Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 69: The hero's journey of 'Ed Wood' (1994)

If the hero has a thousand faces, does one of those faces belong to Ed Wood?

"A man doesn't live his life in three acts." That's what Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote in their introduction to the published screenplay of Ed Wood (1994), the Tim Burton-directed biopic of filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. And it's true. People's real lives don't fit the familiar template of movies, television, and theater.

And so, the writer of a biopic must take the existing facts of a person's life and arrange them into that familiar three-act structure in order to create a satisfying narrative for the audience. This generally involves cherry picking certain events that fit the plot, rearranging the timeline significantly, deleting any facts that are irrelevant to the central story arc, and even flat out inventing scenes and characters that have no basis in fact whatsoever. To a certain extent, Alexander and Karaszewski did all of these things in crafting the screenplay for Ed Wood.

But this article is not about grading Ed Wood on its historical accuracy. Instead, I'd like to examine the framework upon which the film's story is built.


Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi together in 1953.
Though its exact timeline is hazy at best, Ed Wood mainly takes place over the course of about four years in the early-to-mid-1950s—let's say 1953 to 1957—when Ed (Johnny Depp) was making low budget exploitation movies with aging, ailing Hungarian film star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Ed was at the beginning of his film career; Bela was at the end of his. Three famous/infamous films emerged from this unlikely creative partnership: Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957/1959). Burton's biopic concentrates exclusively on those three films, skipping over non-Lugosi projects like Jail Bait (1954) and The Violent Years (1956).

In that introduction, Alexander and Karaszewski further explain how they turned Rudolph Grey's patchwork biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy:The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992), into a manageable, coherent screen story. "As we examined the Ed/Bela relationship, an obvious three-act structure popped out. Page 10, they meet. End of act one, Ed makes his first film, using Bela's name. Act two, they struggle. End of act two, Bela dies. Act three, Ed has to figure out how to keep going, though Bela is gone."

After revisiting Burton's finished film and making my own outline of its major events, I'll agree that Ed Wood basically follows that "obvious three-act structure" the screenwriters have described, though I'd say the death of Bela Lugosi falls about midway through act three, not at the end of act two. In fact, I'd call Bela's death the third act twist.

As I see it, each of the film's three acts—and they're about equal in running time—is devoted to the making of a specific movie. The first act is about Glen or Glenda and ends with Ed and his cast and crew completing principal photography on that film. The second act is about Bride of the Atom (aka Bride of the Monster) and ends with the wrap party at the meat packing plant, during which Eddie's longtime girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker) leaves him in a rage. Act three deals with the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the crisis is not how Ed keeps going without Lugosi but rather how he keeps going without Dolores.


Campbell's seminal work.
My main motivation for writing this analysis of Ed Wood was to compare the movie to the so-called "hero's journey" or monomyth as outlined by literature professor Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). In this landmark study, the author examines heroic myths throughout history and finds certain common thematic elements that have transcended time and distance. In particular, Campbell divides the hero's journey into three main sections or acts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Along the way, there are 17 distinct episodes, beginning with the "Call to Adventure" and concluding with the "Freedom to Live."

Campbell was neither the first nor the last scholar to identify and list the characteristics of mythology, and his findings have met with some skepticism from academics in the intervening years. Some critics have found his categories too vague or unhelpful. Nevertheless, Campbell's book remains a popular starting point for examining heroic stories. One major point in Campbell's favor is that George Lucas' mega-popular Star Wars (1977) was heavily influenced and shaped by The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I highly doubt that Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were thinking of Joseph Campbell or the hero's journey when they were crafting the screenplay of Ed Wood. Nevertheless, the script they created bears a strong resemblance to the hero's journey. And, believe it or not, there are story elements common to both Ed Wood and Star Wars.


In this part of the story, says Campbell, the hero is first depicted living a normal life before receiving some vital information that disrupts his routine. At the beginning of Ed Wood, Eddie's life consists of staging plays with his friends by night and working as a gofer at Universal Studios by day. An early scene has poor Eddie schlepping palm trees from one end of the backlot to the other, all while taking abuse from cranky Mr. Kravitz (Biff Yeager). Eddie's Call to Adventure arrives when he learns that producer George Weiss (Mike Starr) is making a movie based on the Christine Jorgensen story. This is the information that disrupts Ed Wood's life forever. From this point on, Ed is an aspiring filmmaker, regardless of the consequences to his personal life or finances.

