Icon Of The Month: Ed Wood

That’s right, this month the fantastic Ed Wood, is my icon of the month.

Edward Davis “Ed” Wood, Jr. as born October 10, 1924 in Poughkeepsie, New York, U.S. Wood’s father, Edward Sr., worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a custodian, and his family relocated numerous times around the United States. Eventually, they settled in Poughkeepsie, New York.

According to Wood’s second wife, Kathy O’Hara, Wood’s mother Lillian would dress him in girl’s clothing when he was a child because she had always wanted a daughter. For the rest of his life, Wood was a heterosexual crossdresser, infatuated with the feel of angora on his skin.
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, serials and anything involving the occult. Buck Jones and Bela Lugosi were two of his earliest childhood idols. He would often skip school in favour 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.
On his 12th birthday, in 1936, Wood received as a gift his first movie camera, a Kodak “Cine Special”. One of his first pieces of footage, and one that imbued him with pride, showed the airship Hindenburg passing over the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, shortly before its famous fiery demise at Lakehurst, New Jersey. One of Wood’s first paid jobs was as a cinema usher, and 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.
In 1942, Wood enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, just months after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Assigned to the 2nd Defense Battalions, he reached the rank of Corporal before he was discharged. He was involved in the Battle of Tarawa, among others, and during the war, he lost his two front teeth to a Japanese soldier’s rifle butt and was shot several times in the leg by a machine gunner. Wood later claimed that he feared being wounded in battle more than he feared being killed because he wore a bra and panties under his uniform.
In 1947, Wood moved to Hollywood, California, where he wrote scripts and directed television pilots, commercials and several forgotten micro-budget westerns with names such as Crossroads of Laredo and Crossroad Avenger: The Legend of the Tucson Kid. In 1948, Wood wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Casual Company, a play derived from his unpublished novel, which was based on his service in the United States Marine Corps. It opened at the Village Playhouse to negative reviews on October 25.
In 1952, Wood was introduced to actor Bela Lugosi by friend and fellow writer-producer Alex Gordon, Wood’s roommate at the time, who went on to help create American International Pictures. Lugosi’s son, Bela Lugosi, Jr., has been among those who felt Wood exploited the senior Lugosi’s stardom, taking advantage of the fading actor when he could not refuse any work, while 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. Lugosi had become dependent on morphine as a way of controlling his debilitating sciatica over the years, and was in a horrendous physical state.
In 1953, Wood wrote and directed the exploitative semi-documentary “Glen Or Glenda” (originally titled “I Changed My Sex!”) with producer George Weiss, which starred Wood (under the alias “Daniel Davis”), his girlfriend Dolores Fuller and Lugosi as a god-like narrator. The film was loosely based on trans woman Christine Jorgensen. While panned by critics then and now (being considered as one of Wood’s worst films), though many praise the camp qualities, the film is notable for its groundbreaking empathetic portrayal of LGBT issues at a time when most media were very hostile.
In 1954, Wood directed and produced a crime film, “Jail Bait” (originally titled “The Hidden Face”), along with co-writer Alex Gordon, which starred Lyle Talbot and Steve Reeves (one of his first acting jobs). Bela Lugosi was supposed to play the lead role of the plastic surgeon, but was busy when filming started and had to bow out.
In 1955, Wood produced and directed the horror film “Bride Of The Monster” (originally titled “Bride Of The Atom”), based on an original story idea by Alex Gordon which he entitled “The Atomic Monster”. It starred Bela Lugosi, Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson and Loretta King. Following the making of this film, Lugosi turned himself in to the state hospital for treatment for his drug addiction.
In 1956, Wood produced, wrote and directed the science-fiction film “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (originally titled “Grave Robbers From Outer Space”), which starred Lugosi (in his final film), Tor Johnson, Vampira (Maila Nurmi), Tom Mason (who doubled for Lugosi in several scenes) and Criswell as the narrator. The film was premiered (as “Grave Robbers”) at a small screening in 1957, was released theatrically (as “Plan Nine”) in 1959, and was sold to late night television in 1961, thereby finding an audience. It became his best-known film, and received a cult following in 1980, where Michael Medved declared this film “the worst film ever made”, in his book “The Golden Turkey Awards”.
In 1956, Wood wrote and produced the exploitation film “The Violent Years” (originally titled “Teenage Girl Gang”) with director William M. Morgan, starring Playboy model Jean Moorhead. In 1958, Wood wrote, produced and directed “Night Of The Ghouls” (originally titled “Revenge Of The Dead”), starring Tor Johnson, Criswell, Valda Hansen and Kenne Duncan. The film was only released (marginally) in March 1959, and then promptly vanished from sight for nearly three decades, when it was resurrected on home video. For many years, it was thought to be a lost film. (Wood also wrote the screenplay for the 1958 film “The Bride And The Beast”, although someone else directed it.)
