Edward Davis Wood, Jr. (October 10, 1924 – December 10, 1978) was an American screenwriter, director, producer, actor, author, and editor (often performing many of these functions simultaneously). In the 1950s, Wood made a run of independently produced, extremely low-budget horror, science fiction, and cowboy films, now celebrated for their technical errors, unsophisticated special effects, idiosyncratic dialogue, eccentric casts, and outlandish plot elements, although his flair for showmanship gave his productions at least a modicum of commercial success.
Wood's popularity waned soon after his biggest "name" star, Béla Lugosi, died. He was able to salvage a saleable feature from Lugosi's last moments on film, but his career declined thereafter. Toward the end of his life, Wood made pornographic movies and wrote pulp crime, horror, and sex novels. His posthumous fame began two years after his death, when he was awarded a Golden Turkey Award as Worst Director of All Time. The lack of conventional filmmaking ability in his work has earned Wood and his films a considerable cult following.
Following the publication of Rudolph Grey's biography Nightmare of Ecstasy, Wood's life and work have undergone a public rehabilitation, with new light shed on his evident zeal and honest love of movies and movie production, and Tim Burton's biopic, Ed Wood, earned two Academy Awards.
During his childhood, Wood was interested in the performing arts and pulp fiction. He collected comics and pulp magazines, and adored movies, most notably Westerns and anything involving the occult. He would often skip school in favor of watching pictures at the local movie theater, where stills from the day's movie would often be thrown in the trash by theater staff, allowing Wood to salvage them to add to his extensive collection.
It is believed that Wood's mother, Lillian, always wanted a girl and would sometimes, until he was about 12 years old, dress her son in skirts and dresses. For the rest of his life, Wood was a heterosexual transvestite.
One of his first paid jobs was as a cinema usher, although he also sang and played drums in a band. He later fronted a singing quartet called Eddie Wood's Little Splinters, having learned to play a variety of string instruments. Wood was given his first movie camera on his 12th birthday: a Kodak "Cine Special." One of his first pieces of footage was the Hindenburg dirigible passing over the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, just minutes before its famous fiery demise at Lakehurst, New Jersey, which imbued him with pride.
Wood enlisted in the Marines at age 17, just months after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. He served from 1942-1946 and claimed that he had participated in the Battle of Tarawa while secretly wearing a brassiere and panties beneath his uniform.
Fascinated by the exotic and bizarre, Wood joined a carnival after a discharge from the Marines. His several missing teeth and disfigured leg (wounds while in combat) combined with personal fetishes and acting skills made him a perfect candidate for the freak show. Wood played, among others, the geek and the bearded lady. As the bearded lady, he donned women's clothing and created his own prosthetic breasts. Carnivals would be frequently depicted in Wood's works, most notably (and semi-autobiographically) in the novel Killer in Drag.
Wood's other vices included soft drugs, alcohol, and sex. He was a notorious womanizer in his younger days, but in later life he respected women and was completely faithful to his girlfriends (most notably Dolores Fuller) and wife (Kathy O'Hara).
If you want to know me, see 'Glen or Glenda'. That's me, that's my story, no question. But 'Plan 9' is my pride and joy. We used Cadillac hubcaps for flying saucers in that.|||Ed Wood
Wood's film career began after moving to Hollywood in 1947. He wrote scripts and directed television pilots, commercials, and several forgotten micro-budget westerns. Wood wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a play called Casual Company from his unpublished novel based on his service in the United States Marines that opened at the Village Playhouse in Hollywood to disastrous reviews on October 25, 1948.
His big break came in 1953 when hired to make an exploitation film, I Changed My Sex, based on the life of transsexual Christine Jorgensen. After Jorgensen refused to collaborate on the film, Wood wrote a new autobiographical screenplay entitled Glen or Glenda, a sincere and sympathetic study of transvestism. Wood directed and, using an alias, played the titular character who has a fetish for cross-dressing and angora sweaters.
