Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp as Wood, brilliantly reconstructs the sleazy side of 1950s Hollywood, and is a sympathetic tribute to the director of such low-budget gems of the awful as Glen or Glenda (1953) – in which he cast himself as an anguished cross-dresser – and his “masterpiece”, the truly terrible Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).
The film is a chronicle of sad dreams and disappointments, with Martin Landau outstanding (he deservedly won an Oscar) as washed-up horror star Bela Lugosi who finds a new home in Wood’s schlocky rubber-monstered fantasies.
Filmed in crisp black & white, it’s a fairy tale about one man’s triumph over a world that systematically shuns him – a collision between cruel, harsh Tinsel Town and the individual fantasy worlds of Wood’s unique imagination.
The film is set in 1953 and aspiring filmmaker Eddie Wood is thrilled to hear that a producer is filming the story of a famous transsexual. Wood himself loves wearing women’s clothes – particularly angora sweaters – and pitches himself as writing, directing and starring – “just like Orson Welles did in Citizen Kane”. The result: Glen or Glenda
To make the film sell, Wood ropes in horror has-been Bela Lugosi – now a morphine addict who hasn’t worked in four years. The film portrays him as an isolated figure, sitting alone in a suburban bungalow wearing his Dracula cape and clutching his ex-wife’s yapping chihuahuas like a pair of loaded pistols.
Wood follows Glen or Glenda? with Bride of the Monster and discovers Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele, a dead ringer for the real thing). To finance his next production after that, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, he turns to a Southern Baptist church.
The Baptists want to make a series of religious movies, but they only have enough money for one. Wood talks them into funding his horror exploitation flick, on the basis they’ll make so much profit they can then make as many religious movies as they like. As far-fetched as this may seem, it’s all perfectly true.
In order to appease his backers, Wood renames the movie Plan 9 From Outer Space – and the entire cast is baptised. A motley collection of freaks and misfits find themselves at a Beverly Hills swimming pool – “because Brother Tor couldn’t fit into the sacred tub” – grudgingly submitting to full immersion.
Again, this is accurate, though in real life only Tor Johnson and Ed Wood were baptised.
The film does trim off a few rough edges. Only at the very end does a title card admit Wood was an alcoholic. While the real Wood was remembered fondly by colleagues, he was a boozehound and a womaniser throughout the 1950s.
Edward D. Wood Jr
Sarah Jessica Parker
G D Spradlin
John “Bunny” Breckinridge
George “the Animal” Steele