According to Campbell, the next step in the journey is the Refusal of the Call, when the hero initially refuses to take action due to insecurity or other obligations. In Ed Wood, we see that Ed has numerous moments of self-doubt. "What if I just don't got it?" he asks Dolores. Essentially, then, Ed has already refused the call before he even gets it! Ed has another "refusal of the call" scene in the second act, when Mr. Feldman (Stanley DeSantis) at Warner Bros. calls Glen or Glenda the worst movie he ever saw. Ed's response is to go home and sulk. Dolores has to cheer him up.

The mentor and his protegee: Bela and Ed.
Another important step in the hero's journey is Meeting the Mentor. That's when the protagonist, having fully committed to the quest, encounters a supernatural guide or helper. In Ed Wood, this is clearly Bela Lugosi. Bela may be a mere human—and an enfeebled one at that—but there is some mystical aura around him. The first time we see him, trying out coffins at the Hollywood Mortuary, he seems capable of rising from the dead. And when he and Eddie watch Vampira (Lisa Marie) on TV, Bela seems to cast a spell on the horror hostess from afar. ("How do you do that?" asks an astonished Eddie.)

Campbell also points out that the mentor frequently gives the hero a talisman or artifact that will help him later in his quest. In Ed Wood, it's the silent footage of Bela that Eddie will use in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Eddie doesn't receive the magical talisman until the third act, but it does help him complete his ultimate quest.

Eddie has a second, lesser mentor in the unnamed Old Crusty Man (Carmen Filpi) who works at Universal with him. In act one, this old man—apparently a projectionist—shows Eddie some stock footage. Eddie will later use that same stock footage in Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Ed's friendship with the projectionist both presages and parallels Ed's friendship with Bela.

The next episodes in the traditional hero's journey have the protagonist Crossing the First Threshold and then venturing into the Belly of the Whale. For Campbell, crossing the threshold means leaving the old, safe world behind and entering a new, dangerous world where the rules are unknown. In Eddie's story, this is the world of low-budget filmmaking. Ed crosses the first threshold when he starts shooting Glen or Glenda. Even this is a trial. On the initial day of shooting, he and his aggrieved crew have to run from the cops because they don't have a permit.

Campbell asserts that the hero has to undergo a metamorphosis during the first act of the story and may encounter a minor setback along the way. And that's exactly what happens in Ed Wood. At the beginning of the movie, Ed attempts to hide his transvestism from Dolores. He is nervous when Dolores says she is missing her favorite sweater, for instance. But in order to get Glen or Glenda made, Ed has to be more open about his cross dressing. He reveals his secret first to George and then to Dolores. This is his "belly of the whale" moment.

There is a pivotal scene in which Dolores finally reads Eddie's autobiographical script for Glen or Glenda. While she is busy reading in one room, Ed changes into women's clothing in another. When Dolores exits the bedroom, she sees her boyfriend in full drag for the first time. This is Eddie's metamorphosis. As Campbell predicted, it presents a minor setback: Dolores cringes at Ed's transvestism. But he convinces her to make the movie despite her qualms. They continue to argue on the set, but Ed completes the movie anyway.

And so act one ends with Eddie (temporarily) in triumph.


Gottlieb's book.
My favorite description of the three-act structure is one I first encountered in Carl Gottlieb's behind-the-scenes book The 'Jaws' Log (1975). "In Act One," Gottlieb writes, "you get a guy up in a tree. In Act Two, you throw rocks at him. In Act Three, you get him down again." So the middle of a story is when the author throws rocks (i.e. problems or obstacles) at the hero. And that's what happens to Eddie in the middle passages of Ed Wood. It's one hassle after another for him as he struggles to get Bride of the Atom/Bride of the Monster completed.

Likewise, Joseph Campbell talks about the hero's Road of Trials. The hero undergoes a battery of tests and often fails them. But these failures are crucial to the character's ultimate transformation. He learns from his mistakes and becomes better. Incidentally, these tests often occur in threes.