Angora was regularly featured in his films. His wife Kathy O'Hara and others recall that Wood's transvestitism was not a sexual inclination but rather a neomaternal comfort derived mainly from angora fabric ("Ann Gora" also happened to be one of Wood's pen names). The medical "experts" in the film go to great lengths to stress that the transvestite is a perfectly normal heterosexual man who simply feels more comfortable and "more himself" when wearing women's apparel. There is even a fantasy vignette showing Glenda rebuffing the advances of a homosexual man. Even in his later years, Wood was not shy about going out in public dressed in drag as "Shirley"; his alter ego—female characters named Shirley also appear in many of his screenplays and stories.
Most of Wood's films have a rushed quality due to the tight shooting schedule and limited budgets. While most directors film only one scene per day (or just a fraction of one in more contemporary pictures), Wood might complete up to 30 scenes. He seldom ordered a retake, even if the original was obviously flawed. Glen or Glenda, shot in just four days for $26,000, was done in a semi-documentary style. Narration and voice-over dialog was added to generous amounts of film-library stock footage (a cost-saving trick he used in his later films). The love-interest role of "Barbara" was played by Wood's real-life girlfriend, Dolores Fuller. She went on to appear in his next two films. Bela Lugosi, who was not told the film was about a transvestite, was paid $1,000 in cash for one day of filming. In a dark haunted-house set, speaking in vague, baffling metaphors and nursery rhymes, he played a portentous, omnipotent narrator.
The centerpiece of the film is an extraordinary 15-minute fantasy sequence that illustrates Glen's tormented state of mind. Wood pulls out all the stops in a barrage of surreal, dream-like vignettes using highly personalized symbolism that defies explanation. Producer George Weiss added to the confusion by inserting footage of flagellation and bondage—reminiscent of the fetish films of Irving Klaw—from another production. In this sequence Barbara is pinned beneath a large tree (in her living room), and Glen rescues her; they are married with the Devil acting as best man; a shirtless man vigorously flogs a woman reclining on a couch; lewd burlesque dancers gyrate to blaring jazz music and tear at their clothes; a woman gagged and bound to a yoke-like pole is untied by another gagged woman; a lust-crazed man roughly assaults a seductress in a flimsy negligee; an enraged Glenda rips Barbara's blouse to shreds after she laughs at his appearance. Lugosi appears in several scenes also rejecting Glenda and droning on repeatedly about "snips and snails and puppy-dog tails." The film was released under several regional titles such as Transvestite, I Led Two Lives, and He or She?
Wood produced and directed the low-budget Jail Bait in 1954, a '30s-style gangster film with a twist ending a la The Twilight Zone. Originally titled The Hidden Face, the title was inexplicably changed to Jail Bait, from an offhand reference in the script to an illegal hand gun. Wood also co-wrote the screenplay with writer-producer friend Alex Gordon. It was Gordon who introduced Wood to Bela Lugosi in 1952. Gordon soon went on to help create American International Pictures. Lugosi was cast as the father of the lead character, but dropped out due to illness. Around this time, Wood became friends with a group of B-movie actors who became part of his entourage and stock company, appearing in most of his later films. These include Kenne Duncan, Lyle Talbot, Conrad Brooks, Duke Moore, Timothy Farrell, Swedish professional wrestler Tor Johnson, TV horror host Vampira, the eccentric gay socialite Bunny Breckinridge, and the psychic Criswell.
In 1955 he produced and directed his first horror film, Bride of the Monster (originally titled Bride of the Atom). Although Wood took most of the writing credit, the original story, The Atomic Monster, was written by Alex Gordon. Wood contributed about half the dialog, according to Gordon (in Starlog, November 1994). Bela Lugosi, in his last speaking role, stars as a mad scientist bent on creating an army of atomic supermen. The immense, 400-pound Tor Johnson plays "Lobo", his lumbering henchman. Billy Benedict of The Bowery Boys has a walk-on role as a newspaper seller. The female lead, Loretta King, wears the same type of angora hat worn by Wood in Glen or Glenda. The style and content of the film are highly reminiscent of the string of low-budget horror movies that Lugosi made for Monogram Pictures in the 1940s. Stock footage of lightning, explosions, a nuclear blast, and a giant "atomic" octopus was inserted. In one scene the hero, trapped in quicksand, is menaced by a stock footage aligator. In the finale, the frail, elderly Lugosi was reduced to thrashing about in the mud with a large rubber octopus when the motor needed to turn it into a flailing beast could not be located.
