Last night Art and I had a truly fabulous night watching “Ed Wood”‘, a film made in 1994 starring Johnnie Depp in the title role with Martin Landau co-starring as Bela Lugosi. (Martin Landau won an Oscar for his performance, which, I am sure, was absolutely deserved.
First of all, if you don’t know, Ed Wood was a writer, director and producer of some of arguably some of the worst movies ever made. I haven’t laughed so hard in many years! Johnnie Depp as Ed Wood was, well, wooden in a way that must have been an enormous challenge for such a gifted actor. Most of all, he reminded me of Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy series of films. He mouthed the kind of “aw shucks” lines that under most circumstances would make me cringe — lines such as “The kids really love that sort of thing” (while making a pitch for one of his epically bad films).
On the other hand, just below the surface of the hilarious antics, there was a poignancy that broke your heart. Here was a man who was burdened with a secret compulsion to dress up in women’s clothing, a transvestite, who suffered greatly because of it. Still, he dutifully confessed to his future wife on their first date, afraid that later on she would, like his former girlfriend, discover the truth and abandon him. He was naive, vulnerable, and utterly honest. In a pivotal scene, he has been chafing under the scrutiny of a group of investors from the Beverly Hills Baptist Church, who are trying to wrest artistic control of his picture. He goes to the Brown Derby (an iconic Hollywood restaurant) and has a chance encounter with his idol, Orson Welles. Although at that time, Wood was outrageously dolled-up in drag, Welles seems oblivious to this and has a serious, artist-to-artist conversation with young Wood. Welles concludes the conversation by telling Ed that he must be true to his artistic vision. Wood, newly energized by this encouragement from one of the gods of Hollywood filmdom, goes back to his set and recaptures artistic control, going on to complete the crowning achievement of his career, “Plan Nine from Outer Space”. (I use the term “crowning achievement” in the broadest possible sense of the word).
There is another thread to the film which must be mentioned: Ed Wood stumbles upon the famed star of the horror genre of the ’30s and ’40s, the man synonymous with Dracula, Bela Lugosi. By the time Wood befriends the older man, Lugosi is “washed up” by all accounts, a drug addict whose wife has recently died, living alone in a very modest and unkempt house in Baldwin Hills with a pack of small dogs. Ed does his best to resurrect (pun intended) Lugosi’s career by starring him in several of his own pictures. There is a growing bond of friendship between the two men, and Lugosi comes to depend on Wood, so much so, that he calls Wood up on many occasions in dire peril. The younger man always shows up, always treats Lugosi with utter respect and reverence.
Over the years, there has been consensus among film historians that Ed Wood was, by most measures, the worst director of all time. Indeed, his movies were made on a shoestring budget, sloppy in their execution, and were built on concepts such as, “Grave diggers from outer space”. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that he was a man worthy of respect. Hollywood “chewed him up and spit him out”, just as it did many others. We’ll never know what Ed Wood might have been had he not been what he was. I don’t know whether the world is a better place for films like, “Plan Nine from Outer Space”. But I can say that he was a steadfast, loyal, and compassionate friend to Bela Lugosi and in general, conducted his personal life with integrity. Isn’t that the more important measure of a man?