Tim Burton’s most overlooked, mature film is the touching biopic Ed Wood (1994.) It’s about the infamous director of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Glen or Glenda and other notably flawed films, but it takes a very sympathetic look at him and his crew. I actually only watched this movie due to a coincidental recommendation. The summer after my sophomore year in High School, I happened to see James Rolfe’s “Ed Wood-a-Thon” online, which culminated in a recommendation for the Burton biopic. I had obviously heard of Ed Wood before, but that video series kicked off a lot of reading about the man’s life and watching his work for myself. I now proudly consider myself a fan of Mr. Wood, and the eponymous film that tells his story.
Say what you will about the flaws in his movies, but Ed Wood made films from the heart. Similar to his idol, Orson Welles, I consider Wood’s debut to be his magnum opus. It took a lot of guts to make Glen or Glenda as he did, especially in the 1950’s when the idea of cross-dressing was completely unheard of, let alone transgenderism. And I have to say that this movie, and Ed himself publicly coming out as a cross-dresser, helped me come to terms with myself too. It was one of, maybe the first, example I ever saw of someone presenting as a woman who wasn’t ashamed of it or doing so in a burlesque context like drag queens do.* While Glen or Glenda is obviously flawed, it was surprisingly informative, especially considering the lack of awareness in those times. Besides the hamfisted and ill-fitting Bela Lugosi voice-overs, the script is honest, touchingly vulnerable and wouldn’t be too outdated in its advice or positions if re-released today. Obviously it’s no masterpiece, but Glenda was a true work of courage and not a terrible first attempt at filmmaking.
*(ASIDE:I have nothing against drag, but I knew that wasn’t me either, and at the time I was uncomfortable in the idea that if I wanted to be a woman in public, drag was apparently the only accepted way to do so.)
With Bride of the Monster, you see Ed’s technique become a lot more refined. This time around, he had (in theory if not always in practice) total control of the script and production. As a result, he actually turns out a pretty decent low budget B-movie thriller. It’s not a technically good movie, but it’s as good as the others of its production budget and genre which were being made at the time. I enjoy Monster unironically for what it is, which is more than I can say for a lot of other ‘40s-’60s horror films, many of which made with bigger budgets. Ed went through hell to get this project financed and in doing so, he allowed Bela to play the kind of role he was known for one last time and go out on something of a high note. Lugosi does a great job with the monologue to Dr. Strawski which was allegedly delivered in one take, without looking at the cue cards prepared, and to a standing ovation from the crew.
Unfortunately, with Plan 9 from Outer Space, Ed’s technique slipped again and it’s a massive step down from that upward trajectory. I can’t defend it on a technical level. But you know what? It’s fun. I enjoyed watching it far more than most technically competent movies that come out nowadays and that’s the truth–at least it’s bad in a funny way. Above all, it’s a labor of love, and it’s harmless, with no pretensions of being a masterpiece. At the same time, the message about restraint when it comes to developing new weapons was on-point with the Cold War going on. Today it’s largely been overshadowed in the “worst film ever” standing by Manos: The Hands of Fate and The Room but it never should have been given that distinction in the first place. Fun, laughably bad films are at least enjoyable and even back in the 50’s there was already far worse out there than this. (For my money, the worst ever made is Monster a-Go Go and nothing else comes close.)
The self-titled biopic chronicles the makings of these three movies in a loving but humorous way. And yet, the laughter is never derisive as Ed and company always come off as endearing. The tragedy is, although some of Ed’s real life friends lived to see the film and subsequent resurgence in popularity of his work, Ed himself didn’t. He died in the 70’s as a bitter alcoholic, believing himself a failure after years making pseudo-porn flicks. Ed had a habit of pretending he was suffering a heart attack in order to get his wife’s attention. Like the boy who cried wolf, when he eventually had a real one, she didn’t believe him and told Ed to shut up. (I wish that was a joke.) I remember reading that he did receive a call from a fan in the 70’s and spent the night discussing movies with them over the phone. That’s sweet to think about, at least.
Criticism is all well and good, when it’s academic and/or constructive. Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like we as a society enjoy kicking people when they’re already down, making personal artwork and sometimes the artist themselves into objects of ridicule. Of course one has to expect critics when you put yourself out there. But let’s remember that each creation is, in fact, a real life human being who’s taking a risk and making themselves vulnerable. I think the unrestrained vitriol that some people like Ed Wood get in their lifetimes (and long afterward) are better directed at the safe, mass-produced, lowest common denominator product that we see more and more of now. I’d rather watch a flawed work about a personal struggle like Glenda than yet another uninspired remake of an 80s or 90s property any day. But that’s just me.