At the Movies with Mystery Man #1

Ed Wood (1994)

From time to time, I want to write about subjects other than issues relating to men although that will remain the focus of this blog. Also, the depressing state of current events has made me want to turn my attention to other things for a little bit.

I’ve always enjoyed cultural commentary such as film analysis and have wanted to write about certain films for a while but had hitherto not had an outlet for doing so. Since most artforms contain, or at least inspire, political commentary, talking about culture – even popular culture – is a useful way to explore how societies perceive themselves. I only hope this will be interesting to whoever happens to read it.

Since I’ve already written about Johnny Depp on this blog because of the Amber Heard trial earlier this year, I thought it would be appropriate to explore a Johnny Depp film first. The film in question is Ed Wood. It helps that I wrote most of what is written here years ago when I first got interested in writing but never did anything with it. Some of the content of the film is also relevant to subjects I’ve written about previously on this blog.  It is Halloween the day after I am posting this which is also appropriate given the film’s content.

Ed Wood was directed by Tim Burton and it is the second of his and Johnny Depp’s many collaborations. In my opinion, it is also Tim Burton’s best film but also one of his least known. While I wouldn’t consider it my favourite film, I would probably place it on a list of my all-time favourites. Admittedly, this is for entirely personal reasons rather than a belief that it is superior to other films in some way or another. I have an interest in old B-movies, particularly from the 1950s and 60s, which were often very bizarre, amateurish and have an interesting back story to how they were made, even if the films themselves are dull and unwatchable.

Ed Wood is a biopic about the film director Edward D. Wood Jr. (1924-1978) who is played by Johnny Depp and is often infamously credited with the title of ‘Worst Director of All Time.’ The film focuses on a period of Wood’s life in the 1950s where he made his most well-known films which are famous for their low-budget and flawed productions.

Many of these films starred the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) who was famous for playing Count Dracula in the 1930s but had become a has-been by the 1950s. Wood was a fan of Legosi’s movies and hoped he could capitalise on Legosi’s status as a legendary horror actor. Bela Lugosi is portrayed in the film by Martin Landau whose acclaimed performance earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

The production of three Ed Wood films is depicted in Ed Wood: Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955) and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957). Wood made another film during this period called Jail Bait (1954) but this is never mentioned in Ed Wood. One reason for this is probably because Jail Bait does not feature Bela Lugosi whose relationship with Wood is central to Tim Burton’s film.

In addition to Bela Lugosi, the film also portrays some of Wood’s friends and associates who were key figures in his life during this period. These include Wood’s girlfriend Dolores Fuller (1923-2011) who is played by Sarah Jessica Parker (and you have to hand it to the filmmakers for getting Parker to say the line “do I really have a face like a horse?” at one point!),  John ‘Bunny’ Breckinridge (1903-1996), played by Bill Murray, Jeron Criswell King a.k.a. ‘The Amazing Criswell’ (1907-1982), played by Jeffrey Jones, Tor Johnson (1903-1971) played by professional wrestler George ‘The Animal’ Steele and Vampira (1922-2008), played by Lisa Marie. Most of these people would make several appearances in Wood’s films and became a kind of ‘band of misfits’ for Wood.

Ed Wood was filmed in black and white by cinematographer Stefan Czapsky to imitate the majority of films that would have been released in the 1950s and has a simplistic design again to portray the time period. In one scene the film plays on its lack of colour when the cinematographer for Bride of the Monster is asked whether a red dress or a green dress works better for his cameras and he says that he is colour-blind but that he prefers the “dark grey one”. The film was distributed by Touchstone Pictures which is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company where Tim Burton once worked as an animator.

The screenplay was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who went on to write other biopics about obscure figures such as The People vs. Larry Flynt about pornographic magazine publisher Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon about the comedian Andy Kaufman. More recently they wrote Big Eyes about the husband and wife painters Water and Margaret Keane and this was once again directed by Tim Burton. I prefer these kinds of biopics to ones of more famous figures because they bring to light interesting people that are not as familiar or well known to the general public. Ed Wood has elements in common with Man on the Moon because both films feature recreations of events that you would not believe happened such as Andy Kaufman’s unusual publicity stunts and Wood’s bizarre films until you saw the real thing.

