Monday, July 6, 2009
Ed's Hollywood: Trouble, Problems, Heartaches
I believe the first time I learned that, in addition to writing and directing all those films that mean so much to all of us, Ed Wood also wrote a number of books, was one day in college, while spending my lunch break leafing through Rudolph Grey's Nightmare of Ecstacy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. As I remember it, that book gave a pretty detailed rundown of the several dozen novels, and occasional work of non-fiction, that Wood churned out, beginning, for all intents and purposes, in 1963 (years later, I also read an even more thorough look at this side of Wood in an article published in Outre magazine, and though I'm not entirely sure, since it's been a number of years and I no longer have the actual magazine, I believe that same article can be read here). It was then that I discovered that the gentle soul behind Bride of the Monster also wrote books with titles like To Make a Homo, Death of a Transvestite, Night Time Lez, The Sexecutives and Forced Entry.
That list of titles should give you a pretty good idea of what you'd be getting if you chose to actually purchase, sit down, and read one of Wood's books. "Lurid" doesn't seem to quite cover it. "Sleazy" is probably a better word, although the cost of a used copy of most of these titles is so prohibitive, the majority of us are going to have to live with only an assumption of their contents. Ah, but note that I said "most of these titles". The "good" news is that a handful of Wood's books have been reprinted in recent years (although, sorry, Raped in the Grass remains out of print), and so far I've been able to track down Wood's first novel, Killer in Drag (originally published as Black Lace Drag), Death of a Transvestite, Devil Girls, and Wood's sort-of memoir, sort-of practical guide for young people seeking a life in movies called Hollywood Rat Race. Later this week, I plan on writing up Killer in Drag, but today I wanted to dive right in to the world as Wood saw it. Or, more accurately, pretended to see it.
Written in 1965 (though not published until 1998, or at least so I'm told), Hollywood Rat Race is, as you might have already guessed, an exceedingly strange book. One thing I certainly wasn't expecting was for the book to be close to tedious for almost the first quarter of its 138 pages. There's almost no end to the negative things one can say about Ed Wood's films, but I think it would be hard for anyone to justify calling them dull. But the first two chapters of Hollywood Rat Race (titled, respectively, "Hollywood and You" and "I'm Ready to be Discovered") detail -- ad nauseum and with a great deal of cynicism, if not plain bitterness -- how close to impossible it is for anyone to make their way in the film business. Focusing on the plight of wide-eyed innocent females, these chapters are full of this sort of thing:
You did not fully realize how much stronger the competition was going to be when you arrived in Hollywood only partly prepared for it. Ten thousand newcomers a year, just like you, just as handsome or pretty, and just as talented, come to Hollywood, and all looking for the same job -- yours!
And on and on with this stuff. The "You" character in the first chapter is an aspiring actress (or actor) who was trained to regard performing as their calling through high school theater work. In the second chapter, the "You" character just won a beauty contest, and one of the prizes was an all expenses paid trip to Hollywood. Other than that, the two chapters are essentially identical. In fact, Wood ends chapter one with a not-very-convincing "Good luck to you!", and chapter two with a similarly dubious "Hope springs eternal." After that, though, we get to the good stuff, in that Wood begins to drop names, relate hard-to-swallow anecdotes, and, I'm convinced, slowly go mad.
When I say Wood drops names, I mean he drops names like "Rory Bancroft" and "Kenne Duncan". About Kenne Duncan, Wood says:
Kenne has been a villain to almost every cowboy hero you see in Westerns on film or television. At the end of the picture, he is always outdrawn by the hero -- shot down and killed where he stands.
In reality Kenne is one of the best trick shots in the world. While his films show him as the villain who couldn't shoot his way out of a paper bag, his nightclub and carnival acts depict a different story. For this stereotyping, Kenne should hate movies.
His seven-thousand-dollar house car and his eight-thousand-dollar Higgins yacht tell us differently... Who can hate the business that loves you and rewards you.
There are two things worth talking about in that passage. One is the fact that, while it might be tempting these days to laugh a little at the air of grandeur Wood is blowing around Kenne Duncan (who appeared in Wood's Night of the Ghouls and The Sinister Urge), Wood shows a very admirable sense of loyalty towards his friends here. What he's doing is using the life of Kenne Duncan as an example of a successful film/show business career. Which, in practical terms, is probably a fair argument. Duncan worked pretty steadily from 1928 until about 1965, and racked up, as Wood points out, about 300 film and TV credits. It ain't necessarily stardom, but it still puts Duncan well within the successful minority of Hollywood actors.
