Last night Kayla Miller and I were both invited to speak at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY as part of their “Process to Text” series of guest speakers. Kayla was talking about writing/illustrating their graphic novel, Click, and the upcoming sequel, Camp. I talked about the process of writing Jim’s Introduction to Gender Identity for Amaze.org. Poughkeepsie is the hometown of Edward D. Wood Jr. (1924-1978), the infamous B-list movie director and subject of the 1994 Tim Burton biopic, Ed Wood. When I realized his childhood home was only 2.5 miles from the college I asked Kayla to humor me by taking me to the empty lot the home once stood.
Jim’s Introduction to Gender Identity has approximately ten references to Ed Wood’s films, most notably the name of the character Glenda (an obvious reference to 1953’s Glen or Glenda). Ed Wood was one of the first powerful gender non-conforming influences in my life. Although he self-identified as a cross-dresser (he used the term “transvestite” in his time), I do wonder where Ed might have felt he landed on the gender spectrum if he were alive today. Glen or Glenda opens with the suicide of a transgender woman: “Let my body rest in death forever in the things I cannot wear in life.” He was hired to write/direct Glen or Glenda after making an impassioned pitch to the producer (who really just wanted to make a sexploitation film about the highly publicized reassignment surgery of Christine Jorgensen), arguing he was the most qualified person in Hollywood to tell this story because he lived it.
Ed Wood exists in popular culture as a campy goofball. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) is probably the most famous example of “so bad it’s good” filmmaking, affectionately called the “Worst Film of All Time” (making Ed the “Worst Director of All Time”). Unlike other bad filmmakers, Ed Wood continues to find an audience because—even though the films are low-budget disasters—the artist’s voice permeates through the work. His apparent love for the medium is the core of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood: Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Ed is blindly optimistic, dismissing criticism of his films by saying “My next one will be better.” When people think of Ed Wood, this is who they’re thinking of. But while there may be elements of truth in this version (his wife, Kathy, loved Johnny Depp’s portrayal), this Ed Wood is a myth. Burton deliberately avoided showing the most tragic elements of Wood’s life, in part because he had so much affection for him. The film ends after the premiere of Plan 9—we don’t see his deep decent into alcoholism and years directing pornography. We don’t see the miserable episodes towards the end of his life, like selling his typewriter to afford liquor.
I have always been inspired by the myth of Ed Wood, but the man himself is far more complicated. Though Glen or Glenda was ahead of its time pleading for acceptance for those who don’t conform to gender norms, the casual sexism and racism make it clear Ed Wood was indeed a product of his time. Wood was a World War II veteran; many believe his alcoholism was motivated in part by undiagnosed PTSD. When he drank he had a temper. Though the Tim Burton film portrays Ed & Kathy’s relationship as completely idyllic, the reality is as they fell deeper into poverty it became nasty and sometimes violent. The day he died he called to Kathy “I’m having a heart attack” and she didn’t believe him: “Shut up, Ed!”
When Kayla and I pulled into the empty lot Ed Wood’s childhood home once stood, the first thing we noticed was the massive pile of trash at the entrance. The lot is primarily used for parking for a residential building next to the space, but I took a walk by myself to the end of the lot where photographs show the house once stood. I imagine this was the first place Ed Wood would begin to cross-dress, where he would first begin wrestling with concepts of gender. Poughkeepsie was the last town he would live in with a full set of teeth, having had several knocked out of his mouth by a Japanese soldier in combat. This home was within walking distance to the theater he would see films like Dracula, instilling a love for movies long before moving to Hollywood to have his soul crushed.
As I sprinkled more and more references to Ed Wood’s work in Jim’s Introduction to Gender Identity, it absolutely crossed my mind what he would have thought of it. And with each accolade the film receives, I can’t help but think this is the sort of recognition never afforded to Glen or Glenda during Ed’s lifetime. I would like to believe there is some otherworldly dimension Ed could see my film and the work of so many other artists who have been inspired by him; I would like to believe he would feel some sense of validation and pride.
“Man’s constant groping of things unknown, drawing from the endless reaches of time, brings to light many startling things. Startling? Because they seem new, sudden. But most are not new but the signs of the ages.” ~ Bela Lugosi; Glen or Glenda (1953)
The poster for Jim’s Introduction to Gender Identity was designed as an homage to the poster for Glen or Glenda.