It had been an interesting sight from the air, all the night lights of the great expanse of the city – a drive-in movie, where the cartoon ending with ‘That’s All Folks!’ spread across the giant screen, visible even at that altitude. The fantastic high-rise hotel which rested on the very edge of the airport, and more so, the vastness of the airfield itself – the blue, smog-cutting lights which indicated the runway. The Killer marvelled at the sight. He wanted to see it more clearly… (Let Me Die in Drag, aka Death of a Transvestite, Edward D. Wood Jnr., 1965)
In Tim Burton’s eponymous titled Oscar-winning love letter to Ed Wood, a broken and dejected Wood bumps into Orson Welles in a bar. Welles gives the pep talk of a lifetime and cites Hollywood indifference and total creative control as a rallying cry for Wood to go back and complete his magnum opus, Plan 9 from Outer Space (1956).
We see a glowing Wood (Johnny Depp) triumphant at the film’s première and oblivious to the howls of derision from the audience. “This is the one!” he cries. “This is the one I’ll be remembered for!” It’s as heartbreaking a line as you’ll get in a movie, and it’s the legend we’ve all been sold.
Welles has gone down in history as the creator of arguably the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane, whilst Wood is seen as the complete polar opposite.
But for me, Edward D. Wood Jr. is the most famous director of all time.
Not only that, but he was truly groundbreaking. I realize, of course, that these are bold claims. Like many of you, I first heard of Ed Wood and the jaw-dropping joys of Plan 9 from Outer Space via The Golden Turkey Awards, a book that I pored over endlessly as a breathless B-movie addict in the early 80s. It’s so well-thumbed now that the pages come away if you even look at them, let alone touch them.
Ed Wood’s name was the very first thing I searched for when I booked into one of the new Internet cafés in 1996 and sat watching type load up on a dial-up screen. He looms large in my life, and I suspect in most of yours too.
It took me nearly 15 years to actually lay eyes on a copy of one of his films – my first introduction was Glen or Glenda (1953) and if I wasn’t completely obsessed before, then I certainly was when I heard the immortal words: “Pull the string!” intoned by Bela Lugosi.
I knew the legends off by heart. Transvestite World War II veteran turned awful director. The cast of weirdos and has-beens he kept as an entourage and erstwhile family – the aforementioned Bela, Tor Johnson, Vampira. How he stole props and filmed at night to avoid paying for movie permits. How his chiropractor – a good foot taller and a good deal blonder – stood in for the recently dead Lugosi in Plan 9.
So why on earth am I swimming against the tide, Ed Wood style, and proclaiming him a misunderstand and overlooked genius?
The turning point and revelatory moment for me was reading two of Wood’s novels, Killer in Drag (1965) and Let Me Die in Drag (1967), both the kind of trashy pulp fiction that you’d find in a dark den in Soho, and both full of the usual exploitation fare of murderers, pimps, whores, and transvestites. The epiphany was in the descriptive passages.
They’re actually very good.
The dialogue is what we’ve come to know and love; nonsensical, repetitive, purple, and really quite dreadful. But the narrative is evocative and reassuringly cinematic. It’s often been said that if Wood had a bigger budget then he may have been a better director. I’d argue that he just needed a script doctor to polish up the speeches. The rest of his work is actually light years ahead of the competition and is fabulously avant garde to boot.
For starters, he wrote and directed the bulk of his films, which puts him firmly amongst the Nouvelle Vague in France, the Stunde Null in West Germany and right up there with luminaries such as Cassavetes in the United States. He was an auteur.
He also kept a close and regular set of cast and crew – just like Wes Anderson, just like Tim Burton, just like Wim Wenders, just like Truffaut. Granted they may not have been the world’s greatest talent but he fostered the sort of nurturing and creative environment that we’ve come to expect from the vast majority of independent directors these days.
Quentin Tarantino, another auteur with a coterie of regulars is legendary for kick-starting the careers of those luminaries he admires. Wood did the same – decades earlier:
- Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira was an out-of-work actress whose network show had just been canceled when Wood took her under his wing. She sued Elvira in the 1980s for copyright of her image and show concept, is credited as the inspiration for Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and featured in the Hollywood reboot of Wood’s final script I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). She is now widely beloved amongst the horror and sci-fi community.
- Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler, was encouraged to act by Wood. He became the top selling Halloween mask of all time.
- Bela Lugosi was a penniless drug addict when he met Wood by chance. Frank Sinatra paid for his funeral, a raft of fans rediscovered his definitive performance as Dracula, and Martin Landau would go on to win the best-supporting-actor Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994).
- Dolores Fuller, Wood’s then girlfriend, went on to write classic hits for Elvis Presley and others. She was writing a musical based on her life with Wood at the time of her death in 2011.
And dialogue notwithstanding his ideas were solid. He was passionate about film, adored both the horror and science fiction genres, and embraced the fear and fascination of the Atomic Age.
If you overlook the wobbling sets and creaky dialogue Plan 9 from Outer Space is a fascinating diatribe about man’s inhumanity. Three aliens descend to Earth to reanimate the corpses of the recently deceased and wreak havoc on a planet obsessed with nuclear destruction in a “give ’em a taste of their own medicine” revenge plot.
Bride of the Monster (aka Bride of the Atom 1955) also has nuclear energy and atomic destruction at its heart. A scientist twisted from years working in laboratories and shunned by his peers’ attempts to create a master race of sub-atomic super humans. The film also gives one of Wood’s surprisingly better speeches in “Home… I have no home”, which coincidentally was Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning performance speech nearly 40 years later.
And Night of the Ghouls (1958), a movie straddling the line between horror and science fiction gives us a confidence trickster masquerading as a medium set against social unrest, urban decay, and juvenile delinquency.
Wood was also – partly out of necessity and partly for the sheer daring hell of it – a bona fide guerilla filmmaker. Long before YouTube and iPhones and Final Cut he was out there in the streets and the alleys of Los Angeles, permit less and penniless, grabbing shooting opportunities where he could, “borrowing” props as he went along, and editing the footage in his apartment every other waking second. There are tales of Lugosi in a freezing cold lake in the middle of nowhere battling with a rubber octopus at 2 am because that was the only time they could steal it and get it back without prying eyes. Or the very real danger of Wood walking down the Hollywood streets in full drag at a time when this meant a certain jail sentence. He not only lived his life on his own terms, but he filmed it that way as well.
Finally, what of the most famous director of all time? Go out in the street or collar one of your friends. Ask any of them if they know who Ed Wood is, and I will bet you anything that the answer is “yes”. And sure as Criswell predicts, one fine day it’ll be for the right reasons.
Edward D. Wood Jr. eventually and perhaps inevitably descended into penury, alcoholism, and a series of forgettable and tacky porn flicks. He died of a massive coronary at his home on December 10th 1978. He was 54.
One by one the rides ceased to move. The music and blaring loudspeakers became silent. Then the lights were gone. The voices of the barkers and the concessionaires were stilled. A few minutes more, after the last automobile had gone, only the sounds of a poker game off in one of the tents broke the stillness of the rain-swept night. (Killer in Drag, Edward D. Wood Jr., 1965)