Ed Wood: The Real Disaster Artist

On the first day of December, the movie The Disaster Artist was released. Directed by James Franco, the film was adapted from the book of the same name By Tom Bissell and Greg Sestero and refers to Tommy Wiseau, the film maker responsible for a movie, The Room, which is on virtually every top 10 list of the worst films ever made. Sestero co-starred in the The Room, and having survived the experience gave a first person accounting of what it was like to live and work with Wiseau. Normally having not seen the entire film I would refrain from commenting on it. I have viewed a number of clip compilations and in this particular case I think that even a limited exposure will suffice. When you’re witnessing a genuinely singular moment, you just know. Saying this thing is a hunk of shit is like focusing on Idi Amin’s shaky table manners. You might be right but your definitely missing the headline. All of this is pretty well trod ground. The movie, and its creator are punchlines with a consensus of that idea which spans every conceivable sort of intrinsic difference that any two people might have. Age, race, political, affiliation; we can all agree that The Room is not really what any critics group would be thinking of during awards season.

Which naturally turned my thoughts to Ed Wood. Not the (excellent) Tim Burton bio-pic, but the man himself. For those who have not actually seen any of Mr. Wood’s output, you’re really missing something. The work is uniformly bad, ranging from pedestrian failure (Jail Bait) to hallucinatory ineptitude (Plan 9 From Outer Space). But that’s not the point. Lots of people make bad movies. The point, for me, is that it’s possible that never in the history of everything (apologies to Churchill) has one man done so much and reached so many with so little. It’s not just a lack of talent. Or a lack of resources. Or even deleterious personal circumstances. It’s that he labored through all of those impediments with the devotion of a Carmelite nun and level of persistence normally associated with the autistic spectrum. The kinds of restrictions that might have kneecapped a lesser man barely slowed him down.

Working through this one step at a time I worry that I won’t do justice to the improbability of Ed Wood having built a resume, regardless of its dubious quality, as an artist. His incapacity as a writer is difficult to quantify. Finding a favorite quote from his oeuvre is roughly akin to selecting which of Pete Rose’s 4000 plus hits best exemplify him as a ballplayer. Even using the strictest criteria, it’s a fool’s errand. If I had to choose I guess Jeff Trent had a beauty in Plan 9, saying…”modern women. They’ve been like that all down through the ages.” That, is an achievement. That’s not just a weak phrase from someone with no ear for dialogue. George Lucas at his worst never had Luke or Leia offering up a stink bomb like that. The quote in question allows us to entertain the notion that there was someone who walked amongst us with no discernable first language. It’s syntactically convoluted to a degree which brings the viewer to the classic Stan Laurel zen coan; is the character a genius or an imbecile? A personal favorite. He penned countless others that make the case more succinctly than that one.

Aside from not having the requisite skills, Wood worked with material resources that would have been insufficient for any production more involved than the third grade play. If it wasn’t a musical. His films were typically produced on a budget that involved a fundraising process only marginally more sophisticated than going through his sofa cushions, looking for spare change. In an odd way, watching Ed Wood squeeze a check out of someone must have been like seeing a brilliantly disciplined improv troupe at work. Apparently he never said no. Someone thought their nephew was a natural born actor, no problem. Promotion of family/Christian values a deal breaker, just what he was thinking. At the end of the day, he was ready to start shooting. Following in the footsteps of Ford and Welles he had a stable of thespian talent at his disposal. When the high end of your stock cast is a tragically addicted Bela Lugosi, things move downhill rapidly from there. Tor Johnson, Maila Nurmi, Criswell. Not exactly Joseph Cotton and Maureen O’Hara. No money, no talent, no problem for Ed.

In the closing years of his life his fortunes took a turn. Which normally would be difficult to tell, all things considered, but his cinematic output slowed considerably in the late 60’s, a fact which is probably related (in one direction or another) to his alcoholism. Even then, he found a way to answer the muse. Along with ten movies his name is on, he wrote more than 80 novels. A mélange of gruesome horror, poorly plotted mysteries and drugstore pornography, it kept him going until his untimely demise from a heart attack at the age of fifty-four. That my friends, is the resume of a true renaissance figure . No disrespect intended but Tommy Wiseau has twenty hard years in front of him before there’s even a conversation to be had.

I imagine it must be easy to read this piece and see nothing but snark. While it’s true, I’ve had a little fun at the expense of Mr. Wood, I can honestly say that my perspective is one of genuine admiration. Not the blind love of a child. I know enough about his less pleasant aspects to find him unlikeable at a personal level. Selfish, drunk and (sadly) at least casually racist is not the trifecta of delightful personality traits. But I am now fifty-four myself. And regardless of whatever edge I may have on him in a variety of ways, Ed Wood died having accomplished a lot more than I currently have. I understand that this not a qualitative assessment. Still, working within some dramatic limitations the man had a career. If I were writing this thirty years ago I couldn’t possibly legitimize that notion. At twenty-four it was all in front of me, and within arms reach too. Anybody who settled for a life that didn’t shine like mine was going to, was someone to be pitied. Thirty years on I know better. Painful lessons for a slow learner. I thought that the Ed Woods of the world were a joke. The truth is that however sad his life may have become, he was still a guy who loved movies as a kid and then got to make them. My life should only encompass such tragedy.

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