Ed Wood, Hack Or Hero?
Tim Burton's biopic 'Ed Wood' presented would-be director/writer Ed Wood as a noble failure and cult hero, but the real Ed Wood's life was filled with failure and tragedy.
In the 1950s through the early 1970s, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was viewed as a hack writer and director, clinging to the frayed edges of an industry that never embraced his meager talents. Plagued by alcoholism and privately tortured by his well-known sexual deviances, Wood produced several of the worst horror and suspense films ever made, including such dreck as 'Bride of the Atom', 'Glen or Glenda', and 'Plan 9 from Outer Space'. Wood's core group of actors, cynically dubbed the 'Wood Spooks' by outsiders, consisted of such doubtful talent as a former wrestler, a failed television hostess, and a chiropractor. Whether driven by loyalty or the promise of a steady paycheck, these actors understood the shortcomings of working with a man whose reach exceeded his grasp.
Ed Wood never did rise above his mediocrity, choosing instead to end his career making nearly unwatchable pornographic films and slipping into alcohol-induced depressions. He died, penniless and forgotten, in his dilapidated North Hollywood home in 1978. That same year, he was posthumously awarded the Golden Turkey award for 'Worst Director of All Time' and Plan 9 received the 'Worst Movie Ever Made' honors. A new generation of what can best be described as 'anti-fans' arose from this sudden interest in the failures of a troubled man, and Ed Wood achieved a level of notoriety and respect in death that he never achieved in life. Seemingly overnight, alternative movie houses across the country could not get enough prints of his movies, and legions of fans eagerly bought up magazines that chronicled Ed Wood's movie career.
This underground interest in Wood inspired author Rudolph Grey to interview the surviving 'Wood Spooks', as well as Wood's mother and wife. His book, Nightmare of Ecstasy, would form the basis for Tim Burton's biographical movie 'Ed Wood', starring Johnny Depp as the young Wood and Martin Landau as the drug-addicted Bela Lugosi. Depp's portrayal of Wood as an ambitious, if not overly talented, would-be Hollywood wunderkind would inspire yet another generation of Wood fans. This generation of fans would not only embrace the alternative movie universe inhabited by Wood and his spooks, but would elevate Ed Wood himself to the ranks of cult hero. What was viewed as the disjointed failings of a hack writer only thirty years before was now viewed as the ultimate David and Goliath story. As this new generation of fans would view the story, Ed Wood's true legacy is that of the 'noble failure'- the man who refused to compromise his vision in order to achieve a more commercial success.
Ed Wood's movie career was what it was, and critics can debate the merits (or lack of merits) of his work for decades, if they so choose. The larger issue presented with the introduction of the 'cult hero' into society is the celebration of failure. Are we being fair to Ed Wood, the man, by giving 'Ed Wood' the director an artificial seal of approval? Would we still elevate his dreadful movies to cult status if he were still alive? Our need to create heroes in our society has also driven us to create anti-heroes, and Ed Wood's final, cynical legacy will unfortunately be that of the ultimate anti-hero. He may very well have been the worst director, or have written the worst film ever made, but he also deserves a certain respect from us in death that he never found in a lifetime of tragedies, both personal and professional.