Eddie already started venturing down the Road of Trials in act one. In dealing with the cantankerous George Weiss, Eddie proves his strength, endurance, and cunning. Fittingly, Ed has three major face-to-face showdowns (plus a couple of telephone calls) with George. When they first meet, George rejects him for being inexperienced. Then, Ed returns with the promise of delivering Bela Lugosi, a recognizable star, to the production. He thus gets the job. Finally, Ed and George argue about the film's title, script, and overall content. Despite George's objections, Eddie turns Glen or Glenda into a personal passion project.

Eddie's initiation continues in act two. After his rejection by Mr. Feldman, Ed almost gives up on his dream of directing movies. But then he embarks upon a new adventure: raising the money for Bride of the Atom. Again there are three separate tests, two of which Eddie fails. There's a fundraiser at the Brown Derby that garners no money. There's a second fundraiser at the Derby that goes even worse. And, finally, Eddie has a successful meeting with Old Man McCoy (Rance Howard), and the movie is thus financed.

Loretta King: Ed Wood's temptress?
Campbell next identifies two steps he calls The Meeting with the Goddess and The Woman as Temptress. The closest thing this film has to a goddess figure is Kathy O'Hara (Patricia Arquette), the sweet-natured, accepting woman who will become Eddie's wife. In my outline of Ed Wood, however, Eddie and Kathy don't meet until the third act. It is significant, however, that they meet when Ed is at a pretty low ebb in his life. While Bela endures the horrible agony of morphine withdrawal at the hospital, Ed waits nervously in the lobby. Kathy, who represents the life force, is visiting her father at the same hospital. Winning Kathy's love is a major victory for Ed in the latter stages of the film.

In her own way, Dolores is a goddess figure, too. The first time we see her, in fact, she is portraying an angel in Eddie's play-within-a-movie The Casual Company, and she offers two soldiers a bird of peace. And it is Dolores' idea for Eddie to become an independent filmmaker and raise the money for Bride of the Atom himself.

Who is our Temptress? One obvious answer is actress Loretta King (Juliet Landau), whom Eddie meets in a bar. Eddie does not seem to desire Loretta sexually; he just thinks she has money that he can use to make his movie. Arguably the sleaziest thing Eddie does in Ed Wood is give the prime role of reporter Janet Lawton in Bride of the Atom to Loretta rather than to his faithful girlfriend Dolores. Eddie is generally loyal to those close to him, and this is the one time he willfully betrays someone in his inner circle for money.

But the Temptress does not always have to be a woman or even a human being. It could be anything that lures the hero away from his true path or calling. I believe that, for Ed Wood, that was alcohol. Eddie's drinking problem is downplayed in the script and further downplayed in the finished film, but it remains a significant motif in Ed Wood nevertheless. And, yes, there are three major scenes—one per act—in which Ed goes to a bar to drink alone and forget his troubles. The first occurs after his unsuccessful meeting with George Weiss. The second occurs after a failed fundraiser at the Brown Derby. And the third occurs when Eddie storms off the set of Plan 9 in an artistic fit.

We move on now to what Joseph Campbell calls the Atonement with the Father. Here, smack dab in the middle of the story, the protagonist must confront the person who holds the ultimate power in his life. Often, this is a father or father figure. So who holds the power in Eddie's life? The answer is likely Bela Lugosi, since Ed pins all of his own career hopes on his connection to Bela. The atonement phase calls for the hero to undergo an initiation at the hands of the father. And, in a sense, this does occur between Ed and Bela. In addition to the scene in which these two men watch Vampira together, there are two separate scenes in which a desperate and drug-addled Bela summons Ed to his home in the middle of the night.

Ed emerges from both of these sad and scary meetings with a newfound resolve to help Bela in whatever way he can. The first time, Ed's strategy is to find Bela some work, so Ed meets with Mr. Feldman at Warner Bros. in order to land a motion picture contract. The second time, Ed's strategy is to check Bela into rehab for his morphine addiction.


Ed receives guidance from Orson Welles.
The third act of Ed Wood is a series of peaks and valleys for the title character, ultimately ending in triumph. Eddie begins the final stage of the movie in one of his glum moods. Bride is complete, but Dolores has left him and Vampira won't go out with him. Worse yet, his mentor and hero Bela Lugosi is at an all-time low, suicidal and hopelessly addicted to morphine. But Ed's life will soon turn around when he meets Kathy Everett O'Hara, his eventual wife.

