Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ors and Ed

The scene is set in a dim 1940s Hollywood cafe, perhaps the Brown Derby, during the somnolent interval between the end of lunch and the beginning of the dinner rush.

Two men share a table and also their woes.  Both of them are having problems with the films they -- unlike most Hollywood directors of the day -- are both writing and directing.  Although this is the first time they've met, these men are at the forefront of what will prove to be several generations of men and women who will master technology, logistics, studio politics, financing, and the idiosyncracies of actors and cameramen to translate their personal visions into the great art form of the 20th century.

Both of these men are, essentially, writers.  Film is the uniquely demanding page on which they tell their story.

As they talk, both of them exhausted, both of them beaten down, they discover just how much they have in common.  They're brothers in aspiration and experience.  They fight the same wars.

But one of them is Orson Welles, having a bad day on "Citizen Kane," which will go on to acclaim as one of the greatest of all motion pictures.  And the other is Edward Wood, having his own problems with "Plan 9 from Outer Space," usually short-listed for worst film of all time.

This encounter probably never happened, but for me it was the absolute highlight of Tim Burton's masterful "Ed Wood," with Johnny Depp at his most fine-boned and neurasthenic, as Wood.

As the two men face each other they really do seem to exist on opposite sides of a funhouse mirror.

At seventeen, Welles left America and went to Ireland, where he auditioned for a theater troupe in Dublin, attempting to pass himself off as a vacationing film star.  The actor-manager Micheal MacLiammoir saw through the pretense, but also into the heart of Welles' talent, and the American teenager remained there for a couple of years, stealing play after play from his elders.  Theatricalism would shape his work for decades.

Wood toured with a carnival, performing in the freak show as The Bearded Lady.  The creative ambiance of the freak show, where sensation was not only the primary thing, but the only thing, would shape his work throughout his career.

Both were extravagantly ambitious.  In his first film, the 26-year-old Welles played Charles Foster Kane from youth to bloated old age.  Wood's first screen appearance was in what Wikipedia soberly calls the titular role in his own "Glen and Glenda," wearing several of his beloved angora sweaters and, beneath them, prosthetic breasts of his own design.  G&G was one of the first sympathetic film treatments of transvestism.

Welles, as a writer, was a master of the influence of character on destiny, turning out meticulously constructed stories in which powerful characters set out to control their lives and, for want of a better term, fuck it up. For Wood, character was something that could always be enhanced by a vampire cape, a pair of antennae, or an angora sweater.  He was firmly in the more is more camp although this tendency is limited, perhaps mercifully, by his minuscule budgets.

Welles was also inhibited later in life by minuscule budgets, making his Shakespeare films -- "Macbeth," "Othello", and "Chimes at Midnight" -- whenever he could scrape together a few dollars and his cast members.  (Finding himself once with actors but no costumes, he famously shot one key scene in a steambath.)   When Bela Lugosi, at the end of his long battle with drugs and despair, died during the filming of "Plan 9 from Outer Space," Wood improvised, too, replacing the actor with a double who kept his black cape over his face all the time and was at least a foot taller than Lugosi had been.

But the point isn't really that one of these two men was a genius and the other fell considerably short of basic competence.  The point is that they were both artists, men with a vision who were monomaniacally obsessed with realizing that vision.  Even if they never actually met, they would have understood each other perfectly.

You don't have to be a good artist to be an artist.

That's why the scene in "Ed Wood," which is played absolutely straight, is probably my favorite film scene about writing and/or creativity.  (For the record, the scene was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski.)  We all do it the same way, those of us who give ourselves to it, whether we're good or not, whichever "best" or "worst" lists our work ends up on.  And we should all remember what the best of us all said about plays in one of his own, A Midsummer Night's Dream:

The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.


  1. Welles, who Wood have thunk up such a story but the incredible Tims. Burton and Halligan, together again.

    Loved it!


  2. Beyond appreciating the manner in which "Ors and" reads as Orson, there is nothing else I can say. I know nothing about Hollywood in any era.

    Jeff isn't the only one who was playing with names.