Wood planned to follow this in 1956 with The Ghoul Goes West (aka The Phantom Ghoul), a combination of his two favorite genres: Horror and Westerns. The story was largely a reworking of Bride of the Monster; a synopsis of the screenplay was published in Filmfax no. 18, Dec./Jan. 1989-90. Lugosi, recently out of rehab for morphine addiction, was to star as the undertaker/mad scientist. Gene Autry and Lon Chaney, Jr. were also attached to the project for a time. Wood could only raise enough money to shoot one day's worth of silent test footage. A few random scenes were filmed of Lugosi at a funeral, in front of Tor Johnson's house, and stalking about in his Dracula costume (possibly intended for The Vampire's Tomb, another unrealized story concept). The scenes were filmed to show to prospective financial backers. Lugosi died soon afterwards and the footage became the seed for Wood's next project.
Plan 9 from Outer Space incorporated the final Lugosi scenes into a new story that combined horror and science fiction. Wood's chiropractor, his face hidden behind a cape, doubled for Lugosi in several scenes. Tor Johnson and wasp-waisted Vampira (Maila Nurmi) are memorable, even iconic, as zombies risen from the grave by alien invaders. The film was shot in five days on a budget of around $20,000. All of Nurmi's scenes were filmed in just two hours, for which she was paid $200. Resorting again to the "docu-fantasy" approach, Criswell, the flamboyantly inaccurate TV psychic, acts as host. He cryptically introduces the story as "something more than a fact." Cost-saving stock footage of airliners, explosions, and fighter jets were edited in. The flying saucers (made from plastic toy store models) are fired upon by an artillery barrage from World War II newsreels. Although completed in 1956, it was not released until 1959, due to the inability of the producer to secure distribution.
Most notably, for Plan 9, he convinced members of the Southern Baptist church (through his landlord at the time) to invest the initial capital, allegedly convincing them that a successful science fiction picture would make enough money to fund their own pet project of 12 movies about the 12 Apostles. They reportedly changed the name of the movie from Grave Robbers from Outer Space and removed lines from the script which they considered profane; one source alleges they required the actors to accept their Church's baptism as part of the deal. The grave-diggers in the picture are the two primary backers. Wood's frequently being overruled by producers and financiers was one factor contributing to his depression and was something he personally blamed for his lack of commercial success.
Also in 1956, Wood wrote the screenplay for The Violent Years, an exploitation film about a gang of juvenile delinquent high school girls. It starred first-time actress Jean Moorhead, who was Miss October 1955 in Playboy. The film is notable for its unusual girls-gone-bad premise and risqué abduction scene where a girl is bound and gagged with strips of her shredded dress while her boyfriend is sexually assaulted (off camera) by the lusty girl gang. This foreshadows Wood's fearless, anything-goes attitude seen in his later, more racy novels and films.
He went on to write the script for The Bride and the Beast (1958), a story about a gorilla reincarnated in the body of a beautiful woman. That same year Wood wrote, produced, and directed Night of the Ghouls (original title: Revenge of the Dead), an "old dark house" tale about a fake medium and evil spirits. The setting is the rebuilt house on Willows Lake that burned down in Bride of the Monster. There are frequent references to the mad scientist (Lugosi) and monster from the previous film, and Tor Johnson reprises his "Lobo" role—his face now half-destroyed from the fire. Paul Marco makes his third appearance as "Kelton", the cowardly, inept policeman. Criswell, billed as himself, returns as host and narrator, rising from his coffin to introduce this tale of "Monsters to be pitied. Monsters to be despised!" (Tim Burton's Ed Wood bio-pic opens with a faithful recreation of this scene). Criswell also plays a character role as one of the vengeful ghosts seen at the climax of the film.
