This week’s entry: Ed Wood
What it’s about: In life, Ed Wood was an obscure director of trashy, no-budget genre movies in the 1950s and ’60s. At this time of his death in 1978, anyone would have considered him an unknown and a failure. But in the years since, the director gained notoriety, as his films developed a cult following who appreciated not some hidden genius, but that the films were uniquely terrible, with his Plan 9 From Outer Space being singled out as the worst film of all time. Renewed interest in Wood’s life and work reached its pinnacle in 1994, with Tim Burton’s biopic Ed Wood. Key elements of Wood’s life are now common knowledge—his enthusiasm and ineptitude as a filmmaker, his cross-dressing, and alcoholism and depression leading up to his death—but Wikipedia digs deeper, and so shall we.
Strangest fact: In some circles, fan devotion to Wood has outpaced that of Hitchcock or Scorsese. In 1997, the University Of Southern California began holding an Ed Wood Film Festival, in which student filmmakers are challenged to write a Wood-inspired short film built around annual themes like “Rebel Without A Bra.” But Reverend Steve Galindo of Seminole, Oklahoma, has taken things further, as in 1996, he created a legally recognized religion built around Ed Wood as its Lord and savior. About 3,500 “Woodites” are now baptized members of the Church Of Ed Wood, celebrating Woodmas every October 10th, the filmmaker’s birthday. As far as Wikipedia knows, the faith only has one canonized saint—late-night horror movie host Mr. Lobo, who attained sainthood in 2003, despite still being alive, and splitting his religious interested between Woodism and the Church Of The Subgenius.
Biggest controversy: The most obviously controversial aspect of Wood’s life was his cross-dressing, which his widow, Kathy O’Hara, claimed wasn’t sexual. Wood claimed his mother had dressed him in girl’s clothing as a child, and as such he received “neomaternal comfort” from women’s clothing, and angora fabric in particular, even using Ann Gora as a pen name. But apart from women’s clothing, Wood also courted controversy with women’s lack of clothing. As Wood’s career as a director was winding down, he began screenwriting softcore pornography, which he continued throughout the ’60s and ’70s. He directed a few of those, using the pseudonym Akdov Telmig (“vodka gimlet” backwards), and wrote undoubtedly edifying films like The Snow Bunnies, The Beach Bunnies, and non-bunny-oriented The Young Marrieds, which was lost for decades until a print was found at a yard sale in 2004. Wood was also given a posthumous screenwriting credit on hardcore parody Plan 69 From Outer Space.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Wood didn’t have to depend solely on Plan 9 royalties to pay his rent. While not making films, Wood wrote “at least 80” novels, as well as hundreds of short stories and essays for magazines. Most were lurid crime and sex stories, with titles like Devil Girls, Death Of A Transvestite, and A Study Of Fetishes And Fantasies. In 1965, he also wrote an autobiographical guide to how to make it in Tinseltown (despite not having done so himself), Hollywood Rat Race, which wasn’t published until 1998. While Wood was hardly the expert on moviemaking success, he does give the genuinely good advice, “Just keep on writing. Even if your story gets worse, you’ll get better.” We’re not sure the advice worked for him, but it might for you.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: We’ll probably never see Wood’s final contribution to the world of cinema. In 1998, an unfilmed script written by Wood, I Woke Up Early The Day I Died, was finally produced. The sprawling cast included Sandra Bernhard, Karen Black, Tippi Hedren, Eartha Kitt, Andrew McCarthy, Ron Perlman, Tara Reid, Christina Ricci, John Ritter, Nicollette Sheridan, Billy Zane, and former Wood associates Conrad Brooks (who appeared in six of Wood’s films), and Maila “Vampira” Nurmi. First- (and last-) time director Aris Iliopulos tried to ape Wood’s style, inserting stock footage, and using atmospheric sounds, laughter, and screams in place of dialogue. But making an awful film is tougher than it looks, and Iliopulos was criticized for not being able to re-create what Entertainment Weekly called Wood’s “inimitable idiocy.” The film was only screened briefly in the U.S., and only in New York, and since has only been available on home video in Germany.
Also noteworthy: A large part of the revived interest in Wood’s films came from Mystery Science Theater 3000, which used three of Wood’s lesser-known works—Bride Of The Monster, The Violent Years, and The Sinister Urge. Producers rejected Plan 9 From Outer Space, as it had too much dialogue and left little room for commentary. That didn’t stop MST3K host Mike Nelson from revisiting Plan 9 later, as in 2006 he recorded an audio commentary for a colorized version on DVD, and then celebrated the film’s 50th anniversary for his first RiffTrax Live event.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: This is the first time Wiki Wormhole has closed in on itself, as this page links to former Wormhole entry list of films considered the worst. We’re also able to squeeze in an unlikely nod to Memorial Day, as before moving to Hollywood, Ed Wood served in the Marine Corps during WWII, enlisting a few months after Pearl Harbor, and fighting in the Battle Of Tarawa, where he lost two front teeth and was shot several times in the leg. Tarawa was a significant battle, as it marked America’s first incursion into the central Pacific, and the first amphibious landing that met with serious Japanese resistance. The battle was criticized for the heavy casualties incurred for such a small target—Wood was among 2,101 American soldiers wounded, and another 1,696 lost their lives, as well as nearly every Japanese soldier and Korean laborer on the island—but America’s march across the Pacific continued unabated.
Further down the wormhole: By the end of Wood’s life, alcoholism and depression had taken a toll, and in December of that year, he and his wife Kathy were evicted from their apartment. They moved in with an actor friend, Peter Coe, and Wood spent the first weekend of Coe’s hospitality drinking vodka. Feeling ill, he went into Coe’s bedroom to lie down. A short time later, he yelled out, “Kathy, I can’t breathe!” Kathy ignored him, saying she was “tired of Wood bossing her around.” But he was shortly discovered dead, from a heart attack. Wikipedia’s link to vodka leads to a list of moonshine by country, which we’ll examine next week.