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Writer-producer-director-actor Edward D. Wood, Jr. strove for decades to achieve success in Hollywood, only to gain a posthumous notoriety as the creator of the "worst film ever made" with his Z-movie classic "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959). A man of undeniable ambition and peculiar personal traits, his first and most personal film "Glen or Glenda" (1953) was intended as plea for tolerance in its depiction of a man (Wood) obsessed with wearing women's clothing. The film also marked his first collaboration with personal movie idol, Bela Lugosi, who was by then out of work, in poor health and suffering from drug addiction. Lugosi went on to appear in "Bride of the Monster" (1955) and "Plan 9" - films that constituted the "highlights" of Wood's bizarre oeuvre. Atrociously bad dialogue, terrible acting, shoddy special effects, rampant technical errors and liberal use of wildly out of place stock footage all became the hallmarks of an Ed Wood, Jr. production. Endearingly optimistic and long fascinated by the occult and other taboo subject matter, for Wood it was all about the doing, not the details of filmmaking. Over the years he assembled an eclectic stock company of actors - Lugosi, Tor Johnson, the...
Writer-producer-director-actor Edward D. Wood, Jr. strove for decades to achieve success in Hollywood, only to gain a posthumous notoriety as the creator of the "worst film ever made" with his Z-movie classic "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959). A man of undeniable ambition and peculiar personal traits, his first and most personal film "Glen or Glenda" (1953) was intended as plea for tolerance in its depiction of a man (Wood) obsessed with wearing women's clothing. The film also marked his first collaboration with personal movie idol, Bela Lugosi, who was by then out of work, in poor health and suffering from drug addiction. Lugosi went on to appear in "Bride of the Monster" (1955) and "Plan 9" - films that constituted the "highlights" of Wood's bizarre oeuvre. Atrociously bad dialogue, terrible acting, shoddy special effects, rampant technical errors and liberal use of wildly out of place stock footage all became the hallmarks of an Ed Wood, Jr. production. Endearingly optimistic and long fascinated by the occult and other taboo subject matter, for Wood it was all about the doing, not the details of filmmaking. Over the years he assembled an eclectic stock company of actors - Lugosi, Tor Johnson, the psychic Criswell, and Vampira among them - for several of the most spectacularly unsuccessful movies in the history of cinema. Although plagued by failure during his lifetime, Wood's legacy lived on through Tim Burton's cinematic homage "Ed Wood" (1994) as the creator of several of the greatest guilty pleasures ever put on film.
Edward Davis Wood, Jr. was born on Oct. 10, 1924 in Poughkeepsie, NY to Lillian and Ed, Sr. a U.S. Postal Service employee. As a child, Ed indulged his early love of comic books, pulp novels and cinema as much as possible, often at the expense of his studies. Given a home movie camera for his 12th birthday, the young Wood was soon experimenting with the medium that would consume his adult professional life, shooting as much footage as he could afford. Music was another early passion for the young man, who sang and played drums with a local band in his teens. While working as an usher at a neighborhood cinema, the 17-year-old Wood enlisted with the United States Marine Corps just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served from 1942 to 1946, reportedly earning several medals and citations for his participation in bloody events like the Battle of Guadalcanal. Discharged from the service in 1946, Wood worked and traveled with a circus company for a period of time, before his artistic leanings and the lure of Hollywood beckoned him westward in 1847.
Soon after his arrival in Los Angles, Wood began picking up small acting parts in various theatrical productions. In 1948 he wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Casual Company," a play inspired by his experiences in World War II. Setting a precedent for his future endeavors, the production met with scathing reviews and closed shortly after it opened. Also around this time, he made an attempt at mounting his first feature film with the Western "Crossroads of Laredo," a 30-minute movie left unfinished for decades after funding evaporated. In 1995, the footage was restored with an added soundtrack, narration and two songs by Wood's former girlfriend, Delores Fuller, who went on to enjoy a successful career as a lyricist after parting with the aspiring filmmaker. As the decade came to a close, Wood secured work at Universal Studios, where he worked in the story department and took a job as stunt double on "The Baron of Arizona" (1950), a B-movie Western starring Vincent Price. Before long he was branching out with screenwriting and directing television commercials, in addition to the television short film "The Sun Was Setting" (1951) that most likely never aired. The series pilot "Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid" (1953), written and directed by Wood, also met with a similar fate. Nonetheless, things were beginning to happen for the ambitious movie-maker. People were taking notice of Ed Wood, Jr.
One of those people was producer George Weiss, who was looking to make a movie based on the story of sex-reassignment surgery recipient Christine Jorgensen, who was the subject of intense media frenzy in the U.S. at the time. When Weiss was unable to secure the rights to Jorgensen's story, Wood pitched himself as the perfect person to write, direct and star in a film covering similar subject matter for the producer, in light of the fact that he himself had been a practicing transvestite for years. Wood, who was devoutly heterosexual, told acquaintances that it began when his mother frequently dressed him in girls' clothing as a child. His material of choice was the fuzzy fabric, angora. Reportedly, he told several close friends that during his time in the military he even went so far as to sport a bra and panties under his uniform. "Glen or Glenda" (1953) was Wood's first true feature film, and the movie's production - extremely fast, cheap and some said, woefully inept - would set the standard for all future Wood projects. It would also be the fist time Wood would collaborate with fading horror legend Bela Lugosi, who appeared, rather incongruously, as the film's narrator. Perplexed about the shift away from sex-reassignment surgery to Wood's clothing obsession, Weiss insisted on several scenes referring to the procedure being shoehorned into the picture. The result was extremely uneven, mildly scandalous and oddly-humorous, to say the least. In Wood's opinion, it would be the most personal movie he would ever make.
