Who was Ed Wood?
Short Answer: Edward Davis Wood Jr. (October 10, 1924 December 10, 1978) was that rare mix of relentless motivation and determination combined with a complete lack of natural talent. He was that guy who made Plan 9 from Outer Space and a bunch of other crappy movies. He also liked to wear dresses.
Long Answer: Throughout his life, Ed Wood loved movies and wanted to make his own. In 1942, Wood enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and he served in the Pacific War theater of World War II (eventually claiming to have fought at the Battle of Tarawa while wearing a bra and panties under his uniform; of this experience he once said that he wasn't afraid of being killed, but he was scared of being merely wounded - because he was afraid a medic would discover his secret). He reportedly survived the War with only a leg injury, and having lost two of his teeth to a rifle butt strike by a Japanese soldier.
Later, he would join a freak show as a bearded lady. In the late forties, Wood would begin his career in movies. One of his first works was a play called Casual Company, based on a novel that was based on his life at the Marines. To foreshadow what was to come, the play suffered from extremely negative reviews.
Ed Wood dabbled in television pilots, such as a soap Sun Was Setting (which amusingly had the alternative title of The Sun Also Sets) starring Lois Lane herself, Phyllis Coates, and Crossroad Avenger, which featured many of his Production Posse; the Western circled around The Tuscon Kid, who was a good old cowboy and insurance claims investigator. He even made television ad pilots, which advertised non-existant products, presumably a demo reel to show off his skills.
His first actual film would be in 1953, Glen or Glenda (based loosely on his novel Death Of A Transvestite), a semi-autobiographical tale about transsexuality and Ed Wood's love for crossdressing. During this time, he met and eventually became friends with Bela Lugosi. This was when the Dracula days were long gone and people thought he was dead, but this didn't stop Ed Wood from thinking of him as a legend among men. Bela would take a small part in Glen Or Glenda as a narrator now known for yelling "PULL THE STRING!!!" while clips of bison stampeding were shown.
Ed Wood later became part of the B-Movie scene, befriending people such as Maila Nurmi, aka Vampira (The '50s equivalent of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), and the Amazing Criswell. In 1955, he wrote and directed his first horror film Bride of the Monster. It starred Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist, a 400-pound wrestler named Tor Johnson as the hulking sidekick, and stock footage of an octopus.
Wood began work on a film called The Ghoul Goes West, an intended expansion of his previous unfinished cowboy film "Crossroads of Laredo" - but now with Bela Lugosi and horror elements added in. Unfortunately, Lugosi died after filming a small scene. Wood improvised and used these clips for his next film, the now infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space. Produced by Southern Baptist ministers, the film would feature aliens using zombies to stop humans from destroying the Earth. Vampira, Tor Johnson, a bad Bela Lugosi stand-in, and Criswell, also appeared. The film was finished in 1956, but was not released until 1959 due to lack of a proper distributor.
After filming Night of the Ghouls, which would not get released until 1984, Wood would turn to writing for exploitation films, such as The Violent Years and The Sinister Urge. The former was a long-running B-movie circuit hit, but Wood only earned $500 from it. Then in the early seventies and the last years of his life, he would end up writing for porn flicks, a career that did not agree with him: although Wood's previous films were bad, they were never sleazy. Wood's alcoholism spiraled out of control, and by the end he and his wife Kathy were so poor that they were evicted out of their flophouse apartment. Three days later Wood died of a heart attack at a friend's house while watching football. According to Rudolph Grey's book, "Nightmare of Ecstasy", the medics carried Ed's body away in plastic garbage bags. He reportedly was in agony in his last moments: "I still remember when I went into that room that afternoon and he was dead, his eyes and mouth were wide open. I'll never forget the look in his eyes. He clutched at the sheets. It looked like he'd seen hell".
Two years later, Wood was named "Worst Director of All Time" and Plan 9 was named "Worst Movie Ever Made" in a book called The Golden Turkey Awards, written by the brothers Michael Medved and Harry Medved. By this point Ed Wood was long forgotten and most people who read the book had never heard of him. This "Award" created a resurgence of interest, resulting in a whole new audience of fans, and cult status for Ed Wood. He became the focus of an entire segment of It Came from Hollywood. Three of his films were riffed by MST3K. One of his scripts was made into a 1998 film, I Woke Up Early The Day I Died. Even a small religious group became named after Ed Wood.
In 1991, Wood's life became the subject of a biography titled Nightmare Of Ecstasy, written by Rudolph Grey. It would become the basis for the 1994 film Ed Wood by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp as Ed Wood. Deviating from the general real-life consensus of Wood, Burton's film was an affectionate portrayal of a man who tried his hardest, against all odds, to make his dreams come true. The film did not perform well at the box office, but was praised by critics, and eventually became a Cult Classic. One good-natured reviewer described it as, "The story of the least successful director of all time, as told by one of the most successful directors of all time." At the 1994 Academy Awards, Martin Landau won Best Supporting Actor for his extraordinary performance as Bela Lugosi. Ed Wood's legacy as one of the worst directors will never be forgotten.