In 1960, Wood wrote and directed the exploitation film “The Sinister Urge” (originally titled “Racket Queen”), starring Kenne Duncan, Duke Moore and Carl Anthony. Filmed in five days, this is the last mainstream film Wood directed, although it has grindhouse elements. Ironically, his career would soon spiral downward into a blur of “smut racket” nudie flicks, softcore pornography and end with X-rated novels and films. The scenes of teenagers at a pizza place were shot in 1956 for the unfinished juvenile delinquency film “Rock And Roll Hell” (a.k.a. “Hellborn”). This includes a fight scene performed by Ed Wood himself (uncredited) and Conrad Brooks.
In 1963, Wood wrote the screenplay for “Shotgun Wedding”, an exploitation film about hillbillies marrying child brides, and Wood’s transitional film, once again combining two genres, horror and grindhouse skin-flick, was 1965’s “Orgy Of The Dead”, originally titled “Nudie Ghoulies”. Wood handled various production details while Stephen C. Apostolof directed under the pseudonym A. C. Stephen. The film begins with a re-creation of the opening scene from the then-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 look-alike), preside over a series of macabre performances by topless dancers from beyond the grave (recruited by Wood from local strip clubs). The film also features a ‘Wolf Man’ and a ‘Mummy’. Together, Wood and Apostolof went on to make a string of sexploitation films up to 1977. Wood co-wrote the screenplays and occasionally acted. “Venus Flytrap” (1970), a US/Japan horror film, was based on an unproduced Wood screenplay from the 1950s.
Beginning in the early 1960s, Wood wrote at least eighty lurid crime and sex novels in addition to hundreds of short stories and non-fiction pieces for magazines. Thirty-two stories known to be by Wood (he sometimes wrote under pseudonyms such as “Ann Gora”) are collected in “Blood Splatters Quickly” published by OR Books in 2014. Novels include “Black Lace Drag (1963) (reissued in 1965 as “Killer In Drag”), “Orgy Of The Dead” (1965), “Devil Girls” (1967), “Death Of A Transvestite” (1967), “The Sexecutives” (1968), “The Photographer” (1969), “Take It Out In Trade” (1970), “The Only House In Town” (1970), “Necromania” (1971), “The Undergraduate” (1972), “A Study of Fetishes And Fantasies” (1973) and “Fugitive Girls” (1974).
In “Nightmare Of Ecstasy”, Maila Nurmi said she declined Wood’s offer to do a nude scene sitting in a coffin for the film version of his “Necromania”, claiming she was recovering from a major stroke at the time.) In 1965, Wood wrote the quasi-memoir “Hollywood Rat Race”, which was eventually published in 1998. In it, Wood advises new writers to “just keep on writing. Even if your story gets worse, you’ll get better”, and also recounts tales of dubious authenticity, such as how he and Bela Lugosi entered the world of nightclub cabaret.
Wood had a long-term relationship with actress and songwriter Dolores Fuller, whom he met in late 1952. The two lived together for a time and Wood cast Fuller in three of his films: “Glen Or Glenda”, “Jail Bait” and “Bride Of The Monster”. Fuller later said she initially had no idea that Wood was a crossdresser and was mortified when she saw Wood dressed as a woman in “Glen Or Glenda”. The couple broke up in 1955 after Wood cast another actress in the lead role of “Bride Of The Monster” (Wood originally wrote the part for Fuller) and because of Wood’s excessive drinking.
While making “Bride Of The Monster” in late 1955, Wood married Norma McCarty. McCarty appeared as ‘Edie’, a stewardess in “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. McCarty had the marriage annulled after six months when she discovered that Wood was a crossdresser. Wood married his second wife, Kathy O’Hara, in 1959. They remained married until Wood’s death in 1978.
In Wood’s 1992 biography “Nightmare Of Ecstasy: The Life And Art Of Edward D. Wood, Jr.”, Wood’s wife Kathy recalls that Wood told her that his mother dressed him in girls’ clothing as a child. Kathy stated that Wood’s transvestism was not a sexual inclination, but rather a neo-maternal comfort derived mainly from angora fabric (angora is featured in many of Wood’s films, and “Ann Gora” also happened to be one of Wood’s pen names). Even in his later years, Wood was not shy about going out in public dressed in drag as ‘Shirley’, his alter ego—female character (who also appeared in many of his screenplays and stories).
In 1969, Wood appeared in The Photographer (a.k.a. Love Feast or Pretty Models All in a Row), the first of two films produced by a Marine buddy, Joseph F. Robertson, portraying a photographer using his position to engage in sexual antics with models. He had a smaller role in Robertson’s second film, Mrs. Stone’s Thing, as a transvestite who spends his time at a party trying on lingerie in a bedroom.
