To start this blog, we must reach back to a hallowed antiquity: the days when Netflix movies arrived by mail. One day while walking with my dad, he said, “I saw the Netflix notification about which movies are coming. I don’t like the movie you just rented.”
“Which movie?” I asked.
“The one that’s rated R with Johnny Depp playing a crossdresser. Why did you pick that one?”
The controversial movie in question was Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton. Frankly, when I rented it I had no idea about the crossdressing bit. I was on a Tim Burton binge and saw he had made a biopic about a man named Edward D. Wood Jr. — legendary director of the worst movies of all-time.
When the DVD arrived, I looked at the synopsis on the sleeve, and sure enough it mentioned crossdressing. The movie was rated R, but only for language. As far as my dad was concerned, though, an R-rated movie with crossdressing probably had gratuitous sex orgies.
Still, he didn’t stop me from watching it.
I’m glad he didn’t, because Ed Wood became one of my favorite movies of all-time. Not only that, I think it may have been a catalyst for helping me come to terms with my sexuality.
So, what happens in the movie? In the 1950s, a young movie director named Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) tries to break his way onto the Hollywood scene. He has the passion, but he makes his movies super cheaply, only shooting his scenes once, even if glaring errors like cardboard tombstones are falling over and visible.
Along the way, Wood befriends aging and washed up Dracula star, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau in an Oscar-winning performance). Wood was a fan of Lugosi and wanted to help him out by having him star in his terrible movies.
So, we see Ed and his zany crew doing all sorts of outrageous things to get his movies made: stealing props, losing actors, losing money, and getting baptized by Baptists to acquire necessary funding, all while working around Lugosi’s spiraling morphine addiction.
It’s an inspiring movie. Ed Wood believes in the visions for his movies so much that he fights to get them made at any cost.
And oh yeah . . . there’s also that crossdressing thing.
Yes, both in real life and in the movie’s depiction, Ed Wood crossdressed. He wasn’t transgender; he was a heterosexual man with two girlfriends throughout the movie. He plainly explains to one:
“My mom wanted a girl, so she dressed me in girly clothing. Just became a habit.”
Wood takes his own story and wants to make a movie about it — creating Glen or Glenda. Initially, this film was going to be a biopic of Christine Jorgensen, the first person to have a publicly known sex-change.
Instead, Wood turns the biopic into a semi-autobiographical story about a man that he plays himself, going through the agonizing drama of wanting to indulge his crossdressing desires while also worrying how his fiancée and society will judge him.
To get this movie made, Wood consults the guy in charge of a schlocky movie studio — including coming out to him about his crossdressing. Something which he feels makes him particularly qualified to make the movie.
Warning: there is some language in this clip. Says Wood:
“I know what it’s like to live with a secret and worry about what people will make of it.”
My teenage self saw a lot of me in the character of Ed Wood. I’ve always been a big movie buff with a passion for creativity and making things; part of me has always hoped to be a filmmaker. I may not have ever wanted to crossdress like Ed, but I still held my own big secret with homosexuality.
Now, Wood had no moral or biblical qualms with his secret like I did with mine. But I identified with this concept of struggling with a secret which society considers taboo.
Ed eventually gets the go-ahead to make the movie about his life; he then needs to have his big crossdressing coming out to his fiancée.
Yeah . . . it doesn’t go particularly well for Ed. This scene sorta terrified me on a subliminal level.
Would my parents have a similar outrage if they ever discovered my own secret side? Even though at the time, I’d hoped never to have such a conversation with my parents.
Wood casts Bela Lugosi in Glen or Glenda, and when Lugosi asks him about the kind of picture he’s making, Ed dances around the crossdressing and responds, “Well, it’s about how people have two personalities: the side they show to the world and the secret person they hide inside.”
“Like Jekyll and Hyde?” Lugosi asks. “I’ve always wanted to play Jekyll and Hyde.”
This, of course, is a theme to which anyone can relate. It definitely had me squirming as a teenager. I was going to high school, trying to act like all the other boys as much as possible, even joining in with their homophobic slurs . . . only to come home and look at photos of men online.
It felt very much like a Jekyll and Hyde scenario.
But the film isn’t all about crossdressing. Brotherhood also works its way into the movie.
In the DVD commentary, Martin Landau (Lugosi) talks about his character’s relationship with Ed:
“These were two desperate people who join up because they need each other. Actually, there’s this affinity that grows. I always thought of it as a male love story, you know? Not a homosexual story. Two guys who can depend on each other when push comes to shove, and that kind of stuff.”
I love that. We definitely need more male love stories in cinema. True to form, Wood does take care of Lugosi. He helps him financially by casting him in his films, talks him out of suicide, and helps him with his morphine addiction by checking him into a rehab center. Their bond truly is the emotional heart of the film.
So yes, I highly recommend Ed Wood. It’s Tim Burton and Johnny Depp at their very best. It made an impact on me at a young age, not just because I related to the narrative with my hidden sexuality, but because it’s also an inspiring story about pursuing your dreams.
The film doesn’t lecture you on crossdressing; it just presents the story as it happened in real life, leaving you to judge for yourself.
Ed Wood helped me realize that others also secretly deal with taboo things. In Ed’s case, he utilized it to create art — really bad art, but he still created something. His movies are now celebrated for their badness and have lasted through the ages.
What are your thoughts on Ed Wood if you’ve seen the film? Have you experienced any connections with taboo secrets and characters in movies, television, or books?