A recurring theme in Ed Wood is the various methods Wood had to undertake to get his films made. For example, in order to get the director role for Glen or Glenda, Wood had to convince B-movie producer George Weiss that he was the ideal person to make Weiss’ film I Changed My Sex! which was supposed to capitalise on the recent sex change operation of Christine Jorgensen. Wood convinced George Weiss that he could make the film because he was able to get a cheap but recognisable star in the form of Bela Lugosi. Wood had previously tried to convince Weiss to let him to direct the sex change film by claiming that he had “special qualifications” because of his liking for wearing women’s clothing. Wood’s mother apparently wanted a daughter and so dressed Wood in girl’s clothes when he was a boy leading to him becoming a transvestite in his adulthood. When Wood is asked if he is a homosexual when he reveals his transvestism, he responds by claiming that cross-dressing makes him feel closer to women and was said to be a womaniser.

Instead of being about transexuals however, Glen or Glenda mainly relates to Wood’s transvestism and has a sex-change operation story tacked on near the end of the film called ‘Alan or Anne’. Wood stars as Glen in the film and is credited as ‘Daniel Davis’. Bela Lugosi stars in the film as a kind of scientist/narrator but his character, much like the rest of the film, makes very little sense, especially as the actor Timothy Farrell also acts as a narrator during the film.  I’m a little surprised the film hasn’t become more well known in our age of transgender activism but it might be because it’s too old and obscure.

A key aspect of all of Wood’s films is their incredibly low budget which contributes to their often poor quality. Wood had to rely on single takes and fast production in many cases to get his films made and Ed Wood portrays the various difficulties Ed faced while he was making his productions. For example, during the filming of Glen or Glenda, which was shot in just four days, Ed films a scene of Glen wearing a dress and looking at a female mannequin in a shop window and sighing. When a crew member spots some police officers, Ed tells his camera crew: “We don’t have a permit. Run!” Similarly, during the filming of Bride of the Monster (originally titled Bride of the Atom) Tor Johnson, playing the part of Bela Lugosi’s dim-witted assistant Lobo, smashes into the door frame of the set due to his large size but Wood does not bother to do another take. Wood says that “Lobo would have to deal with that problem every day.” Wood also relied heavily on stock footage in the place of actual sets and special effects as he knew a man who supplied it.

Wood’s lack of money also meant that he had to find funding for his pictures in unusual places. For instance, during the production of Bride of the Monster, Wood encounters actress Loretta King (1917-2007), who is played in the film by Martin Landau’s daughter Juliet, and mistakenly believes that King has enough money to fund the film.  After she expresses her desire to play the leading part, Wood is forced to give her the role which was meant for his girlfriend. During production, however, he discovers King only had $300 rather than the $60,000 he had assumed! To finish Bride of the Monster, Wood had to talk a rich rancher named Donald McCoy into investing $50,000 in the film. McCoy wanted his son to play the male lead and for the film to end with a big explosion which Wood accepted.

Later, to fund the production of Plan 9 from Outer Space (originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space) Wood convinced his landlords, who were members of a church, to fund the film by arguing that a hit science fiction film would help finance the church’s ambition to make individual films about the twelve apostles. Wood got the cast and crew to be baptised to get the church’s blessing to make the project. Because Tor Johnson was so big, however, they had to be baptised in a swimming pool! In the film, Bunny Breckinridge asks Ed after being baptised: “How do you do it? How do you get all of your friends to get baptised just so you can make a monster movie?” Plan 9 from Outer Space has since become infamous for its cheap special effects, poor acting and glaring mistakes such as gravestones tipping over and fake looking sets. One of my favourite lines in Ed Wood is when one of the Plan 9 producers protests: “Mr. Wood, do you know anything about the art of film production?” Plan 9 from Outer Space has been awarded the title of ‘worst film ever made’ although I would argue that there are far worst films.

Like all biopics, Ed Wood takes some liberties with actual events and several facts and figures are altered and simplified. For example, Bela Lugosi is depicted as swearing liberally in front of both men and women which would have been unlikely in the 1950s. Similarly, Lugosi is depicted as living alone and being solely dependent on Wood for company and support. However, the real Lugosi had a young wife in his final years and lived with his son Bela Lugosi Jnr. Nevertheless, you could argue that the film neither confirms nor denies the existence of his wife and son. Moreover, in real life Lugosi and Wood met through a mutual friend instead of the chance encounter depicted in the film of Lugosi trying out coffins because he was “planning on dying soon.” Furthermore, Lugosi is depicted filming his character’s death scene in Bride of the Monster which involved him lying down in ice cold water and flailing the tentacles of an immobile, fake octopus. In reality, this scene was filmed using a stunt double. The rumoured theft of the fake octopus is also depicted as having happened in the film. Lugosi being buried in his famous Dracula cape is in fact true although it was his family who made the decision and not Lugosi as described in the film. Overall, although Ed Wood does not always accurately portray Lugosi, it still presents him in a sympathetic light.

