In some respects the life of Ed Wood Jr. is a cautionary tale. He wound up a poverty-stricken alcoholic eking out a living writing porno novels. About this he once said:
“I have to do it, that’s what keeps my room and board, and the rent.”
On the other hand, he never gave up attempting a comeback as a film producer and director. No matter how bad things got, he was determined to pursue his dream.
And consider this. He WAS an auteur. He DID get films produced and distributed, most famously ‘Glen or Glenda,’ ‘Bride of the Monster,’ and his personal favourite, ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space.’
You’ve read about him. You’ve watched his films. You enjoyed Tim Burton’s wonderfully entertaining movie about his life, based on the equally entertaining (though not necessarily accurate) collection of oral recollections by those who knew him, ‘NIGHTMARE OF ECSTASY: THE LIFE AND ART OF ED WOOD JR.’ by Rudolph Grey.
But haven’t you ever wondered what Ed Wood himself thought of his career, ever wondered what advice, based on somewhat realizing his lifelong dream, based on the sum total of his experience, he would have given to filmmakers starting out as he once did?
Alas, we’ll never know. However, the next best thing, a book of advice to young women on how to succeed in Hollywood, something he worked on off and on for years, was finally published in 1998. It’s titled ‘HOLLYWOOD RAT RACE’ and is surprisingly good.
Take the first chapter, titled ‘Hollywood and You.’ It describes a typical beginner showing up in Hollywood with limited funds and even less knowledge of how the movie industry actually works.
Oh, to be sure, he mentions pink Angora sweaters a lot:
“You, young lady, will have your suitcases full of your high school best; sweaters (including a good, fluffy pink angora that cost plenty)…”
“You’re going to bathe; have a good night’s sleep; then next morning dress in your expensive pink angora sweater and brown skirt…”
“Your graduation dress and beautiful pink angora sweater bring another twenty at a second-hand ladies clothing store… you have nothing left to pawn…”
“Try sweaters, but the really tight ones went out in the 1940s. Choose fluffy ones such as mohairs or angoras, ones that look expensive, even if they’re not.”
But then, this is a book by Ed Wood Jr. You’d be surprised if he DIDN’T go on and on about angora sweaters.
What IS surprising is the amount of useful advice he crams in. Acting isn’t just smiling for the camera and wearing pretty clothes (read ‘angora sweaters’). You have to actually be able to do things the character does, do them well, comfortably, and confidently.
“Play baseball. Doris Day had to.”
“Play football. Linda Darnell had to.”
“Fight, yes, I said, fight. Shelly Winters and Marie Windsor had to.”
And so on. You have to be able to ride horses, ski, play tennis, type, swim, sew, dance and a zillion other things if you want to be an actress. And learn these things in your home town, enjoying the comfort of your family home and the support of your friends and parents, before you come to Hollywood. Because Hollywood is the worst place to take lessons in anything, far too expensive, and far too lonely. This is good advice.
And bring plenty of money, enough to last for a year at an expenditure rate of three or four hundred dollars a month (very expensive by 1960s standards). If you must take a job, be sure it’s a night job. You’ll need every available daylight hour just in case they call you in for an interview. If you don’t show up, they’ll never ask you again.
And don’t forget you’ll be spending a fortune on cab fare because it is physically impossible to walk to the studios.
“Columbia and Paramount are the only studios actually located in Hollywood (except for some television organizations). 20th Century Fox is one block out of Beverly Hills in West Los Angeles, MGM is in Culver City, Universal is in the San Fernando valley in Universal City, and Republic is in North Hollywood.”
Sound advice that. Something most newcomers probably never think of till they arrive in Hollywood.
Above all, don’t knock on the studio gates without the minimum requirements you need in order to get past the receptionist.
1) Get an agent. That’s the first thing. Prove you are worthy of his attention. Offer excellent hometown acting experience, positive critical reviews, proof of assorted life skills, a superb array of flattering photos showing you performing those life skills (doesn’t matter if one shows you covered in dirt, as long as you look good covered in dirt), and be ready to demonstrate posing, singing, and acting at the drop of a hat. Only then will an agent possibly consider taking you on. Oh, and a tape recording of your voice reading lines, speaking in normal conversation, and singing would be handy too.
2) Be patient. Let the agent make the rounds (with the material you provided) to ‘sell you’ to a producer.
3) Once your agent has ‘hooked’ a producer, said producer will pressure the Screen Actors Guild to issue you a SAG card, something normally impossible to get unless you’ve already appeared in a film or TV show.
Agent, producer, SAG card. Then and only then will you have a ghost of a chance to realize your dream.
But don’t necessarily accept the first offer. Ed warns (in a chapter titled ‘Nudie Cuties’) that all too often young girls fall for sleazy producers who demand sexual favours in exchange for a bit role in a porno film that pays all of ten bucks. Even for the 1960s, that’s an extremely paltry wage.
