Film Reviews

The Abominable Showman

If the life of filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., were fiction, set down more or less as Wood's cronies tell it, it would be hailed as the great Hollywood satire. It would seem like a creation of Nathaniel West, had he survived until the Fifties, or of Tom Robbins, had he been writing then. But Wood's outrageous story, though it has undoubtedly been embroidered in the years since his death and subsequent status as a minor Tinseltown legend, is a true one--he actually led that chaotic, frustrated, obsessed, shabbily surreal life.

For this reason alone, even if Tim Burton's Ed Wood hadn't been a good movie, I'd have been tickled pink as angora that it was made at all. There's something splendid about the idea of a high-profile, critically lauded, prodigiously gifted director like Burton choosing to spend his clout, money, time and talent making a bio-pic of Wood, a director who never was any of the above and never possessed any of the above.

What Wood did have, along with a heavy fetish and an almost delusional confidence in his own potential, was an intense passion for cinema as a medium of personal expression. This is what sets him apart from the other makers of grade-Z exploitation films of his time (and now), and this is what Burton and Johnny Depp, who plays the title role, respond to in their subject.

As some of the above might suggest, I can pretend to little objectivity on the subject of Wood, since I'm a longtime fan. His Plan 9 from Outer Space has, for no critically defensible reason, been among my favorite movies since I first saw it on late-night TV in the late Seventies. With a touch of haughtiness, I must boast that I discovered Wood's movies all by myself, without help from fanzines or the snide "tributes" of Michael and Harry Medved's The Golden Turkey Awards.

But with all the distance I can manage, I really think that Ed Wood is both one of the funniest movies of the year and a surprisingly convincing, non-campy chronicle of the man's life and times. Shot in glorious black-and-white by Stefan Czapsky (of Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line), Burton's unabashedly affectionate, ironically sentimental film traces the "salad years" of Wood's career--from 1953, when he made his notorious debut feature Glen or Glenda, until 1959, and the opening of Plan 9 from Outer Space, his magnum opus. For the uninitiated, Edward D. Wood, Jr., was a nice fellow from Poughkeepsie, New York, a decorated combat veteran of the South Pacific in World War II, who had two great obsessions in life--one was to write and direct movies, and the other was to wear women's clothing, especially angora (he claimed to have hit the beach during the invasion of Tarawa with a pink bra and panties under his Marine uniform). After the war he found his way to Hollywood.

After years of laboring at studio odd jobs and failing as a playwright, Wood at last talked his way into a directing job on an exploitation film inspired by the Christine Jorgensen case. In Wood's hands the film, Glen or Glenda (or I Changed My Sex), lost track of most of its sex-change theme and became, principally, an "expressionistic" paean to the joys and tribulations of cross-dressing, a subject much dearer to Wood's enthusiastically male and heterosexual (but angora-loving) heart.

Glen or Glenda featured an appearance by the great horror star Bela Lugosi (as a sort of godlike chorus figure), with whom Wood became close friends. Lugosi was on his last legs by the time he and Wood met--forgotten by Hollywood, impoverished and emaciated by morphine addiction, alcoholism, and endless road tours of the stage version of Dracula. But the old campaigner was eager and worked cheap, and his name still had value. He starred in another Wood film, a horror yarn called Bride of the Monster (1955).

Wood worked independently, raising pittances from backers--a meat-packer put up the money for Bride of the Monster, on condition that his son play the romantic lead--as well as the loyal members of his repertory company. At times his business gimmicks were unsavory--he built the plot of Plan 9 around a few minutes of silent footage he had shot of Lugosi shortly before the actor's death, and then gave him star billing in the advertising (a double, face hidden but nearly a foot taller, filled in for Lugosi in the late actor's subsequent scene).

Wood's tale becomes less funny after Plan 9, where Burton wisely ends his account. He made another horror film or two and a couple of "nudie" troubled-youth melodramas. Then, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, he eked out a subsistence for himself and his wife by writing dozens of porno novels, and scripting, directing, and occasionally acting in low-grade skinflicks and industrials.

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead

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