Depp’s performance as Ed Wood as a cheerful, optimistic and ambitious filmmaker also contrasts with the real Wood who was likely a sleazier character and who ended his days making obscure pornographic movies and dealing with depression and alcoholism. The film ends after the release of Plan 9 in 1957 without presenting Wood’s later years. Tim Burton has said that he wanted to pay tribute to Wood’s desire to be a filmmaker regardless of what he had to do and has said that the film is a depiction of Wood’s life and career how Wood would have liked to have seen it. Burton when describing the film said: “It’s not a completely hardcore realistic biopic…it’s got an overly optimistic quality to it.” Burton’s decision to portray Wood and those around him sympathetically was no doubt because Wood had been ridiculed from his death until the film was released.

Given these liberties with the truth, the film is not without its detractors which is inevitable when you are dealing with a film depicting real people. Bela Lugosi Jnr., for example, was critical of his father’s portrayal in Ed Wood and believed that the real Wood was exploiting his father’s past stardom and vulnerable position to help make his movies. Nevertheless, the film suggests that one of Wood’s motivations for starring Lugosi in his films was to help Lugosi out financially. Lugosi was also struggling with drug addiction at the time of his involvement with Wood and was one of the first celebrities to go to rehab publicly. In the film, Wood is shown to be the only person to visit and look out for Lugosi such as one scene when Lugosi is being hounded by paparazzi. In real life however, Frank Sinatra is said to have visited Lugosi as, like Wood, Sinatra was a fan. There is footage of the real Lugosi leaving the hospital on his recovery and shaking hands with the staff that helped him. Lugosi was also interviewed by the press and mentions that he is filming another film project with Wood called The Ghoul Goes West.

In Ed Wood, Wood is forced to discharge Lugosi due to lack of finances and Lugosi expresses to Wood his desire to make another film. Subsequently, Ed films a scene with Lugosi to placate him. In actuality, Wood and Lugosi were filming a scene for The Ghoul Goes West outside Tor Johnson’s house. Lugosi’s death in 1956 would end any possibility of that film getting made. The scene that Wood shot with Lugosi was instead used in Plan 9 for Outer Space and Lugosi’s character was played in additional scenes by Wood’s wife’s chiropractor covering half his face! This could be an example of Wood exploiting Lugosi for his own ends, but Wood apparently thought using the footage was a tribute to his friend. While it’s possible that the real Wood was taking advantage of Lugosi, many people believe that Wood was sincere in his care and concern for Lugosi and that the two were genuinely friends.

Another character in the film whose portrayal has caused controversy is that of Dolores Fuller who was Wood’s girlfriend in the early 1950s. In Ed Wood, Fuller is initially supportive of Wood and is herself an aspiring actress but is later horrified to learn about Wood’s transvestism during the filming of Glen or Glenda. Fuller and Wood’s relationship is shown to be further strained during the production of Bride of the Monster when Fuller’s leading role was given to Loretta King and she was left with only a minor part. After the release of Bride of the Monster, Fuller leaves Wood due to his continued lack of success and association with misfits. The Tim Burton biographer Ken Hanke has criticised the depiction of Fuller saying that Fuller in real life “is a lively, savvy, humorous woman.” Hanke goes on to say:

“Parker’s performance presents her as a kind of sitcom moron for the first part of the film and a rather judgemental and wholly unpleasant character in her later scenes.”

Ken Hanke

Fuller herself was critical of some aspects of the film but gave the film a positive review overall and praised Depp’s performance. In real life Fuller left Wood because of his alcoholism and difficult behaviour and said that she genuinely loved him. After leaving Wood, Fuller went on to have a successful career as a songwriter for artists such as Elvis Presley.

Towards the end of the film, Wood meets Kathy O’Hara (played by Patricia Arquette) at the rehabilitation centre where Lugosi is staying and she would become his wife and remain with him until his death. O’Hara never remarried and died in 2006. O’Hara is portrayed as accepting Wood’s transvestism and is always supportive of him. From what I read on Wikipedia (not always the most accurate source admittedly) Wood’s and O’Hara’s actual relationship was more tumultuous than what is depicted in the film as they both allegedly got violent with each other when drinking. The real Wood had also got married once before to a woman called Norma McCarty who appears as a stewardess in Plan 9 from Outer Space. This marriage was later annulled apparently after McCarty found out Wood was a transvestite. McCarty and the marriage are not depicted in the film.

