Michael Adams recalls how a cross-dressing WWII vet became the world’s worst film-maker.
“Oh, the humanity!” That’s what I’ll be thinking this summer as I down a vodka gimlet* and toast the anniversary of the death of Edward D. Wood Jr.
The reason I associate the cult Z-grade auteur with radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s famous cry is not just for its bittersweet melodrama. It’s more practical than that. One of Ed Wood’s first ever films, shot on a home movie camera on May 6, 1937, was of the zeppelin Hindenburg sailing serenely over his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York. A short time later, the dirigible crashed and burned spectacularly. As a metaphor of Wood’s life and cinematic career — lofty dreams destined to flame out — you could do worse.
Doing things worse is of course, what Ed Wood’s best known for. After seeing action in some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theatre in WWII, the young Errol Flynn look-alike resettled in California. He shot a crappy cowboy short in 1948, tried his hand at theatre and made a few commercials for the burgeoning TV industry before landing his first feature, 1953’s Glen Or Glenda. It was financed by an el cheapo producer hoping to cash in on the hoopla surrounding Christine Jorgensen’s sensational sex change. Wood could bring two unique elements to the project —former Dracula star Bela Lugosi, who he’d befriended, and his own transvestism, which gave him an understanding of “deviant” sexual behaviour in the repressed Eisenhower era.
Glen Or Glenda, which features Wood (under the pseudonym Dan Davis) as a confused cross-dresser, is legendary as a so-bad-it’s-awesome cult classic. Its ineptitude beggars belief, but it’s also genuinely hypnotic —an accidentally surrealist masterpiece that anticipates David Lynch’s Eraserhead by 25 years. Glen Or Glenda’s other undeniable quality is its sincerity. Wood used it as a plea for tolerance and understanding in an age where cross-dressers were down there with communists, beatniks and negros as subversive elements.
Over the next decade Wood begged, borrowed and bullshitted to get his movies made. Bride of The Monster, made in 1955, had Lugosi as a mad scientist and was the closest Wood ever got to a profit. His next epic, 1956’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, is the auteur’s most infamous and utilised scraps of Lugosi footage taken just before the old junkie actor died and “doubles’ him with a very different looking chiropractor friend. Though massively referenced today, Plan 9 barely saw release back in the day, sitting on the shelf for three years before playing the bottom half of a drive-in double bill. Other of Wood’s movies, such as 1959’S Night Of The Ghouls and 1965’s porn-serial killer flick The Sinister Urge, are much more obscure.
Such pictures are only half the fascination of the man—and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood tells only a sanitised version of his tale. Wood was a committed eccentric and like many outsiders he suffered mightily for his individuality. His cross-dressing — which included wearing lingerie under his Marines uniform — was just the most obvious manifestation of a life spent as a determined dreamer. Burton’s 1994 movie about him ends on a triumphant note but, in reality, after Plan 9 Wood and his wife Kathy slid for two decades into poverty and alcoholism. Even when he was living in flea pits and drinking himself retarded, Wood still refused to give up his hopes — and his fetishes. A fast and furious typist, he bashed out dozens of porno paperbacks, most of which featured dudes in drag, and he never stopped penning ambitious, oddball screenplays he hoped Tinseltown would notice.
The Reaper got to him before Hollywood did, stopping his heart while he watched a TV football game on December 10, 1978. He was 54. Outside of his immediate circle, no-one noticed or cared.
But that very month in New York, Glen Or Glenda was being revived with midnight screenings, and in 1980, Michael and Harry Medved’s best-selling book The Golden Turkey Awards plucked Wood from obscurity and named him the worst director to ever live while proclaiming Plan 9 the worst movie ever made. Further revivals followed and cult standing grew. These days Wood is more famous than many respected Golden Age directors— and Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t have an officially recognised religion in his honour.
Out there, in the vast infinity of space, populated as it is by lumbering reanimated ghouls and model-kit flying saucers, Wood is no doubt enjoying every YouTube rerun of his posthumous status—and doing it clad in an angora cardigan and clutching one of his beloved vodka gimlets. Cheers, Eddie!
*VODKA GIMLET: Four parts vodka, one part sweetened lime juice. Wood loved them so much he wrote some of his films under the pseudonym “Akdov Telmig”.