, aside from its getting made at all, is its preciosity and arcane allusiveness; the nuances, from the opening tombstone credits (lifted from Plan 9) to the flawless impersonations of every last woebegone member of the Wood stock company, are designed to be fully accessible only to those happy few who have memorized every frame of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. An air of self-reflexive decadence hangs over this meditation on some of the most deeply buried episodes of film history. Forget the angora: Ed Wood is its own fetish, sleekly stylized, obsessively detailed, and delighting in its own gratuitousness. Yet perhaps it won’t matter to the uninitiated, who will find themselves watching a thoroughly engaging comedy, exquisitely shot in black and white, about a band of amusing misfits played with great exuberance by a cast including Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jeffrey Jones. Wood himself is incarnated by Johnny Depp in an appealing if one-note performance in which boyish enthusiasm predominates.
The New York Film Festival’s Program notes describe Tim Burton (who previously directed Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands) as “champion of the eccentric outcast.” In Ed Wood he recasts his protagonist as a lovable eccentric, a category of being with which American culture has had historic difficulties, since reclusive or deviant types tend to be imagined as dangerous maniacs. Burton’s solution is to evoke the humorous madcaps of screwball comedy; Wood and his cronies (many of whom, if not dangerous, were certainly maniacs) might be descendants of the good-hearted drunkards of Preston Sturges’s Ale and Quail Club.
The one somber note is struck, magnificently, by Martin Landau in his uncanny impersonation of Bela Lugosi, a performance that begins in campy mimicry and deepens into unsettling intimations of madness and mortality. By putting Lugosi’s decline and death at the center of his film, Burton is able to discreetly foreshadow the fate awaiting Ed Wood without having to put it on screen and spoil the festive mood. He also pays the price of having Ed Wood look like a supporting character in his own movie.
The predominantly feel-good tone of Ed Wood is summed up by one of its screenwriters, Larry Karaszewski:
Ed is really symbolic of the American dream in a sense that sure he’s a freak, but he did it his way. He fought for what he believed in…If you can get an audience to root for a guy who is sitting there in an angora sweater, directing an aging heroin addict, and get the audience to realize that these people are lovable, that they’re not really freaks, they’re normal people, then you’ve done your job.3
The implication is that to be lovable one must be normal, and since it is unthinkable that Ed Wood should go unloved, he must be relieved of his demons and reconstructed as a clean-spoken, smiling go-getter with a heart of gold, a figure out of a Horatio Alger novel or a Harold Lloyd movie. A journey into the lower depths becomes yet another recovery of lost innocence. What matters in the end is not what Ed Wood does but the spirit in which he does it: he’s the artist as “special” child, the humiliated and despised martyr for art who follows his vision against all odds. As long as the heart is pure, ineptitude and stupidity become badges of honor, and Ed can be framed as an icon, a Prince Myshkin of the exploitation racket.
Burton’s movie is far removed in tone from its dark and finally depressing source, Rudolph Grey’s oral biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy. If Ed Wood exudes good-natured whimsy, the book is something altogether opposite. It’s a bit like sitting around at a wake on Skid Row, awash in maudlin afterthoughts and self-justifying monologues lapsing into incoherence. Much of it is quite funny if you don’t think too hard, such as this bit of directorial analysis by another one of Wood’s porn actors: “Eddie let you improvise a lot. A lot. Because he was not stuck to any one particular concept or idea.” Or, even better, these descriptions of Wood the writer at work: “It all came out of his head just like a machine gun. Real fast. He would sit down and do a whole book in something like four hours. He wouldn’t rewrite or proofread or anything.” “When he wrote, drinking seemed to help. We used to sit and talk, and it was such a nice progression of drinking and talking, and talking and drinking, and he’d wake up in the middle of the night and he’d think of something, and thank God he wrote most of it on paper. The drinking helped. He was always close to a pencil.”
The much-despised genre of oral biography is actually appropriate here, because we don’t often get this level of barely articulate dialogue in print:
“My pancreas is shot to hell—I had major surgery for it—and Ed Wood was a contributor! Ha ha ha! I really started drinking when I got with Eddie. Jesus Christ! Everything was Imperial whiskey. Big ones. Two a day… He switched to vodka because Ralph’s on Highland and Fountain, which was his source of Imperial, went out of business! Ha ha ha ha! So he switched to vodka!”
Grey’s book evokes a fallen world where there is no one to shed light, no one to interrupt the relentlessly self-deluding monologues. At moments we seem to be among the real-life models of the Threshold People of whom Wood wrote in the prologue to Night of the Ghouls: “This is a story of those in the twilight time—Once human—Now monsters—In a void between the living and the dead—Monsters to be pitied—Monsters to be despised.”
As the book traces Wood’s final descent, the mood gets downright scary. “It was the kind of place,” someone says of his last apartment on Yucca Street, “when you walked in, you just had the feeling, this creeping feeling all over, that you might not even survive this walk down this hallway.” The reader who may have been looking for some good laughs is forced to contemplate, in slow motion, an all too vivid disintegration.
