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February 1, 2017

The Ed Wood, Jr. Acting Method

Edward D. Wood, Jr. The name alone implies a B-grade director, hack screenwriter and novelist (no matter how prolific) and inept producer more concerned with bringing his pictures in for paltry sums than making quality films. Another phrase applies to the illustrious Ed Wood Filmaking Process... good character actor. What the... ? Is he insane, you ask yourself? No, I am not insane. A critical examination of Wood's performances will more than explain the claim that Ed Wood Jr. was a good, effective character actor (with a few exceptions).

Upon arriving in Hollywood in 1948, Wood's first "showbiz" job was, believe it or not, as an actor. He played the role of the Sheriff in a dinner theater production of The Blackguard Returns. By all accounts, Wood performed admirably working only for beer and pretzels. This is where he made the acquaintance of Crawford John Thomas, who was also a performer in The Blackguard Returns. The two actors turned themselves into film producers almost overnight and created Wood-Thomas Productions. Their first project was The Streets of Laredo (1948) and became not only Ed Wood's writing anddirectorial debut, but also his debut as a movie star, playing a cowboy. The project was never finished. In what available footage there is of Laredo , Wood performs admirably. He is upstaged by his horse, but dies when shot in the belly very convincingly. Moving on.

The early 50s did not provide Wood a bumper crop of acting roles. He fell off a horse in a dress inThe Baron of Arizona (1950), a Vincent Price vehicle for United Artists. He convinced the producers that he was an excellent horseman... but wasn't. Another Wood-Thomas production was in the works, though.The Crossroad Avenger (1951), Wood felt, was a surefire television hit, a new Western featuring all those great Western stars that everyone loved as a kid. Despite limited acting ability, arthritis and a weak story, The Crossroad Avenger was shot anyway. Casting himself as a Pony Express Rider (with dialogue, this time), Ed barely made it through filming without falling off of his horse, again. That was about it, until the call of superstardom and immovable cult-film status wafted in on the wings of genital surgery.

After belaboring George Weiss into hiring him for the Christine Jorgenson sex-change "epic," Wood promptly ignored Weiss and made Glen or Glenda (1953). In this nightmarishly-autobiographical sketch, Wood explored the many facets of transvestism. In a veritable casting cou, Wood himself would play the lead, Glen/Glenda, under the psuedonym Daniel Davis. His first star turn would not be his last, but would serve as Ed Wood's defining performance. Ably spouting the irregular grammar and mounds of exposition (that Wood had written himself) Daniel Davis portrayed a character worthy of our pity. The maligned Glen, who would like nothing more than be accepted in spite of his fetish for wearing women's clothes (angora sweaters in particular) is truly a tragic hero. He suffers at the hands of a nightmare-scape of his own creation. Maligned by demons, ostracized by family and rejected by the love of his life, Shirley (Dolores Fuller), Glen must try and hide the fact that he is a transvestite. Wood's "Good Guy with a Bad Habit" portrayal is dead on, evoking the humor and pathos that he must have intended. In the end, though, Shirley recognizes that Glen is not a bad person because of his fetish, he simply is. And thus Ed Wood's first starring role is immortalized. Ignored by the various awards ceremonies of the time, Wood was consoled by the fact that the picture came in at seven reels and made a modest return (for Weiss).

Through the remainder of the 1950s, Wood would have nothing more than bit parts to contend with. As a one-man filmaking machine, he devoted most of his time to writing and directing but still found himself in cameo and bit parts (an idea later stolen by that hack, Alfred Hitchcock). Jailbait (1954), The Bride of the Monster (1956) and Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958) feature Ed in small roles. He played a radio announcer in Jailbait, his dashing, Clark Gable-like headshot was featured as a "Wanted" poster in Bride and he convincingly played a poor mourner at Bela Lugosi's funeral in Plan 9. Even Wood's bit parts are memorable. "There are no small parts, only small actors," one can virtually hear him say, drunk, from the grave.

The 1960s and 1970s offered Wood more chances to flex his acting muscles than he previously could. Starting with The Sinister Urge (1961), Wood appeared breifly as The Man in the Fight. Unsure what to do with fight footage from his aborted epic, Hellborn (1954), Ed seamlessly inserted himself into the narrative of The Sinister Urge. As Donny, the anti-hero, serial killer type, watches from the sidelines, Wood beats the hell out of Conrad Brooks. Already a feature film appearance, and the sixties had just begun. Wood was on a roll.