FilmographyFeature films both written and directed by Wood. He also wrote scripts for other directors.
- Glen or Glenda (1953)
- Jail Bait (1954)
- Bride of the Monster (1955)
- Plan 9 from Outer Space (directed in 1956, released in 1958/1959)
- Night of the Ghouls (1959)
- The Sinister Urge (1961)
- Take It Out in Trade (1970)
- Excited (1970)
- The Only House (1971)
- Necromania (1971)
- The Young Marrieds (1971)
Ed Wood is known for these tropes:
- The Alcoholic: Which literally killed him - he died from alcohol-related problems.
- Alliterative Name: One of his professional pseudonyms was Danny Davis.
- Author Appeal: Angora, Bela Lugosi, monsters, cowboys, etc.
- Bad "Bad Acting": Several of the performances in his films are this.
- B-Movie: Often considered the Trope Maker for Z movies due to his extremely low production values and liberal use of Stock Footage and Off-the-Shelf FX.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Not a bunny ears filmmaker, oh no, no, but a Bunny Ears Marine. He fought in some of the worst WWII Pacific bloodbaths and came back with a chest full of medals. And he claimed to do at least one battle while wearing women's underwear. He lost all his front teeth when a Japanese soldier hit Ed in the mouth with the butt of his gun.
- Camp Straight: Ignoring his crossdressing, Wood was flamboyant on his own, but was very much a Lovable Sex Maniac into women.
- Can't Hold His Liquor: Unfortunately, not only could Wood not hold his liquor — a bad enough trait for an alcoholic — but he was a violent, nasty one according to his friends.
- Cloudcuckoolander: As Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora would state, "Only Ed Wood would cast Dracula... as God!"
- Christian Fiction: Averted with Plan 9, which was backed by a Christian church but overall has nothing to do with the religion. The producers intended to make a Christian movie but Wood convinced them to make Plan 9 instead, telling them that a genre picture would be more profitable thus allowing them to produce as many Christian films as they wanted.
- Creator's Apathy: Because of the small budgets and short deadlines his movies had, Wood simply didn't bother fixing any goofs or technical errors that occured while filming. When producers pressed on it, he would defend himself by claiming how audiences wouldn't pay attention to such details in the overall story.
- Crying Wolf: While complications from his alcoholism probably still would have killed him, the heart attacks he would fake to his wife as a cruel practical joke didn't help, when he had his very real fatal one. It is rumored that she even yelled at him to shut up when he called for help.
- Dead Artists Are Better: He actually lived most of his life in obscurity. It was only after his death that he really gained recognition.
- Determinator: The man survived the bloodiest Allied battle in World War II - he applied that same drive to making films. No matter what obstacles, he was going to get that movie made, dammit.John Andrews: When they were shooting Bride of the Monster up in Griffith Park, and he dug out that lagoon of a thing, for the octopus... it was cold, and Jesus, midnight, and it was stolen... Bela was drunk, and stoned, and loaded out of his mind... and HE got in the water! So, it was pretty wild times, and fun times, it was good times, making pictures. That's the only thing that counts is getting the thing on film. That's all that mattered. No matter what you have to do.
- Development Hell: Night of the Ghouls was shot in 1959 but didn't get a release til 1984, when a studio paid for the lab bill. Wood also toiled on a book, Hollywood Rat Race, in the early 60's, but didn't get a release til a publisher took the unfinished manuscript and released it in 1998.
- Downer Ending: How his life ended unfortunately. Ed Wood's depression reached an all time crushing low and he turned to chronic alcohol abuse. He and his wife were evicted from their Hollywood flat, and Ed Wood died just a few days later from a heart attack bought on by his alcoholism. His widow Kathy never remarried or was able to get over his death until her own in 2006. That said...
- Bittersweet Ending: He managed to achieve his dream of being a famous director, and having people enjoy his films, albeit not in the way he probably would have envisioned originally, which probably wouldn't be so bad as Wood would have been just happy people enjoyed his films; it isn't hyperbole — see the Heartwarming Moments under Creator for evidence.
- Executive Meddling: Happened quite a lot in his career.
- The random BDSM scene in Glen or Glenda was added behind Wood's back by producer George Weiss in order to extend the movie's run time to 65 minutes.
- After funding fell through during the filming of Bride of the Monster, Wood aproached rancher Donald McCoy to help fund for its completion. Don agreed under the agreement that his son was given the lead role and that the movie ended with an atomic explosion.
- The decision to rename Plan 9 from Grave Robbers from Outer Space came from the producers who felt the original title was blasphemous. Wood hated it at first but later admitted that it was a better name.
- Fandom Rivalry: With Coleman Francis, specifically over who's the worst director.
- Friendly Fandoms: Any bad filmmaker who's been compared to Wood is more than likely to share a fandom with him. Directors like Uwe Boll, JamesNguyen, and Neil Breen are the most prominent examples that come to mind, but there's also those like Donald G. Jackson and his collaborator Scott Shaw, who were often described as "the Ed Woods of the video age" during the height of their careers in the 80s and 90s. To a lesser extent, Albert Pyun has also been compared to Wood a few times, but even then most critics would argue that he (at best) showed a bit more competence in quality than Wood ever did; especially since a few of his films like Cyborg were actually successful at the box office.