One aspect of Ed Wood that is entirely fictional is Wood’s encounter with Orson Welles near the end of the film when Wood storms off the set of Plan 9 from Outer Space after frequent clashes with his producers. Wood goes to a bar and finds Orson Welles seated at a table and approaches him. Wood was a huge admirer of Welles and was inspired by his independent attitude to filmmaking. At the beginning of Ed Wood, Ed laments the fact that Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane aged 26 while Wood was still not a success aged 30. Welles is played in the film by Vincent D’Onofrio but his voice is performed by voice actor Maurice LaMarche. LaMarche famously voiced ‘Brain’ in Pinky and the Brain and has voiced characters in other animated shows like The Simpsons and Futurama.

During their brief conversation, Welles tells Wood about the trouble he had with the studio over making his most famous and acclaimed film Citizen Kane:

“You know the one film of mine where I had total control: Kane. The studio hated it. But they didn’t get to touch a frame. Ed, visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?”

Orson Welles

This inspires Wood to return to the studio to complete Plan 9. The irony is that Welles tells Wood about his trouble making what is considered one of the greatest films ever made while Woods goes off to make what is considered one of the worst. When Plan 9 is screened at a theatre Woods looks at his creation with pride and says: “This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.” Again, the irony here is that the film will be remembered for its poor quality rather than the hard work and effort Wood put into it.

Fittingly perhaps, Ed Wood was not financially successful on its original release in 1994 despite being critically acclaimed but has gone on to gain a cult following like Ed Wood’s own films. Filming in black and white may have been one reason as this is a turn off for some people although it’s never been something that bothers me. Much of the praise was due to the film not mocking Wood but celebrating his ambition and determination. Films are notoriously difficult to make and even the worst films can be made with a lot of time and effort which is evident in Ed Wood. The late film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert lauded the film on their popular film review show at the time of its release and Gene Sickel noted:

“Once when I started as a film critic somebody said to me ‘You know, there’s this old story about this producer who would applaud at the end of every movie because he knew how hard it was to get any movie made’ – that’s the spirit of this picture.”

Gene Siskel

Wood has gone on to be praised as a man who made an effort despite the limitations he had available to him. Jim Morton, who wrote a book called Incredibly Strange Films praised Wood saying:

“Eccentric and individualistic, Edward D. Wood Jr. was a man born to film. Lesser men, if forced to make movies under the conditions Wood faced, would have thrown their hands in defeat.”

Jim Morton

I haven’t expressed much of my own thoughts on the film in this post which I think is because I just believe it’s a very interesting story. Other films I write about (whenever that happens) may contain more analysis. One thing I’ll comment on though is the film’s 1950s setting. I think a lot of people have a somewhat cartoonish perception of the 1950s as a period of dull conformity and the 1960s as an explosion of colour, excitement and innovation. I wasn’t alive during those decades so I can’t comment on what they were really like to live through but that is how this period is often portrayed in popular culture. Ed Wood shows that the 1950s had its own complexities and fair share of odd and interesting characters, at least in Hollywood, and so this period shouldn’t be dismissed as been entirely boring or ‘square’. It’s also worth noting that issues like transvestism and transgenderism were being explored even in this period of more clearly defined roles between men and women – albeit largely at the fringes of society.

Another message I take from this film is that even if what you’re doing is hard work with very little payoff, if you stick with it you can still accomplish things – even if those things are not very good! I’ve found that even though I have put a lot of work into some of my posts and only received a limited response, I still feel proud at what I’ve managed to achieve, whether or not the posts themselves are any good.

I would definitely recommend Ed Wood to any film fans or anyone who likes Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s other films. The biopic is ultimately a celebration of those who try even if they end up failing. Wood’s career has ultimately encouraged other struggling filmmakers to keeping going even if they don’t have the resources available to successful filmmakers and his films have come to have a cult following.

Useful links:

If you are interested in learning more about this film or Wood himself, I’d recommend checking out the links below.

  • This is a very well made review from 2012 by a YouTube channel called Happy Dragon Pictures which is where I got most of the information for this post.
  • Jonathan Ross presented this Channel 4 show in the late 1980s, before Ed Wood was made, which looks into Wood’s life and career. There are interviews with some of the people associated with Wood and it also gives some more background information such as what Wood did after he made Plan 9 from Outer Space.
  • This documentary was made after the film was released and explores in more detail the people who surrounded Ed Wood.
  • Wikipedia has articles about the film Ed Wood, the man himself and his films and you can even watch some of them for free on the site if you’re so inclined (or particularly bored!)

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