“I just want to tell stories…”
The real Edward D. Wood Jr. was already well-known to me in 1994, because I’d long been a devotee of crappy cinema. I still remember renting “Plan Nine From Outer Space” (1956) on laserdisc back in the mid 1980s and just about crying with laughter. I later sought some of Wood’s other films, including “Bride of the Monster” (1955), “Glen or Glenda?” (1953) and even a pseudo-sequel to “Bride of the Monster” called “Night of the Ghouls” (1959). “Night of the Ghouls” was ‘rescued’ from a film lab in the 1980s (the destitute Wood couldn’t afford the lab fees) by bad film mogul Wade Williams. I used to rent these from a long gone local video store that carried all sorts of exotic, rare movies on VHS and laserdisc (great foreign titles, too). So my own ‘research’ familiarized me with Wood’s filmography years before IMDb.
Cut to a mid-October evening back in 1994. I went with a friend to a nearby movie theater located not far from from the college campus near my old apartment to see Tim Burton’s black & white biopic of “Ed Wood” (1994). It did not disappoint. It’s safe to say that “Ed Wood” quickly became my all-time favorite live-action Tim Burton film, and 25 years later, it still is.
“This is the one. ‘This’ is the one I’ll be remembered for.”
The movie opens with Ed Wood (Johnny Depp, in a very stylized performance) arriving at the premiere of his supernatural World War 2 play (“The Casual Company”) in a tiny, leaky-roofed theatre in Los Angeles. There, Wood meets his anxious, drag queen friend John “Bunny” Breckinridge (a wickedly camp Bill Murray). After the play’s disastrous press night, they hit a local bar and commiserate along with Ed’s live-in girlfriend Delores (Sarah Jessica Parker), as well as actors Conrad (Brent Hinkley) and Paul (Max Casella). These Hollywood misfits are Ed’s core group of friends, a group which gradually sees its membership expanded during the course of the film.
Soon after, Ed has a chance encounter with his favorite movie star, horror icon Bela Lugosi (Oscar-winner Martin Landau). Ed gives the elderly Lugosi a ride home in his run-down convertible and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. We later see the two ‘buddies’ spending Halloween together, watching 1950s TV host “Vampira” (Tim Burton’s ex, Lisa Marie) ridicule Lugosi’s classic “White Zombie” while answering the door for trick or treaters. It is on this night when Wood begins to realize that Lugosi has a serious drug addiction (“morphine…with a demerol chaser”).
Vowing to resurrect Lugosi’s career, Wood is inspired to make the 1953 quasi-autobiographical transvestism pic, “Glen or Glenda?” Lugosi is cast as ‘the god, who oversees everyone’s fate’ in the film; a vague narrator who “pulls the strings!” Getting barebones financial backing from blustery Z-grade producer George Weiss (Mike Starr), Ed makes his movie. As Bela says on set, “Let’s shoot this f–ker!”
The movie wraps, and the final result is a hot mess. Playing characters right out of a Carol Burnett comedy sketch, we see Ed and Delores deal with Ed’s angora sweater fetish onscreen, with a promise to “work this out”. “Glen or Glenda” is, of course, an instant failure. Weiss tells Wood to get lost or he’ll kill him. Trying to get a toe into the mainstream, Ed’s little opus is literally laughed out of the offices of Warner Bros (the execs assume the film to be some kind of practical joke). Delores suggests that Ed try raising funds himself instead of going through the studio system, and Ed is inspired. Going to a wrestling match with his misfit band of friends, Ed is amazed at the sight of “the Swedish Angel”, Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele); a 400-plus lb. wrestler whom Ed recruits into his Loser’s Club of Hollywood periphery with a shady promise of movie stardom.