During this stage of his life, Eddie will also make the movie for which he is best known: Plan 9 from Outer Space. But before making his signature movie, Ed will lose both his mentor and (briefly) his will to make movies at all. Weary of battling with Plan 9's bossy Baptist investors, Ed nearly gives up on the project and on himself.

In the Ed Wood screenplay book, Alexander and Karaszewski talk about building the film's final act around Plan 9. It would not have been their first choice. "In a perfect world," they write, "Glen or Glenda would have been Ed Wood's final film—the man cranks out numerous silly monster movies, before learning his lesson, turning to personal honest film-making, and creating his autobiographical valedictory masterpiece. But unfortunately, Glen or Glenda came first. So we had to turn Plan 9 from Outer Space into a climax." They do this by: (1) turning the well-meaning Baptists into villains, and (2) inventing a completely wild third act fantasy scene we will discuss anon.

Joseph Campbell talks about the hero reaching his Apotheosis, a point of revelation at which he receives the knowledge that will help him complete the most difficult part of the journey. After storming off the Plan 9 set in full drag, Ed has his moment of clarity at the Musso & Frank Grill, where he downs Imperial whiskey in an attempt to numb himself into a stupor. It is at this point he meets his hero Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio), who just happens to be there that afternoon. The screenwriters dub this the script's "one major fib." (I'd say there are others. But, again, that's not what this article is about.)

After explaining his own woes in making Touch of Evil and his aborted Don Quixote, Orson gives Ed a necessary pep talk about how, even with all the hassles, "visions are worth fighting for." Newly invigorated, Ed returns to the shabby set of Plan 9 and finishes the picture. This is, in Campbell's terms, the Ultimate Boon. It's the culmination of the hero's quest. Earlier in the film, Eddie said he would make "the ultimate Ed Wood movie, no compromises," and now he's done it!

Ed crosses the return threshold. 
There is a definite moment in Burton's film that corresponds to Campbell's Crossing of the Return Threshold. This is the point at which the hero takes the wisdom he has attained and applies it to his own life. For Eddie, the wisdom came from that inspirational talk with Orson Welles, and he begins to apply it the second he steps into Quality Studios, where Plan 9 is being filmed. "You can't compromise an artist's vision," he tells the Baptists. He later adds, "This movie's gonna be famous! But only if you shut up and let me do it my way!"

It is here that Ed Wood begins to stray somewhat from the template of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Or maybe I'm just interpreting Campbell incorrectly; I'm not a scholar of mythology in any way. Still in all, I don't see anything like a Refusal of the Return in this movie. According to Campbell, that's the point at which the hero has attained the Ultimate Boon yet is reluctant to share it with his fellow man. Whether the boon is Plan 9 itself or just the magical Lugosi footage ("the acorn that will grow a great oak"), Ed is always eager to share it. He has that moment of self-doubt in the third act, but after his meeting with Orson Welles, he quickly returns to the studio.

Campbell also discusses an episode he terms The Magic Flight, in which the hero has to make a daring escape with the boon because it is an object jealously guarded by the gods. Again, nothing like that happens during the making of Plan 9 in the third act of Ed Wood. But it does make a pretty good description of the sequence late in the second act when Ed steals a rubber octopus from a warehouse at Republic Studios in order to complete Bride of the Monster. Ed assembles a small crew to assist him with this daring heist, including two of his most bizarre and memorable actors: TV psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) and wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele). Tor and Cris are interesting sidekicks for Eddie because they seem to come directly from mythology: one a giant, the other a seer or oracle.

Ed Wood and five of his magnificent seven.
Alexander and Karaszewski talk about how Ed assembles "his Magnificent Seven" as the story progresses, i.e. the oddballs and misfits with whom he makes his most famous movies. Not only will these folks give memorable performances, they'll help him in whatever way they can off the set as well. This includes the aforementioned octopus heist and a sequence in Act Three in which the Plan 9 actors all allow themselves to be baptized in a swimming pool at the behest of the Baptists. Campbell has accounted for this with an aspect of the hero's journey he calls the Rescue from Without. Essentially, this means that the hero needs guides or helpers during his quest. And Eddie needs all the help he can get. In Act Three, for instance, he and his pals, including Kathy and Bela, attend a showing of Bride of the Monster that devolves into a riot. While Eddie helps shepherd his friends through the angry crowd, it is Kathy who bravely throws herself in front of a passing taxi to secure their escape.