In the chapter ‘Sex—Hollywood and You’ Ed clearly implies virtually every major star, male and female, got their start by offering their bodies for sex. His advice?
“There’s a lot of desks you’re going to be chased around… Perhaps it would be easier on you to give in and think about it later…”
And he goes on to describe a typical encounter:
“You’re wearing your beautiful white angora sweater that makes you look so soft and cuddly… He wants his fingers digging into that soft fur… You give in, or you don’t give in—either way it’s all over in a few minutes. You’re slipping the soft angora sweater over your head, and you’re back in the dark again, looking for a way out. Looking for the next beam of light. Looking for the next glimmer or flicker of hope…”
Given that the whole point of the book is to prep young girls for the task of becoming a movie star, this (presumably honest) appraisal of the way Hollywood actually works is terrifying. And maybe necessary. I can’t think of a better antidote to naïve fantasizing over movie stardom.
Just to be clear, Wood does not identify himself as a sleazy producer. He was an independent producer, a state of being much purer and more civilized than your sleazy ‘fake’ producer. After all, he had made many films, and singles out his ‘Orgy of the Dead’ (which features numerous strip acts) as:
“…a pleasant surprise… It could well become a classic in its field.”
Truer words were never spoken.
You may ask, if this book is actually a depressing manual showing young girls why they should avoid Hollywood, why on earth am I recommending it?
Because it is Ed Wood’s take on Hollywood, warts and all (maybe especially warts and all).
For example, I’ve often wondered what his take was on films similar to his ‘Plan 9.’ Turns out he considered them crap. For instance:
“…what in hell can any director do with a lousy cast and a rotten story? There was a film, in the days of 3-D, which only because it was 3-D, played the Paramount Theater in Hollywood (one of the major houses). The picture lasted one performance, then was scrapped until television came in. It claimed to be a science-fiction piece. The only science (or fiction) about it was the fact it came into being at all. And this so-called producer is still around Hollywood today taking backer’s money for the same crap which never even gets the glory of one performance.”
I am absolutely convinced Ed is talking about director/producer Phil Tucker’s ‘Robot Monster,’ one of my favourite ‘B’ movies. In fact, it’s a toss-up as to which film, ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’ or ‘Robot Monster,’ I consider the best of the breed.
I am so disappointed the genius who wrote/produced/directed ‘Plan 9’ was completely incapable of detecting the subtle nuances of the only-so-slightly lesser genius of Phil Tucker. Tears my heart out that does. Sad.
I guess it’s safe to say that Ed thought of ‘his baby’ as being right up there with ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and ‘Forbidden Planet’ rather than comfortably ensconced with its nest mates ‘Teenagers From Outer Space,’ ‘Fire Maidens of Outer Space,’ and others of that splendid ilk.
Still, if it made him happy. That was the main thing. I suspect he enjoyed making his films more than he enjoyed watching them. A kind of addiction really. Fortunate we are that he was so addicted.
And consider this… what if he had been lucky? What if someone had given him a decent budget to make a science fiction film? Say, $500,000? I bet the results would have made your jaw drop to the floor… repeatedly… bouncing up and down throughout the film’s spooling length. If only…
Then there’s the poignant story of Bela Lugosi noting that the recent showing of his films on TV resulted in children asking the TV stations if he was still alive. That people assumed he was dead upset him.
Ed wood suggested doing personal appearances.
“Where in hell do we start?” replied Bela.
Eventually Ed got Lugosi a seven week run at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas, to favourable reviews.
That, too, is part of Ed Wood’s legacy.
To conclude, I quote chapter ‘The Young One’ in its entirety:
“There is a young lady, just outside of Montreal, Canada, who read one of my articles a few years ago and has been my constant pen pal ever since.
She read what I wrote and took a liking to what I was saying. She stayed home to complete her schooling and to study drama at a good program. She is growing into her varied talents.
I can say here that Micheline Senecal is the smart one and when finally she is ready and does come to Hollywood. I will be in a position to help her. One important thing—she will not have to face the Hollywood rat race the way I see it.”
Great Galloping Ghu! A young Canadian girl accepting Ed Wood Jr. as her mentor! I wonder how many angora sweaters he advised her to buy?
Whatever happened to Micheline Senecal? I goggled and found nothing. With any luck she did NOT go to Hollywood and follow Eddie’s direction, advice, and instructions. That would have proved disillusioning, to say the least.
Chances are Micheline Senecal is not the girl’s real name. As far as I know the actual person has not come forward to identify herself. Perhaps with good reason.
But if she is still alive, and still possesses all her Ed Wood pen pal correspondence, she is sitting on a potential treasure trove of a book of letters I for one faunch to read. I can only hope…
P.S. “Hollywood Rat Race’ is readily available on both Amazon and eBay.