In 1970, Wood made his own pornographic film, “Take It Out In Trade”, a softcore take on Philip Marlowe detective films, and “Necromania” the following year. In the 1970s, Wood worked with friend Stephen C. Apostolof, usually co-writing scripts, but also serving as an assistant director and associate producer. Together they made Wood’s “Orgy Of the Dead” in 1965. His last known on-screen appearance was in Apostolof’s “Fugitive Girls” (a.k.a. “Five Loose Women”), where he played both a gas station attendant called “Pops” and a sheriff on the women’s trail.
By 1978, Wood’s depression had worsened, and with it a serious drinking problem. He and Kathy were evicted from their Hollywood apartment on Yucca Street on Thursday December 7, 1978. The couple moved into the North Hollywood apartment of their friend actor Peter Coe. Wood spent the weekend drinking vodka. Around noon on Sunday December 10, Wood felt ill and went to lie down in Coe’s bedroom. From the bedroom, he asked Kathy to bring him a drink which she refused to do. A few minutes later he yelled out, “Kathy, I can’t breathe!”, a plea Kathy ignored as she later said she was tired of Wood bossing her around.
After hearing no movement from the bedroom for 20 minutes, Kathy sent a friend to check on Wood, who discovered him dead from a heart attack. Kathy later said, “I still remember when I went into that room that afternoon and he was dead, his eyes and mouth were wide open. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. He clutched at the sheets. It looked like he’d seen hell.” Wood was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea. Wood’s widow Kathy died on June 26, 2006, having not remarried.
In 1986, in an essay paying homage to Wood in Incredibly Strange Films, Jim Morton wrote:
“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 up their hands in defeat.”
In 1994, director Tim Burton released the biopic “Ed Wood”, starring Johnny Depp in the title role and Martin Landau, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Bela Lugosi. It also won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for Rick Baker. The film received mass critical acclaim, but did poorly at the box office. It has since developed a cult following.
In 1996, Reverend Steve Galindo of Seminole, Oklahoma, created a legally recognized religion with Wood as its official savior. Originally founded as a joke, “The Church Of Ed Wood” now boasts over 3,500 baptized followers. Woodites, as Steve’s followers are called, celebrate Woodmas on October 10, which is Ed’s birthday. Numerous parties and concerts are held worldwide to celebrate Woodmas. On October 4–5, 2003, horror host Mr. Lobo was canonized as the “Patron Saint Of Late Night Movie Hosts And Insomniacs” in the Church of Ed Wood.
In 1997, the University of Southern California began holding an annual Ed Wood Film Festival, in which student teams are challenged to write, film and edit an Ed Wood-inspired short film based on a preassigned theme. Past themes have included “Rebel Without A Bra” (2004), “What’s That In Your Pocket?” (2005), and “Slippery When Wet” (2006).
From 1993 to 1994, three of Wood’s films (“Bride Of The Monster”, “The Violent Years”, and “The Sinister Urge”) were featured on the television series “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, which gave those works wider exposure. Producers of MST3K considered including “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, but found it had too much dialogue for the show’s format.
In 1998, Wood’s previously unfilmed script “I Woke Up Early the Day I Died” was finally produced, starring Billy Zane and Christina Ricci, with appearances by Tippi Hedren, Bud Cort, Sandra Bernhard, Karen Black, John Ritter and many others. 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.
In 2001, horror film director and heavy metal musician Rob Zombie released “The Sinister Urge”, which is named after Wood’s film. In 2002, American horror-punk supergroup Murderdolls released the album “Beyond The Valley Of The Murderdolls”, which features the single “Dead In Hollywood” which makes a reference to Wood with the lyrics, “You can knock on Ed Wood, but it won’t do you no good/Cause all of my heroes are dead in Hollywood.”
In 2005, the “Plan 9 From Outer Space” cast were lampooned in an episode of the television series, Deadly Cinema; the following year, clips of this episode were featured in the documentary, “Vampira: The Movie.” In 2006, MST3K head writer and host Michael J. Nelson recorded an audio commentary track for a DVD release of a colorized version of “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. In 2009, Nelson and fellow MST3K alums Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett mocked “Plan 9 From Outer Space” again in their very first RiffTrax Live event, coinciding with the film’s 50th anniversary. In 2012, director John Johnson announced plans to film a remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space, released straight-to-DVD in 2015.
Wood’s 1972 film “The Undergraduate” is considered to be a lost film, as was his 1970 film “Take It Out In Trade”. An 80-minute print of “Take It Out In Trade” was later discovered and publicly exhibited at Anthology Film Archives in New York City in September 2014. Silent outtakes from the film were released by Something Weird Video.
Wood’s 1971 film “Necromania” was also believed lost for years until an edited version resurfaced at a yard sale in 1992, followed by a complete unedited print in 2001. A complete print of the previously lost Wood pornographic film “The Young Marrieds” was discovered in 2004. It was released as a part of the four DVD set, “The Lost Sex Films of Ed Wood Jr.”, by Alpha Blue Archives in July 2014.
“One is always considered mad, when one discovers something that others cannot grasp.” – Ed Wood

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