After failing to secure funding for a new film, Ed seeks solace in a local bar (foreshadowing the real Wood’s struggles with alcoholism), where he chances upon would-be starlet Loretta King (Juliet Landau, daughter of Martin). Overhearing that the actress is unable to break a large bill, Ed cons her into financing (and starring in) his next movie, “Bride of the Monster” (formerly named “Bride of the Atom” in a crass attempt to cash in on 1950s atomic bomb hysteria). Ed’s long-suffering girlfriend Delores is furious, as she is demoted to playing a file clerk in the new movie. With an assumed line of credit from King, production on “Bride…” begins and is quickly shut down as King confesses to Wood that she doesn’t have the rest of the money… she already gave him everything she had “in the world” back at the bar. The conman Ed meets his match, as the ambitious starlet nabbed herself a leading role in a movie for a few hundred bucks.
Hosting a failed backers’ party at the Brown Derby in LA, Wood meets two future members of the Ed Wood acting troupe; conman TV clairvoyant “Criswell” (Jeffrey Jones) and horror TV host “Vampira”; aka Maila Nurmi (Lisa Marie, Tim Burton’s then-girlfriend). Later, a desperate Ed finally secures financing from meat packer McCoy (the late Rance Howard, father of filmmaker Ron Howard). McCoy makes two prerequisites for his money; the first being that his “slow” son Tony (Bill Cusack) be cast as the leading man, and that the film end with “a huge explosion.” Wood concedes, of course, and “Bride of the Monster” is ultimately finished. After a wild wrap party at McCoy’s meat plant (including a cross-dressing striptease from Ed himself), an exasperated Delores finally calls it quits and breaks up with Ed.
Meanwhile, the drug-addled Bela Lugosi overdoses after facing destitution, and is admitted to rehab (decades before it was ‘fashionable’ for celebrities to open up about their addictions). A loyal Ed stays with his friend through his nightmarish detoxification. In the hospital waiting area, Ed meets Kathy (Patricia Arquette), who patiently knits booties for her father, who is also a patient. Ed and Kathy begin seeing each other. During a date at a carnival (“Oh, the spook house!”), Ed comes clean about his transvestism, and after a moment to mull, the eternally patient Kathy simply replies, “Okay.”
In 1955, “Bride of the Monster” finally has its premiere, and of course, the premiere is a disaster. Ed and company arrive late to a hostile, popcorn-tossing crowd, and Vampira is savagely groped by a young boy. Ed and his troupe beat a hasty retreat to their car… only to find it stripped (!). The group finally manages to escape in a cab secured by the surprisingly tenacious Kathy, who literally jumps onto the hood to get the cabbie’s attention. As they flee, a recovering Lugosi quips, “Now that was a premiere.” In an attempt to keep Lugosi’s spirits up, Ed pretends to shoot a new movie with the elderly star. Using an 8mm silent movie camera, Ed shoots random footage of Lugosi lurking about a graveyard in his cape and sniffing flowers in front of his home. That footage becomes the “acorn that grew a mighty oak” for Wood’s next, and arguably most infamous film, “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1956).
Wood and Kathy are living together when they get the call… Lugosi had died. The Ed Wood troupe gathers for the funeral. Ed is devastated. As his landlord Mr. Reynolds (Clyde Rosengren) comes calling for the overdue rent, Ed bamboozles him with an offer of coproducing “Bela Lugosi’s last movie” (using the chintzy 8mm footage as proof of concept). The landlord initially balks at making a “monster movie”, saying that his church was hoping to raise money to produce a series of “inspiring” movies about the Apostles. Ed convinces Reynolds that he could produce the Lugosi movie and use the back profits to make “a hundred Apostle films” (and pay Wood’s back rent, of course). Reynolds relents, on the condition that Ed and his motley crew agree to be baptized by the Baptist Church of Beverly Hills. The baptism of Bunny Breckinridge (Murray) in a swimming pool (“Because brother Tor wouldn’t fit in the sacramental tub!”) is one of the funniest moments in a film that is simply loaded with them. As he did with 1982’s “Tootsie,” Bill Murray turns a relatively minor supporting role into a major scene-stealer.