Wood's most mainstream film came with "Jail Bait" (1954). A film noir about a criminal looking to escape capture by means of plastic surgery, it featured bodybuilder Steve Reeves in his first screen role. Wood brought back Lugosi - by now deep in the throws of a morphine addiction and desperate for income - for "Bride of the Monster" (1955), this time cast as a mad scientist intent on creating a race of atomic supermen with which to rule the world. While some - most notably Lugosi's son, Bela G. Lugosi - viewed Wood's use of Lugosi as that of an opportunist taking advantage of an old man in poor condition, most people close to the pair insisted that the friendship between Wood and his movie idol was genuine. Notable for the hilariously pathetic scene in which Lugosi is dispatched by a set of clearly inanimate fake rubber tentacles, "Bride of the Monster" also marked the first appearance of gigantic Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson in a Wood production. After writing the screenplay for the crime-exploitation movie "The Violent Years" (1956), Wood began preparing for the next project he would personally helm. Having shot a few random bits of test footage featuring the ailing Lugosi, Wood was preparing to mount such projects as "Tomb of the Vampire" and "The Ghoul Goes West" when Lugosi died in 1956. With the actor's death, Wood was forced to shelve the projects. However, this did not stop him from using the silent test footage in his money-raising efforts for what he described to potential investors as Bela Lugosi's final film.
That movie would be "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959), a science-fiction/horror mash-up that, in a case of truth being stranger than fiction, Wood managed to have financed by a consortium of Baptist Church ministers. Legend had it that in order to secure the financial backing, Wood, cast and crew had to agree to being baptized en masse in a parishioner's swimming pool. With "Plan 9," Wood's de facto stock company was complete. Tor Johnson was joined by gothic model-TV hostess Vampira (Maila Nurmi), actors Kenne Duncan, Lyle Talbot, celebrity psychic Criswell and, via the use of the previously shot test footage, the late Lugosi. With a barely coherent plot revolving around an alien race's plan to conquer humanity by raising the dead, it was a textbook example of a Wood film. Laughably bad dialogue, liberal use of incompatible stock footage, amateurish sets and special effects, and even the employment of Wood's chiropractor as a double for Lugosi (the man bore little resemblance to the deceased actor) all contributed to its infamy. After decades of relative anonymity, "Plan 9 from Outer Space" was dubbed "The Worst Film Ever Made" by authors Michael and Harry Medved in their 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards.
Almost immediately after wrapping "Plan 9," Wood went into production on his next horror epic, "Night of the Ghouls" (1959). A quasi-sequel to "Bride of the Monster," it featured familiar faces like Johnson as yet another hulking henchman, Criswell offering up a prologue similar to the one he delivered in "Plan 9," and Kenne Duncan as a conman who claims he can speak with the dead. As usual, Wood had little to no money during production, and when he was unable to pay the processing fees for the negatives, the film stalled indefinitely. The footage would sit in the vaults of the processing house until 1987, when a wealthy opportunist, who was also a fan of Wood's, paid the outstanding fees and released the film on video more than 30 years after its production. Wood's next picture as a director, and the last to represent what some might call his "golden era," was "The Sinister Urge" (1960), the story of a manhunt for a sex-killer driven crazy by the sight of pornographic material. It would be the final time Wood worked with company regulars like Duncan, Conrad Brooks and longtime cinematographer William C. Thompson. In true "Woodian" fashion, the resourceful director inserted footage of a fight scene he had shot years earlier for the unfinished teen-horror movie "Hellborn" as a means of lengthening the movie's paltry run-time.
Unable to finance films of his own, Wood depended more and more on screenwriting to make what little money he could. Working for sexploitation producer-director Stephen C. Apostolof, he penned the screenplay "Orgy of the Dead" (1965), a film that marked a clear transition from Wood's focus on horror to sex. Working for Apostolof and others, he scripted several soft-core films during the remainder of the decade in addition to penning dozens of pulp novels, all with a similarly lurid focus. Taking any work he could find, Wood directed his first hardcore pornographic film "Take It Out in Trade" (1970), even as he received a minor writing credit for the little-seen Japanese-produced monster movie "Venus Flytrap" (1970). Based on another of his many pulp novels, the horror-porn "Necromania" (1971) would be Wood's last picture as a full director. Over the course of the remaining years, Wood collaborated on more pictures with Apostolof, wrote several more pulp novels and took on just about any other job that paid. Unfortunately, both his depression and drinking increased to the point that he became nearly unemployable.
In late 1978, Wood and his wife Kathy were evicted from their dingy Hollywood apartment on Yucca Street. Completely destitute, they moved in with actor and friend Peter Coe at his North Hollywood home. Days later, while watching football on TV and drinking heavily, Wood suffered a fatal heart attack. It was Dec. 10, 1978 and Edward D. Wood, Jr. was 54 years old. After years of obscurity, Wood and his films enjoyed a resurgence of interest after being given the dubious honors listed in The Golden Turkey Awards, and aided by the growing popularity of home video at the dawn of the 1980s. With director Tim Burton's full-length biopic "Ed Wood" (1994), with Johnny Depp as Wood, the late filmmaker at last reached a cult-icon status he could have only dreamed of in his lifetime.
By Bryce Coleman
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