Bright Lights Film Journal

It’s an Ed Wood World After All!

The “world’s worst director” never apologized for wearing women’s clothes, though many have questioned his taste in sweaters.

The story goes that Disney Studios threw Tim Burton a bone in letting him make his pet project Ed Wood. As an unassailably commercial filmmaker (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Nightmare Before Christmas), Burton’s name carries tremendous clout. So in spite of the fact that this was a hardly commercial black-and-white movie about a sleazy 1950s cross-dresser considered the worst director in history, Disney had to acquiesce to Burton’s demands.

But whether or not the film itself does big business is almost irrelevant; Disney is in on what looks to be a major new cultural development: Ed Wood mania! Rhino Video just released Look Back in Angora, a documentary about the director, and there are more books and innumerable ‘zines extolling his virtues.

For years, the cognoscenti treasured the few available Wood films — Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda — without knowing much about the man himself. In the ’70s, while Wood was still (barely) alive in the back alleys and seedy bars of Hollywood, his films were canonized as camp, adored for their wide-eyed ineptness, startling continuity gaps, elementary-school acting, irrelevant stock footage. An early Wood festival in Los Angeles attracted not only camp followers, but movers and shakers like Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty who must have admired the director’s intransigence.

His cult has grown exponentially in the last few years, with Rudolph Grey’s reverent oral biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., a sine qua non for Woodophiles. This book inspired Burton’s film. While Johnny Depp plays Grey’s Wood like a cheeky (if slightly twisted) schoolboy, the real Wood was more complex. Burton paints him as a hand-me-down Orson Welles, handling every aspect of filmmaking, however ineptly. But Burton also but omits Wood’s alcoholism, his endless funks, and his heavy involvement in the 1950s softcore (and later, hardcore) porno underground. Even Wood’s transvestism, which the director used as the basis of his infamous Glen or Glenda (I Changed My Sex), is shown as just one more wacky characteristic of the World’s Worst Director.

Wood was a vessel into which all of Hollywood’s aberrations poured. He was very “American” — ex-soldier, buoyant, creative, charismatic, resourceful, and above all, able to get things done, characteristics that attracted fame-starved personalities like Vampira, Criswell, Bela Lugosi, and others. Wood’s willingness to accept and embrace — and display, in his movies — these odd ducks made them seek him out, before they knew he had his own little secret: cross-dressing. Many in his entourage were notorious queens of the day — Bunny Breckenridge, Criswell — who brought their own camp personas to his life and work.

Glen or Glenda is perhaps his “greatest” work, certainly his most striking in its depiction of the glories of transvestism and its unfair censure by straight society. Made in 1953, a “Screen Classics Release,” this was not only Wood’s threadbare attempt to capitalize on the Christine Jorgensen story, but also his personal plea for tolerance. It’s filled with self-conscious acting; stiff, seemingly undirected scenes; preposterous interpolations of Bela Lugosi as a “science-god” (Wood’s term) overseeing the action from outside the plot, delivering cryptic messages about gender directly to the audience: “Snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails and . . . brassieres?” The film has cheesecake and bondage scenes that hint at Wood’s standing in the softcore world of that time. The director plays the title role, and he gives himself the best scenes, of course, including a famous one where he tells his girlfriend about his fetish for women’s clothes; she pauses in thought then takes off her angora sweater and hands it to him with a dramatic look.

Wood was more prolific as a writer than as a filmmaker. Most of his writing was porn with intriguing titles, the wildest being Death of a Transvestite, aka Let Me Die in Drag! about “Glen Marker, a transvestite hit-man on death row, who agrees to a taped confession in return for his last wish: to die in drag.” No doubt a masterpiece of the “transvestite hit-man” genre. Other titles include To Make a Homo, Toni: Black Tigress, and the “scholarly” Sex, Shrouds and Caskets. Tirelessly creative, he also left many unproduced scripts.

Wood’s best-known film makes every critic’s (and most audiences’) 10-worst list: Plan 9 from Outer Space. The “ninth plan” of the title is “resurrection of recent dead,” according to drag queen Bunny Breckenridge, who plays the chief alien with royal aplomb. Most of the scenes occur in a dime-store graveyard, with inept cops being chased by easily eluded reanimated corpses. The arrival of the aliens is heralded by hubcaps with wires being yanked in front of a painted backdrop, with a loud voice booming: “Flying Saucers Over Hollywood!” Critic Danny Peary calls this film subversive, and it’s true that Wood’s script attacks backward thinking: “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” alien Dudley Manlove screams about parochial earthlings. (The aliens come to Earth because our scientists are about to explode our own sun.) If we can’t agree entirely with Peary’s view because we’re distracted by the paper mausoleums, the bored drag queen actors, the day-night shot mismatches, the substitution of a blond chiropractor for Bela Lugosi’s character when Lugosi died, and so on, we can at least credit Wood for making an extremely personal, entertaining film — classic naive art.

Wood died in 1978, destitute after he and his wife (yes, he was straight!) were evicted from their last apartment. It’s ironic that 15 years later he stands poised (in sausage curls and stiletto heels) for the world’s embrace. It’s even more ironic that Disney, the home of cute little animals, treacly cartoon melodramas, fascist theme parks, and “it’s a small world after all,” has been forced to promote him. Culture has come full circle.