The World's Worst Director

Edward D. Wood Jr.'s '50s films are stupefyingly inept -- and so much more

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In Wood's life, though, as limned in Rudolph Grey's new biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (published by the aptly named Feral House), there is a lot of American tragedy. For Wood carried a triple burden: he was a transvestite, an alcoholic and a dreamer. As a Marine during World War II, he made beach landings wearing bra and panties under his uniform. Demobbed, he played a half man-half woman in a carnival before arriving in Hollywood to satisfy his twin obsessions: filmmaking and angora sweaters. The confessional Glen or Glenda, in which he played the title roles, was the apex of Wood's career. Later he was reduced to writing trash novels (Night Time Lez, Hell Chicks, Purple Thighs) and shooting porno shorts. In 1978, at 54, he died of a heart attack -- spent for his art.

And just at this time, movie revisionists discovered Ed Wood. For the 1980 Golden Turkey Awards, Wood was voted "The Worst Director of All Time," and Plan 9 "The Worst Film of All Time." Critic J. Hoberman, in the book Midnight Movies, proclaimed Wood "the ultimate cult director, the terminal manifestation of 'expressive esoterica.' " Glen or Glenda showed up on the late-night circuit, and soon much of the auteur's awful oeuvre was available on videocassette. Now Wood, anonymous in life, is notorious in death. He wrote but did not direct Orgy of the Dead; yet the video box ballyhoos it as "Ed Wood Jr.'s Masterpiece of Erotic Horror -- from the Creator of Plan 9 from Outer Space."

Grey calls those who treat Wood with benign contempt "jackals of bourgeois sensibility." And he's right. As critic Jim Morton notes, "If there is a 'worst film ever made,' it is one that is boring -- a sin Ed Wood Jr. is rarely guilty of." But there is a more melancholy irony to be found in Grey's interviews with the director's colleagues. Unlike most trashmeisters, Wood had radical messages for his audience: about sexual tolerance (Glen or Glenda), nuclear madness (Plan 9), parental smugness (The Sinister Urge). He was as dedicated to filmmaking as Welles or Kurosawa. He just wasn't any good at it. Not by any standards: the old solemn ones of craft and glamour or the new giggly ones of condescension and camp.

So hail to the man whose films were too bad to be bad. He has finally inspired a work worthy of his ambitions. Delirious and horrifying -- and All True! -- Nightmare of Ecstasy is better than any Ed Wood film. No, the book deserves a higher compliment: it's worse!

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