At one point in Grey’s book, someone recalls Wood, frustrated at a wrong turn in the production of Night of the Ghouls, crying in the rain somewhere in Westwood: “I love this movie so much, it’s almost like part of me. And they’re not going to do it to me this time. This movie is my baby—they’re not going to take it away from me.” There is a congruence between the disproportionate affection Wood lavished on his brain-children and the deep bonding between the television children and the random junk they grew up on.
To make a cult of Ed Wood is to establish a human provenance for an otherwise despised object like Plan 9 from Outer Space. It’s like a reinvention of home and family within a context of maximum alienation and isolation, so that in the end Wood ends up eliciting this sort of testimonial from his fans: “In a curious way, he’s an inspiration for everyone who has ever been ridiculed, has ever been maligned, has ever been criticized, has ever failed.”4
The notion of an “Ed Wood resurgence” suggests some sort of resurrection from the symbolic swamp of pop culture’s lowest depths, a submerged culture of exploitation movies, comic books, and pulp magazines, a culture created by people who lacked whatever skills might have enabled them to graduate to the mainstream of major studio releases, glossy magazines, and best-selling fiction, people who will never be in People. Ed Wood is appointed to stand for that culture precisely because he is imagined to possess an unexpectedly otherworldly aura, a faint touch of the visionary surviving in a world of schlock and porno.
So much for the myth. What about Wood’s movies themselves? They are only intermittently as bad as has been claimed, without quite being good enough to qualify him as the film poet he clearly aspired to be. Glen or Glenda, his most personal film, a plea for tolerance for tranvestites, stands out—for 1953, and for a twenty-nine-year-old film maker working on an almost nonexistent budget—as a fairly radical and ambitious effort, no poorer in technical quality than a thousand other bottom-of-the-bill featurettes. With its crazy quilt of styles—mixing narration in the manner of an army orientation film with naturalistically lit scenes of the director, in drag, studying the window of a woman’s clothing store, or veering from stock footage of a stampeding buffalo herd into fantasy sequences which might be lifted from a pseudo-Expressionist crime thriller of the early sound period—it does at least offer constant visual surprise.
The later films are more static—varying the camera angle would have made things too expensive—and the visual interest tends to be more accidental. Things were evidently moving too fast for Wood by then, and anything that couldn’t be pulled off in the first take wasn’t going to make it onto the screen. Plan 9 from Outer Space is rightly regarded as the most watchable of his later features; it has the charm of a truly infantile schema transferred without mediation onto the screen. Movie scripts are often described as childish, but it is rare to find one that might really have been written by an eight-year-old, a dreamy and rather morbid eight-year-old.
Far from being the worst movie ever made, Plan 9 is a work of startling if inadvertent originality. Its flagrantly cheap and artificial look is indistinguishable in the end from a deliberately chosen style, and who can say it is not? It isn’t exactly Jean Cocteau, but the images of Vampira and the Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson wandering endlessly with glazed expressions through a landscape of fake fog and fake tombstones do linger in the mind; they even return in dreams.
And there is Wood’s famous dialogue, with its grammar always just enough off-kilter to induce a sudden disorientation: “We’ve developed a language computer, a machine that breaks down any language to our own.” “Ah yes, Plan Nine deals with the resurrection of the dead, long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary glands of the recent dead.” Then again, if you listen closely you might start to wrest some kind of sense from what is being intoned. For instance, the notion of “solaranite,” reiterated at endless length by one of the movie’s worried extraterrestrials, according to which the explosion of single particle of sunlight will destroy both the light’s source (i.e., the sun) and everything illuminated by that source (i.e., the universe): a lucid exposition of a truly schizoid concept.
Wood’s artifacts serve as a seismograph to register a real enough dislocation, a permanent discomfort that he translates into the impoverished pulp vocabulary available to him. The line that links him to Poe or Lovecraft is decidedly attenuated, but he is indeed a late and enfeebled emanation of the gothic tradition, lamentably lacking the skill or intelligence to produce much more than rough sketches of his nightmares. Seen close up, he’s anything but a joke; we may wonder legitimately why we should care, but it’s hard to look away from the portrait that emerges from Nightmare of Ecstasy. Once you’ve begun to seriously sift through a life, it’s too late to ask why, and in Wood’s case the sifting begins to feel like a journey among the damned.
It’s only too appropriate that the memories of Wood elicited from Grey’s informants sound like dialogue from a low-grade horror film: “There’s nights when he just can’t sleep. Nights upon nights. He’s like a lost being on this earth. He doesn’t belong here…” The laughter that his work inevitably provokes is in part a way of warding off that chill. We may be laughing in sheer thankfulness that it was someone else’s destiny, and not our own, to be Edward D. Wood, Jr.
November 17, 1994
Harry and Michael Medved, The Golden Turkey Awards: Nominees and Winners, the Worst Achievements in Hollywood History (Putnam, 1980). ↩
Quoted in Rudolph Grey, Nightmare of Ecstasy (Feral House, 1992). ↩
Film Threat, Vol. 2, No. 19 (December 1994). ↩
John Wooley, Plan 9 From Outer Space (Malibu Graphics, 1990). The book is a painstakingly faithful recreation of Wood’s film in the form of a graphic novel. ↩