Throughout history there have been many film directors that have been celebrated for the high-quality of their work. Directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg are among those considered the greatest film directors of all-time. However, on the opposite end of the scale, there is a director who is “celebrated” for the low-quality of his work. That director is Ed Wood. Often called the worst director of all-time, Ed Wood provides a remarkable study in filmmaking, made even more remarkable by the success he achieved after his death as opposed to the struggles he faced while he was alive. From his childhood years until his death, filmmaking was a passion for Wood. Unfortunately, the “Hollywood dream” did not turn out the way he had hoped.

Ed Wood: The Early Years

ed wood movie directorWood was born in Poughkeepsie, NY in 1924 to Edward Sr. and Lillian Wood. He had an intense interest in films even at a young age, making his own amateur films and landing a job as an usher at a local theater. Wood eventually became an assistant manager at the theater, providing him with the opportunity to collect movie posters and other trinkets related to the films playing there. He took a particular interest in horror films, which would be reflected in his own films later on in life.

During his adulthood, Wood would be known for his strange behavior, including dressing in women’s clothing. This behavior can be traced to his early years. His mother, Lillian, apparently wanted a daughter, so when she had Wood instead, she dressed him in girls’ clothing until he was 12. This led to Wood becoming a cross-dresser and was a major factor in the development of one of Wood’s most well-known films, Glen or Glenda.

Wood enlisted in the Marines when he was 17 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He served from 1942 until 1946, when he was discharged. After he was discharged, Wood joined a carnival as part of the freak show. During his time with the carnival, Wood played the part of the bearded lady. Not only did Wood dress in full women’s clothing for the part, he also created his own set of prosthetic breasts.

Ed Wood: The Hollywood Years

Through his time with the Marines and carnival, Wood’s fascination with film never died. During the late 1940’s, Wood tried to make it into Hollywood, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that he achieved any sort of success. Wood moved to Hollywood in 1947 where he wrote and directed several commercials, television pilots and westerns. When none of these met with any success, it seemed Wood was destined to fail in his Hollywood pursuit.

glen or glenda ed wood film

In 1952, the story of Christine Jorgensen broke. Jorgensen was the first widely-known person to have successfully undergone a sex change operation, which inspired film producer George Weiss to create a film about it. After Weiss was unable to convince Jorgensen to appear in the film, Wood convinced Weiss that his own experiences as a transvestite made him perfect to direct the film. While Wood was given the job, instead of making a film about the sex change operation, Wood instead made a film about transvestites that he starred in himself. This film was Glen or Glenda.

Released in 1953, Glen or Glenda (also known as Transvestite and I Changed My Sex during its release) was shot in 10 days for $35,000. The film was not a commercial success (in fact, it had such a limited release that it was difficult to find theaters playing it), but it was notable for the fact that Bela Lugosi, who had achieved fame for is role of the title character in Dracula, was in the cast. Ed Wood as GlendaIt was through this film that Wood and Lugosi established a working relationship, with Wood needing recognized names for his films and Lugosi trying to rekindle his career. Working with Lugosi ended up providing Wood with the very limited success he would have during his Hollywood run.

After Glen or Glenda, Wood began to direct and write a string of films that met with little success. There was the 1954 crime-drama “Jail Bait,” the 1955 horror film “Bride of the Monster” (which is notable as Lugosi’s final complete on-screen role) and the 1956 exploitation film “The Violent Years” (though Wood simply wrote the screenplay for this film instead of actually directing it). In 1956, Wood directed what would become his most famous film and one of the most infamous films of all time: Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Wood began work on Plan 9 shortly after Lugosi’s death in 1956. Lugosi would actually make it into the film despite his death, with Wood using shots of Lugosi from canceled projects unrelated to Plan 9 in the film just so he could say Lugosi was in it. The film was originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space and featured a story of aliens attempting to take over the world by raising the dead. Notable names appearing in the film (besides Lugosi) included Maila Nurmi (known best for the character of Vampira) and Tor Johnson, who was featured in several of Wood’s films during his career.

Grave Robbers finished shooting in 1957 and was previewed in March of the same year. It did not receive a full release until 1959 and, in the meantime, had been renamed Plan 9 from Outer Space. Like most of Wood’s other films, Plan 9 saw little success and remained in obscurity until 1980, when Michael and Harry Medved named it the “worst movie ever made” in their Golden Turkey Awards book. In their previous book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, Michael and Harry had asked readers to vote for their pick as worst film for The Golden Turkey Awards, with Plan 9 winning the vote.

“Earning” the award for “worst movie ever made” drew more attention to Plan 9 than any of Wood’s films had ever received. Obscure no longer, Plan 9 came under heavy scrutiny for its poor special effects, continuity errors and bad dialogue. Interestingly, the fact that Plan 9 was viewed so harshly led it to cult status. People celebrated the low-quality of the film and regular screenings became widespread.

Despite the fact that his films would become so widely known after his death, Wood was still struggling to make it in Hollywood during their releases. His post-Plan 9 films such as Final Curtain (1957) and The Bride and the Beast (1958) continued his trend of commercially unsuccessful films. Wood’s 1960 The Sinister Urge would be the last full feature he would direct, with financial issues finally forcing Wood to abandon his attempts at directing Hollywood films. Starting in the 1960’s and lasting until his death in 1978, Wood turned to directing pornographic films and writing pornographic novels.

Ed Wood: The Later Years

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, Wood turned away from directing feature films and instead focused on pornography. It was during this time that his films became so obscure that some of them became “lost,” with no one able to find any copies of the films. One such example, 1971’s Necromania, was only discovered in the late 1980’s, almost 20 years after its initial release. Wood also began writing pornographic books during this time, some of which also are so obscure that they are also considered lost.

Wood entered into a deep depression during these years. In addition, he and his wife, Kathleen O’Hara, were evicted from several homes due to Wood’s inability to bring in a sustained income. It all came to a close in December 1978, when Wood died from heart failure. He was 54 years old.

Ed Wood: Legacy

Although Wood was a relatively obscure director while he was alive, it was after his death that he became as well-known as he is today. In their 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, Michael and Harry Medved named Ed Wood the “worst director of all time” (in addition to naming Plan 9 “the worst film of all time”). With Wood and one of his films both winning in the two major “worst” categories, both Wood and his films gained more attention than they ever had while he was alive. People began to actively seek out Wood’s films and started paying attention to his directing style. The poor qualities of these films actually gained Wood a cult status among film audiences, with people reveling in their low quality.

Tim Burton

Image by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Wood gained even more attention in 1994 when director Tim Burton released the biopic Ed Wood. The film covered Wood’s life during the height of his directing career and starred Johnny Depp as Wood. Ironically, much like Wood’s own films, Ed Wood was not a commercial success while in theaters. However, unlike Wood’s films, Ed Wood won critical praise and even two Academy Awards.

In 1996, in what started as a joke, Reverend Steve Galindo out of Sacramento, California created “The Church of Ed Wood.” He obtained the legal rights to have the worship of Wood as a savior recognized as a religion, and the church now has over 3,000 members. The members call themselves “Woodites” and even celebrate Wood’s birthday as a holiday. The group also has its own website dedicated to the worship of Wood and his films.

Ed Wood is one of the rare cases where a director is celebrated by audiences rather than critics. While most critics celebrate directors who consistently make high-quality films, audiences seem to have embraced Wood for the low quality of his films. Ironically, Wood and his films have achieved much greater success after Wood’s death than they did while he was alive. He continues to be a fascinating study into the art of filmmaking, even if it is more how not to make films than to make them.

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