Wood's second starring vehicle, again written by himself, was the Joseph Robertson directed and produced The Love Feast (1968). Released as The Photographer in some areas, Love Feast featured Ed as Mr. Murphy, a fashion photographer whose grand sceheme in life is to sucker young, aspiring models to his home and convince them that they needed to be naked. This plan usually worked so well that the young women, en masse, attempt to engage Mr. Murphy in random sex acts. Wood makes a convincing lech. Stripping down to his tightie-whities in some parts of the film, Wood gives a stand-out performance as the exhausted smut photographer. Woman after woman visit him, in search of favors, but the hijinks can never get underway due to the steady stream of young models coming over to visit. In some circles, Wood's appearance in a sleaze picture would mean career suicide. Wood parlayed this into an entire facet of his acting arsenal (based wholly or in part on his "I like girls..." monologue from Love Feast). Another project for Joe Robertson was begun in 1969. Unfortunately the film, Misty, ran out of money and the footage featuring Wood was lost. No matter, the seventies had come and the world wasn't ready for Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Take It Out in Trade (1970) was Ed's entrance to the "Age of Decadence." In this film, in which he wrote and directed, Wood once again donned the mantle of Alecia. Playing a transvestite brothel owner (in the postively cutest lime green dress) named Alecia, Wood was said to give a command performance. Always more comfortable in drag, and more than likely drunk, Alecia came to life before the stunned onlookers visiting the Trade set. No doubt, through a cloudy haze of alcoholism and the six vodka gimlets that he had for breakfast, drawing from the invincible Glen or Glenda and the slyly addictive Love Feast, Wood stunned his fellow actors. Sadly, there is no available print of the film and only outtakes remain. Although Trade might have been a triumph, 1970 had more to offer.

Joseph Robertson's The Sensuous Wife (1970), also known as Mrs. Stone's Thing, featured Wood in a smaller role... but no less commanding. Wood played Ed, a transvestite writer of smut novels, that attended an orgy party. Unphased by the rampant sex around him, Ed searched through the house until he found the mistress' bedroom. Changing into a dress, hose and blouse Wood reminds us of his ever-adaptable acting style. At that point, Ed the actor was obviously suffering from the DTs, and shaking like a leaf. He persevered, though, and with shaking hands, funny "actor" voice and bad girdle jokes Wood applied lipstick. In some ways this can be a testament to the younger actors of today. To the Downeys, Slaters and Sutherlands... chemical abuse is no reason to give a crappy performance.

As 1970 ended and the world moved into 1971, Wood was approached to film an adaptation of his novel "The Only House" by Gallery Press. He titled this demented tale of necrophilia, the supernatural and rampant sex Necromania (1971). Playing a wizened old man (in addition to his writing/directing duties) Wood gave the admittedly cheap film a sense of status that it previously would not have. The same is true for a series of XXX twelve minute sex loops that Wood wrote and directed for Swedish Erotica in the same year. Appearing breifly in some of them (as a Jailer, among others) Wood elevated the normal banality of the hardcore sex with fine doses of humor and pathos.

Fugitive Girls (1974), also known as Five Loose Women and Women's Penitentiary VIII, would be Wood's last known speaking role. Also pulling double duty as the writer/assistant director of this prison escape drama, Wood played a dual role. He expertly recreated his The Blackguard ReturnsSheriff to go in pursuit of the five fugitive women and, in an acting transisition worthy of a Golden Globe Award (given out annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press), Wood also played the sympathetic character of Pops. Pops, a maligned gas station owner, is misused and abused by the fugitive girls of the title. In a direct contradiction to the strong, silent presence of the Sheriff, Pops is a lovable loser. Wood pulled off one of the hardest feats in acting... a dual role, more than likely working again for beer and pretzels. This would be Wood's last role of any consequence.
Relegating himself to being "just" a writer in the latter part of his life, Wood would only appear in a handful of remaining films. Hollywood Meatcleaver Massacre (1977), where Wood would play the definitive Man in the Crowd and an unnamed XXX film where Wood conducts "sexy" interviews have been lost to the ravages of time. At some other point, when a print is found of these, they may be released for the general public. Until then? The general public suffers, denied the right to Wood.

World renowned as a writer, director, producer, assistant director, editor, cinematographer, gaffer, grip and production assistant, it is Wood's acting that speaks to us from the pauper's grave he inhabits in Hollywood . Through his performances we can truly see the man behind the magic. Edward D. Wood, Jr.: the tortured soul that loved what he did so much, he did it despite being awful at it.

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