What is left for our hero to do? He's left his old life behind, embarked upon an exciting but dangerous new one, met with his mentor, survived numerous tests, and finally achieved his goal. Well, Campbell says that the epic hero must now become the Master of Two Worlds, meaning that he has achieved a balance between the material and the spiritual. Now, as anyone with a passing knowledge of Ed Wood's real life can tell you, this man never really mastered any world, let alone two at a time. He floundered as an artist and as a human being. Even Ed Wood's closing narration admits that Eddie "kept struggling in Hollywood, but mainstream success eluded him."

But at the end of Burton's biopic, Eddie does seem to have achieved a balance between his career and his personal life. As he exits the Plan 9 premiere on a rainy night, completely contented, he proposes marriage to Kathy, and the two drive toward Las Vegas. Campbell says that our hero has now attained the Freedom to Live, meaning he no longer fears death and can live for the moment without ruing past mistakes or dreading future calamities. This describes Ed perfectly. His decision to drive to Vegas with Kathy, for instance, is completely spontaneous. Never mind that he's still broke or that it's pouring rain. "It'll probably stop by the time we get to the desert," Ed optimistically tells Kathy. "Heck, it'll probably stop by the time we get around the corner. Let's go." That is freedom to live in its purest form.


Luke's humdrum life on Tatooine.
Earlier in this article, I said that Ed Wood shared plot points with Star Wars, arguably the most famous film to follow the monomyth template as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero of a Thousand Faces. Obviously, these two films are nothing alike in terms of tone or appearance. But there are vague parallels, especially if you think of Eddie as the equivalent of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). At the start of Star Wars, Luke leads a dull existence, living and working on the Tatooine "moisture farm" of his aunt and uncle. His day-to-day life is a bit like Eddie's at Universal Studios. Luke and Ed are both young men doing mundane, thankless chores while dreaming of something bigger and wondering if they're up for the challenge.

Ed and Luke both embark upon exciting quests, but even before they get started, they consult with wizened old gurus. For Luke, it's Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness); for Ed, it's Bela Lugosi. Bela, like Obi-Wan, is far removed from his glory days. "Now, no one gives two fucks for Bela," he tells Ed. "I haven't worked in four years. This business, this town, it chews you up, then spits you out. I'm just an ex-bogeyman." Compare that to Obi-Wan's wistful line from Star Wars: "Obi-Wan. Now that's a name I've not heard in a long time." More dignified, sure, but a similar sentiment. Note, too, that neither Obi-Wan nor Bela survives the journey, but Luke and Ed keep their memories alive.

Luke Skywalker has to assemble a team of colorful misfits, including two bickering droids, an orphaned princess, an inarticulate Wookiee, and a hotshot smuggler, in order to complete his mission of blowing up the enemies' space station, the Death Star. Ed's goal, making a handful of B-movies, is more modest, but he assembles his own team of misfits for the job. How appropriate that Luke meets two pivotal members of his team, Han (Harrison Ford) and Chewie (Peter Mayhew), at a bar. Eddie spends a lot of time in bars, too, and probably would not be out of place at the Mos Eisley cantina.

Star Wars famously ends with its cadre of heroes, including Luke, receiving medals for bravery in front of an appreciative audience of Rebel soldiers, officers, and pilots who have gathered in a large hall. Ed Wood gives its hero and his friends a big, official ceremony in the form of a lavish (and totally fictional) premiere for Plan 9 from Outer Space at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Burton, like George Lucas before him, makes sure to get closeups of his main characters basking in the glory of the moment.

That's really the beauty of the hero's journey. If you back far enough away from any given story, you see how it resembles so many others. Even films as wildly dissimilar as Star Wars and Ed Wood can start to look like first cousins.

BONUS: In writing this article, I prepared a complete outline of Ed Wood (1994). You can read through that entire document here.