With the Baptist’s backing (and tentative ‘blessing’) production on “Plan 9 From Outer Space” begins in earnest. Kathy’s chiropractor, Dr. Tom Mason (Ned Bellamy) is hired as Lugosi’s double, holding a cape over his face in a weak attempt to cover the physical disparity. During a visit to the set, ‘producer’ Reynolds becomes increasingly concerned by the movie’s shoddy production values, which look like something out of an elementary school Halloween play. Reynolds and his fellow church leader (G.D. Spradlin) begin to exert further influence over Wood by casting one of their members, “Brother” Gregory Walcott (Daniel Riordan) as the movie’s lead. They also object to Wood’s wearing women’s clothing as he directs, calling it an affront to the Lord. That is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
An exasperated Wood throws down his ever-present (and useless) megaphone, and storms off the set. Once again seeking solace in a bar, Ed has an encounter with his idol Orson Welles, who is having his own troubles during production of “Touch Of Evil” (“They want to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican”). The angora sweater-clad Ed commiserates with his inspiration, who reminds Wood that “visions are worth fighting for.” Inspired by Welles’ words of wisdom, Ed returns to the set of “Plan 9” with renewed vim and vigor, determined to make his film, his way.
Back on set, Ed takes charge; leaving the Baptists flummoxed as he completes “Plan 9…” in a montage sequence that recreates keys moments from the real film. Howard Shore’s rousing music during the montage is what one might expect in a sports movie when a second stringer is brought in late in the game, only to score the winning touchdown. “Plan 9” is finished.
The film ends with a rainy-night fantasy sequence which sees the infamous “Plan 9 From Outer Space” getting a prestigious premiere at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Ed dedicates the film “to Bela.” After the fictitious premiere, Ed and Kathy return to their nearly-flooded convertible (the top no longer works). Undeterred by the rain, the ever-optimistic Ed vows to drive Kathy to Las Vegas so that they can finally get married. Before the end credits begin, the is a “whatever-became-of” sequence, with a series of inter-titles revealing the fates of the Wood troupe. Some had happy endings, some didn’t. A pill to swallow after the mega-happy, fictional finale.
“Oh, it’s just hogwash, hon.”
The movie’s script, written by the writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“The People Vs. Larry Flynt”) and adapted from a book by Rudolph Grey, plays somewhat fast and loose with much of Ed Wood’s life, while also focusing on a relatively brief period of his career (1953-1956). It ignores Wood’s career in cheap westerns, as well as his other films that were made during the same period in which “Ed Wood” takes place (such as “The Sinister Urge” and “Jail-Bait”). It also omits other personal facts, such as Bela Lugosi’s remarriage shortly before his death.
Still other events of “Ed Wood” are created entirely for the film. For instance, Wood never actually met Orson Welles, and it goes without saying that “Plan 9 From Outer Space” most certainly did not enjoy a prestigious premiere at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, either.
Most biographies are conjectural recreations of reality. Even documentaries are filtered through the lens and subjective eye of their documentarians. That said, many of the events depicted in the movie (Lugosi’s drug abuse, Wood’s unorthodox financing, his crossdressing, etc) were indeed real, even if they seem like dramatic or comedic contrivances. “Ed Wood” is rendered in a heightened reality where fiction and fact are well-blended. Personally I don’t mind the liberties taken with Ed Wood’s life, because Tim Burton and the screenwriters are telling a Hollywood fable. Those ‘real’ elements of Wood’s life only serve to dictate this fable’s overall narrative.
“Excuse me, Mr. Lugosi? Can I have your autograph?”