One of the things that Wood wants to drum into the neophyte actors and filmmakers he imagines will be reading this book is the importance of character actors in the film business, and the need for young actors to have a broad skill-set. And, he points out, you acquire such a skill-set by doing the work, and by apprenticing yourselves to those who've already been there. To illustrate his point (which no one can claim is a bad one), Wood offers this example:
The atomic bomb didn't just happen. Many people of many trades, skilled people of long apprenticeship and longer study were commissioned for such a magnificent undertaking. Of the hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people who could have liked to work on such a project, the men and women whose names you read in the newspapers were chosen because they have their trade well in hand. They knew it and they lived it, they are their trade. Just imagine what would happen if one person were permitted to cut in line, got the job, but couldn't handle it. He makes an error and the scene is spoiled. I wonder how we'd reshoot the atomic bomb dropping.
Far-fetched? Think about it!
The other thing you might be wondering about while reading that passage about Duncan is, "Why is Wood talking about hate? Who ever said anything about that?" Well, the passage comes from a chapter entitled, in fact, "Hate", which is all about how angry Wood gets when he hears people run down the film business. He claims that these people are everywhere, and that what these people do (he actually calls them "haters") is pump up the "New York Stage" as the haven for real actors and actresses, and they announce these beliefs at such a volume that they cannot be ignored. Wood continues:
Yet I don't even care to ignore them -- I want to know these "haters". I want to know who they are with their big mouths and their small ideologies, so I won't have to hire them for my films. You'd be surprised as to how man other directors and producers feel as I do.
And who are these ignorant big mouths who wish to tear Hollywood down? Ed Wood has a theory.
Perhaps a bunch of Communists? They seem to infiltrate everything with their hate campaigns. But if people have been hating Hollywood since movies began, then how could it be a communist-inspired phenomenon? I didn't say it was communist inspired, I said "perhaps".
So I guess he's not so sure. He thought he probably had it figured out, but then he gave it a bit more thought, and now he's reconsidering.
One of the other really fascinating chapters in the book is called "Nudie Cuties". In it, he claims to be relieved that the film made from his script Orgy of the Dead turned out so well, and he also offers this picture of the streets of Hollywood that all you small-town types had better get used to if you plan on trying to make a life there:
Even some of the boys have taken to wearing light pink lipstick while the girls have eliminated that cosmetic. But isn't this, then, show biz? Hollywood is not as the fan magazines attempt to paint. You'd be surprised how many of the boys prefer girl's [sic] clothes and the girls who prefer boy's [sic] clothes! And I mean big stars, directors, producers, and writers!
Ahem. I don't know what Wood means when he says "But isn't this...show biz?", because I don't think that's what showbiz is, actually, but as for the rest of it...what's he up to? Is he in some kind of mad denial about himself? That's how I initially read it, but now I think there's at least a fair chance that this was a sort of private joke for himself and his friends. I hope that's what he's doing, anyway. Otherwise, this passage would seem to indicate that his mind was slipping a little, if not into madness, than at least into self-hatred.
But who knows what was going through Wood's mind as he wrote this book. His attitude to Hollywood and the film business seems to fluctuate from a kind of frustrated anger, in the early chapters, to an all-encompassing love, especially for those, like himself, who existed on the fringe. His lessons for the reader range from good, practical sense to flippant and lazy (on writing, Wood says at one point "Oh, I suppose a certain command of the language is advisable"). And to say he gets distracted away from his various points is not exactly to criticize Hollywood Rat Race, but rather to highlight why it's worth reading. I've let Ed Wood do most of the talking in this post, and I'll now give him the last word. This is from the very end of the book, in a chapter called, simply, "Hollywood", in which he complains that these days (in 1965), things in Hollywood just aren't as good, aren't as fun, as they used to be, and his beloved town is on the skids (he spends the first couple pages of the chapter complaining about the sorry state of modern parades). At the end, just a paragraph or so from the book's end, he says:
The city fathers, the Chamber of Commerce, the councilmen and civic beautification organizations are trying to do something to improve Hollywood's glamor rating, but it takes a long time. Recently an organization planted a few trees along Hollywood Boulevard, but it will take many years before any one of those trees gives shade to the midget who touts the Hollywood Wax Museum, which by the way is a very fine show.