In one of the early scenes, a girl (wearing an angora sweater) and her boyfriend are attacked by the "Black Ghost". Wood, his face hidden by a dark veil, doubles for the female ghoul in several shots. A fight scene from the unfinished Hellborn was edited in (more scenes from that project appeared in The Sinister Urge). Most of Lieutenant Bradford's exploration of Dr. Acula's house was lifted from Wood's short film Final Curtain and given a voice-over by Criswell to integrate it into the current story. A publicity photo of Wood is seen on a wanted poster on the wall of the police station. The finale, with the ghouls reduced to skeletons and Criswell's epilogue, were used again in 1965 for Orgy of the Dead. For decades this remained a "lost" film that was never released to theaters. Wood lacked the funds to pay the film processing fees, so it languished in limbo until it was finally released on video in 1983.
In 1961, Wood worked on the script for another potboiler, Married Too Young, and wrote and directed The Sinister Urge. This lurid exposé on the "smut racket" purports to warn against the dangers of pornography. This is the last mainstream film that Wood directed. Ironically, his career would soon spiral downward into a blur of nudie flicks, softcore pornography, and end with X-rated novels and films.
His transitional film, once again combining two genres, horror and grindhouse skin-flick was Orgy of the Dead (1965). Wood wrote the screenplay and handled various production details while Stephen C. Apostolof directed under the pseudonym A.C. Stephen. The film begins with a recreation of the opening scene from the unreleased Night of the Ghouls. Criswell, wearing one of Lugosi's old capes, rises from his coffin to deliver an introduction taken almost word-for-word from the previous film. Set in a misty graveyard, the Lord of the Dead (Criswell) and his sexy consort, The Black Ghoul (a Vampira lookalike) preside over a series of macabre performances by topless dancers from beyond the grave (recruited by Wood from local strip clubs). Together, Wood and Apostolof went on to make a string of sexploitation flicks up to 1977. Wood co-wrote the screenplays and occasionally acted.
His remaining output until his death in 1978 was confined to lurid crime and sex novels, often featuring girl gangs and transvestites, and a dozen obscure adult films, some with a horror theme. Titles include: The Photographer (1969), Take it Out in Trade (1970), The Only House in Town (1970), with Uschi Digard, Necromania (1971), and The Undergraduate (1972).
One of Wood's heroes was Orson Welles for his cinematic ambition and passion. Wood also prided himself on the fact that he was the only filmmaker other than Welles to be writer, director, and actor in his own films, although it is likely that Wood took on all of these functions to save time and money. Unlike his counterpart in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, however, Wood never actually met his hero. A bit of trivia is that Wood was born on the same date (October 10) that Welles died.
Bela Lugosi, Jr. has been among those who felt Wood exploited Lugosi's stardom, taking advantage of the fading actor when he could not refuse any work. Most documents and interviews with other Wood associates in Nightmare of Ecstasy suggest that Wood and Lugosi were genuine friends and that Wood helped Lugosi through the worst days of his depression and addiction.
Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion, was released in 1992. This exhaustive two-hour documentary by Mark Carducci chronicles the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space and features interviews with Maila Nurmi (Vampira), Paul Marco, Conrad Brooks, et al. In 2000, Image Entertainment included the documentary on the DVD reissue of Plan 9 from Outer Space (in a two-disc set with Robot Monster).
Ed Wood: Look Back In Angora, released in 1994 by Rhino Home Video, is a one-hour documentary on Wood's life and films. This includes rare outtakes and interviews with Dolores Fuller, Kathy Wood, Stephen Apostolof, and Conrad Brooks.
The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr., written and directed by Brett Thompson, came out in 1995. This documentary about the life and films of Ed Wood features interviews with Wood's friends and co-workers.
Wood's novels frequently include transvestite or drag queen characters, or entire plots centering around transvestism (including his angora fetish), and tap into his love of crime fiction and the occult. Wood would often recycle plots of his films for novels, write novelizations of his own screenplays, or reuse elements from his novels in scripts. His first novel, Black Lace Drag was published in 1963 and reissued in 1965 as Killer in Drag. Among his other books are Orgy of The Dead (1965), Devil Girls (1967), Death of a Transvestite (1967), The Sexecutives (1968), and A Study of Fetishes and Fantasies (1973).
Descriptions of Wood's working methods in Nightmare of Ecstasy indicate he would work on a dozen projects at once, simultaneously watching television, eating, drinking, and carrying on conversations while typing. In his quasi-memoir, Hollywood Rat Race, Wood advises new writers to "just keep on writing. Even if your story gets worse, you'll get better."