Changing gears a bit, my wife and I have regularly attended the IMATS (International Makeup Artists Trade Show) in Pasadena nearly every year now since 2014. In 2017, I had the pleasure of meeting makeup artist extraordinaire (and Oscar winner) Ve Neill (“Ed Wood” “Beetlejuice” “Hunger Games” and scores of other films). She was kindly and personal; a sweet lady. A year later at the same convention, I ran into Neill’s legendary, fellow Oscar-winning colleague Rick Baker (“Ed Wood” “An American Werewolf In London” “Thriller” “Star Wars”). I caught a pic of him (below) as he was talking to two other talented makeup artists, Norman Cabrera (“The Orville”) and Howard Berger (“The Orville” “Buffy”), both of whom are legends in their own rights. I actually screwed up the courage to introduce myself to Baker, a man whom I’d read about since the late 1970s, when I used to devour “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “Starlog” magazine. Even at 12, I knew of his reputation, and here we were, rubbing elbows in Pasadena. Baker was kind, with a quick smile. It was a brief meet, but wow… it was Rick freaking Baker!
“I’ll read it as soon as I get home.” “I’d prefer you read it now.”
In the dark days before the internet became the information Cerebro that it is today, Cinefantastique (CFQ) magazine was the single BEST source for in-depth exploration of sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies and TV. It went far beyond the often-shallow press release packets of its contemporaries (no offense, Starlog). Their 1994 article on “Ed Wood” is chock full of exclusive interviews, photos and behind-the-scenes pics from the film. Short of a “making-of” book, this October 1994 issue of CFQ is a definitive look at the production of “Ed Wood.” If you’re a fan of this film, and ever find a used copy of this issue on eBay, Amazon, a convention dealer hall, or even at an extremely lucky garage sale? Grab it!
“Visions are worth fighting for.“
Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” is an affectionate ode to a man who lived (and died too young at age 54) forever at the outer edges of the moviemaking business he loved so much. Never quite mustering the money (and lacking the talent) to ever break out of the schlock movie ghetto he was mired in, the real Ed Wood became a legend in spite of himself. At the time of Burton’s biopic, Wood was already a legend thanks to the Michael & Harry Medved’s 1980 book “The Golden Turkey Awards” (my sisters and I read that book voraciously when we were kids). Bad movies were suddenly cool, and Wood was the Orson Welles of bad cinema… a maker of films so insanely awful that they had an entertainment value all their own.
“Ed Wood” is, in many ways, Burton’s most personal film. Like Wood, he was close friends with a horror icon near the end of his life (in Burton’s case, the late Vincent Price). Both filmmakers shared a love of spooky supernatural subject matter, and some of Burton’s characters (like many in Wood’s orbit) have a quirky, somewhat androgynous charm. Their stories paralleled in many respects, except one… Burton achieved great mainstream success; Ed Wood did not.
Burton was at the height of his 1990s fame when he made “Ed Wood”, with credits such as “Batman” “Beetlejuice” “Edward Scissorhands.” He took a major artistic gamble in making a black & white biopic of a man who made some of the most dizzyingly obtuse movies ever committed to celluloid. For the record, Stephan Czapsky’s silvery black & white cinematography is stunning; far better than anything poor Wood could ever achieved in his own films.
Sadly, “Ed Wood” didn’t make a dent at the box office, but it would later (like Wood’s own films) enjoy a second life on home video. I personally own the movie on laserdisc and DVD, and watch it nearly every Halloween (for some reason, it’s my favorite movie to carve jack o’ lanterns to… don’t know why, it just is). There’s something very contagious about the film’s ‘can-do’ optimism that rubs off on a viewer. Depp’s Wood is an indefatigable soul, who is rarely daunted by failure. It’s fitting that the film chronicles Wood at the um, ‘height’ of his career (approximately 1953-1956), before his downfall into alcoholism and monster porn. The sad reality of Wood’s final years wouldn’t have fit the more buoyant narrative of Burton’s vision of Wood. If only the real Ed had lived to see himself achieve the Oscar-winning/critical darling status of his fictional counterpart.
Goodbye for now, my friends…. and remember; this article on Burton’s “Ed Wood” is “based solely on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. Can you prove it didn’t happen?”