- Giftedly Bad: Ed is probably the best filmmaking example.
- Honor Before Reason: By all accounts he was actually a perfectly competent TV director, having directed for various local TV stations in the Los Angeles area, including on Criswell's weekly show. Unfortunately, he was determined to make it as a film director, kept passing up opportunities for TV work in order to avoid giving the appearance that he had given up on that dream, and this together with his alcoholism made it all but impossible for him to go back into TV directing when his film career fizzled out.
- I Just Want to Be Special: Ed got excited when he got a letter about an "Ed Wood Day" in New York in which a bunch of people got together to watch a bunch of his films (presumably the same way friends would get together to watch Showgirls or The Room), showing the letter to friends. He was happy just to be remembered.
- Insult Backfire:
- What the Golden Turkey Awards writers tried to do when voting Wood the Worst Director and Plan 9 Worst Movie. What happened was it made cinemaphiles look back on Wood's career and begin honoring him for both his poor vision and his great heart.
- It didn't work when Wood was alive, either. According to Plan 9 lead Mona McKinnon:"There was a book that came out, The Count: The life and films of Bela "Dracula" Lugosi, and it said, 'Edw. D. Wood Jr., producer, director, promoter, made the worst movies in Hollywood.' And it went on and on, panning him. It took his pictures apart. Eddie just laughed. He thought that was so funny."
- Irony: As Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora pointed out:"Ed finally became the hot Hollywood property he always wanted to be - he only had to be dead to do it."
- Keet: Oh, the enthusiasm he put into every film for sure. Rare films of Wood directing his films show him gallivanting around the set, joking with actors and having an enormously good time. Look Back in Angora described him as "pixie-ish".
- Later Installment Weirdness: His later films after Plan 9 were more exploitive in nature and by the end of his life was directing porn in order to pay his bills.
- Lovable Sex Maniac: As he said in The Photographer: "I like girls, girls, girls, girls, girls! Tall ones, fat ones, skinny ones, it doesn't matter - blond hair, brunettes, redheads... girls! Girls! The only problem is - there isn't enough time for them!"
- Manly Tears: Kathy Wood said that when she first saw him, he was crying in a bar over something, which attracted her to him, saying she had a thing for lost puppies.
- Nice Guy: By all reports, Ed Wood was a good-natured, optimistic, passionate sweetheart of a guy who was incredibly supportive and encouraging of the people he worked with — unless he got drunk. He was a mean drunk.
- No Budget: Basically his entire filmography was this, and boy did it show. The estimated budgets for each of his 1950s feature films ranged from $20,000 (the lowest one) to $70,000 (the highest one). Glen or Glenda was commissioned by film producer George Weiss, but most of the other films had to be financed by Wood himself and whatever investor he could attract.
- Public Domain Feature Films: His cult status is largely in part by how easily accessible his films are to those curious about their awfulness.
- Reality Subtext:
- The anti-porn message and the director reflecting on his film career in The Sinister Urge reflect Wood's own career at the time of filming. He held distain for the developing porn industry during the 60's but was forced to shift towards this direction in order to keep finding work. At the time of his death, Wood was an alcoholic and suffered from depression over what his career had become.
- The reason for the aliens reanimating the dead in Plan 9, to stop mankind from creating a superweapon capable of destroying the entire universe, is an obvious reference to the ongoing Cold War and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse brought on by the U.S. and Soviet Union.
- Wood's transvestism and the fear he had of coming forward to his girlfriend about it influenced Glen or Glenda's conflict enough for Wood to cast them both in the main leads. Unlike the film though, his girlfriend wasn't as accepting of it and broke up with him sometime afterwards.note
- Real Men Wear Pink: He was a tough as nails Marine, who loved Angora sweaters.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Wood did direct and/or write very successful films, but didn't get much money out of it. For instance, The Violent Years was a long-running theatrical release, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars - but Wood only made $500 off it.
- Stock Footage: He frequently used it in his films; far too often it tended not to match the footage he filmed himself.
- Sweater Girl: Not the crossdressing Wood himself, but his girlfriend.
- Trope Codifier:
- While low quality films like Reefer Madness and Child Bride existed beforehand, it was Wood's filmography that put So Bad, It's Good cinema on the map; With entire film festivals, forums, and home media releases being dedicated to them.
- Wood is also considered the codifier of the Giftedly Bad film director for the industry; as he's used as the go-to comparison regarding filmmakers who showcase ineptitude in making movies to this day.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Glen Or Glenda, which somehow became about Ed's own transvestite tendencies.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Ed especially loved soft women's undies, as Dolores Fuller noted.
"Aim for the stars and if, at the end of your life, you've only reached Mars, remember one thing. Stars flicker in and flash out. Mars is a planet. A constant light. A stable entry that will be here as long as life itself." - Ed Wood, Hollywood Rat Race