This posting is a contribution to this week’s The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon at the Cinema Styles blogsite.
Have you ever heard Charlie Parker’s 1947 recordings for the Dial label? Bird was in L.A., headed for a personal crash-and-burn that would soon land him in Camarillo’s mental hospital; for some sessions he had to be propped up to the microphone by the record producer — and on one cut you can hear the producer shouting “Blow!!” to Parker. But despite the chaos there were beauty and poetry in the notes, fierce and aching. There was a sense of grit and hustle in his L.A. recordings that was absent from the Manhattan sides.
Hustling for success has always been part of the game for the young and hopeful of Hollywood. You see it in the Schwab’s Drug Store scene in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD. For my gang three decades after that movie, it was the Copper Penny at Sunset and LaBrea, home of the fifty-cent bottomless cup of coffee where we passed along Industry info and talked about where we wanted to land in the Business. Los Angeles is a land of Dreamers, which is fittingly appropriate in a city named for angels.
And nowhere in the virtual culture machine of the movie business do these aspects intersect and unite as in the films of Ed Wood: a cinema of grit, hustle and dreams.
There’s a certain sorrowful disconnect in the American Experience for many creatives: the ones who wait tables and haven’t been called for an audition in almost a year yet still determinedly identifying themselves as actors; the poetry-writing baristas; the visual artists who work the retail floor. It’s for these — the ones who flip burgers in order to buy college textbooks, the ones who grow in determination for their first break while their talents stagnate, the ones who create everything they have through a tunnel-vision will power — that Ed Wood’s life and works resonate. They sing to those not yet defeated, to those desperately wanting to live up to their full potential: to the facets that reside in the dark, neglected corners of most of us.
Ed lived a few blocks from my one-bedroom apartment off Hollywood Boulevard in the 1970s. If I had been on a mission I probably could have tracked him down. Instead, fate led me to his makeup man, Harry Thomas, who taught me in film school. At that time Ed Wood was still unknown to most except film geeks like me; true to his sad story, Wood’s punchline celebrity status was ignited just months after his death. But Harry got a kick out of the fact I knew who Ed was, and was generous in sharing tales of the hours spent on the sets of his films.
Ed always paid in cash. Harry had no idea how he got his hands on it, but every evening when they’d wrap, Ed would produce a briefcase full of bills and count them out to cast and crew. But while the money was steady during PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, Harry sensed that things were falling apart. Bela Lugosi was in his last days and entering dementia: while Harry would be applying make up to him, Lugosi would wake out of his trance and start to panic, not knowing where he was. “Where am I? Where am I?” he would shout.
Harry had been working with Ed from Day One, creating makeup and being a bit player in GLEN OR GLENDA? However, by the beginning of PLAN 9‘s shooting, Harry knew what Ed’s films were like and decided to use a screen alias this time in the movie credits. Pensively recollecting, Harry told me, “I think I decided to call myself… ‘David Bartholomew.'” Despite Ed’s dubious end-product Harry — like most of Wood’s casts and crews — remained loyal to him; there was always an undertone of affection in Harry’s voice when talking about making those films and a wry grin upon his face when talking of “Eddie”…evoking a sense of “If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it.”
And that is part of the magic the works of Wood induce in the viewer: a hyper-unreality fueled by cognitive dissonance. Ed had the guts to make films, and posthumously got the glory, but just didn’t have the talent. It wasn’t so much the talent it took to write a ‘good’ script or direct a ‘good’ movie as it was the gift of self-knowledge. Like most poor bastards, he believed his own bullshit.
Pick any of his films and you can visualize a way it could have been done better: as a conscious tongue-in-cheek camp comedy, as a genuine chiller where imagination compensated for no budget, etc. But the real buzz-killer in Ed’s movies is the earnestness of the proceedings. It’s the yawning chasm between his audacity and his sincerity that gives you those WTF? moments.
I can understand Harry’s smile when he’d think of Eddie. It’s the way you feel when you’re with a buddy you’ve known for a long time and he suddenly gets a chance to impress someone, so you listen and mentally shake your head as he builds up his 40-Watt success into something a lot more than it actually is. But that’s a casualty that occurs when you have to keep your spirits up despite continual rejection, when the doors slam in your face and all you’re wanting is to get into the game and see if you’ve got what it takes.
Back when Ed and Harry were alive, I used to get up very early on Sunday mornings and walk alone down Hollywood Boulevard when it would be quiet and clean and bright with California sun. No hookers, no pushers, no tourists. I’d go and sit at the counter of the House of Pies across from Frederick’s of Hollywood and observe the locals — a group of twenty-something hopefuls having the day’s first cup of coffee, a sixty-something never-was dreamily puffing on her Lucky Strike. I found beauty and poetry in those mornings, as I did in Eddie’s movies: the spiritual harmonies of grit and hustle and dreams.