As Wood's most famous films of the 1950s are not explicitly sexual or violent, the outré content of his novels may shock the unprepared reader. Wood's dark side emerges in such sexual shockers as Raped in the Grass or The Perverts and in short stories such as Toni: Black Tigress, which exploit hot-button topics like violence, rape, racial issues, juvenile delinquency, and drug culture.
Some of Wood's books remained unpublished during his lifetime. Hollywood Rat Race, for example, was written in 1965 and finally released in 1998. The nonfiction book is part primer for young actors and filmmakers, and part memoir. In Rat Race, Wood recounts tales of dubious authenticity, such as how he and Lugosi entered the world of nightclub cabaret.
His primary film work in the 1970s was working with friend Stephen C. Apostolof, usually cowriting scripts, but also serving as an assistant director and associate producer. His last known on-screen appearance was in Apostolof's Fugitive Girls (aka Five Loose Women), where he played a dual cameo as a gas station attendant called Pops and as the sheriff on the women's trail.
Wood's depression worsened, and with it a serious drinking problem. His drink of choice was Imperial whiskey, but he switched to Popov vodka obtained from the Pla-Boy convenience store after the Ralph's supermarket on Highland went out of business. Evicted from his Hollywood apartment on Yucca Street, Wood and his wife moved into the North Hollywood apartment of friend Peter Coe. On December 10, 1978, only days after the move, the 54-year old Edward D. Wood died of a heart attack while watching a football game alone in Coe's bedroom. In Nightmare of Ecstasy, it was reported Wood yelled out "Kathy, I can't breathe!", a plea his wife in the living room ignored for 90 minutes before finally going in to find him dead; apparently, he frequently feigned heart attacks and screamed for help as a way of teasing her, and at one point she even shouted at him to shut up.
Wood's wife Kathy died on June 26, 2006, having never remarried.
The 1994 film Ed Wood, by director Tim Burton, tells the story of Wood and Lugosi and the making of their three films, (Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space), from a sympathetic point of view. Wood was played by Johnny Depp and Lugosi by Martin Landau, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film also won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for Rick Baker. Burton's successes for previous studios like Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox were at odds with his insistence to shoot the Wood film in black-and-white, and the studios turned it down as a probable box office failure. Eager to embrace Burton, Disney accepted the project, monochrome and all. As others had anticipated, the film received mass critical acclaim but did poorly at the box office. It has since become a cult hit on video and DVD.
The University of Southern California holds an annual "Ed Wood Film Festival", in which students of all disciplines are challenged to form teams to write, film and edit an Ed Wood-inspired short film based on a preassigned theme. Past themes have included "Slippery When Wet" (2006), "What's That In Your Pocket?" (2005), and "Rebel Without A Bra" (2004). 2007 saw a break in this tradition when the theme "My eyes are killing me" was accompanied by a theme object: a mirror.
Some of Wood's most famous films, including Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space have been remade as pornographic movies (as Glen & Glenda and Plan 69 From Outer Space, respectively). They were not simply spoofed or referenced, but reshot, with the same or similar script, and sex scenes worked into the original plots.
In 1998, Wood's previously unfilmed script I Woke Up Early The Day I Died was finally produced, starring Billy Zane and Christina Ricci, and has preserved the inept, goofy character that made Wood's films famous. Outside of a brief New York theatrical engagement, the film did not receive a commercial release in the United States, and was only available on video in Germany due to contractual difficulties.
Three of his films (Bride of the Monster, The Violent Years, and The Sinister Urge) have been featured on the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, which has given those works wider exposure. Producers considered including Plan 9, but found it had too much dialogue for the show's format. Series head writer and host Michael J. Nelson would go on to do an audio commentary for a 2005/2006 DVD release of the film, which was newly colorized.
Reverend Steve Galindo of Sacramento, California, created a legally recognized religion in 1996 with Wood as its official savior. The Church of Ed Wood now boasts over 3,500 legally baptized followers. Woodites, as Steve's followers are called, celebrate Woodmas on October 10, which is Ed 's birthday. It is the Ed Wood Christmas. Numerous parties and concerts are held worldwide to celebrate Woodmas.
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