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Tucson Weekly Knock On Wood

The long-lost autobiography of wacked film director Ed Wood Jr. surfaces.

By Jeff Yanc

MARCH 1, 1999: 

Hollywood Rat Race, by Ed Wood, Jr. (Four Walls Eight Windows). Paper, $15.95.

NOTHING IS stranger than the strange itself, and there is nothing stranger than my tinseltown....."

So begins Hollywood Rat Race, the recently unearthed memoir/Hollywood survival manual written by Ed Wood Jr., the infamous cross-dressing, no-budget film director/writer/actor who has been unjustly dubbed "The Worst Director of All Time" by fans of offbeat cinema everywhere. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Wood cranked out a jaw-droppingly bizarre series of cheapo exploitation films like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Orgy of the Dead, celluloid curiosities where twisted transvestites, grave-robbing ghouls from outer space and hopped-up high-school hellcats held dominion over cardboard sets, outlandish scripts and grade-C actors.

Less a "bad director" than one blatantly unconcerned with budgetary constraints or Hollywood narrative conventions, Wood's psychotronic masterpieces often reached Bunuel-like levels of surrealism with their glazed-looking actors spouting head-scratching non-sequiturs while moving through a crudely constructed world held together by (often visible) wire and string. Wood's own strange life achieved a kind of tragic nobility as a struggling artist whose technical talent never quite matched his passion for expression, and whose obsessive devotion to the industry that ignored and ridiculed him during his lifetime was only repaid years after his death when his films were rediscovered by audiences who perversely loved them for their perceived ineptitude.

Now, Ed Wood's long lost how-to-make-it-in-Hollywood primer, Hollywood Rat Race, written in the late 1960s, is finally seeing the light of day, ostensibly written to warn would-be stars and starlets of the dangers of La-La Land; a heart-to-heart with the boys and girls of America (to whom the book is dedicated) on the travails of fame. However, what this fascinating autobiographical artifact actually reveals is the script of Wood's own life, the story of a naive dreamer whose own white-knuckle ride on the Hollywood roller coaster turned a giddily optimistic movie fan into a vaguely misanthropic outsider forever resigned to skittering on the fringes of the fantasy world he so dearly loved.

Throughout Race, Wood continually cautions young actors that the Hollywood mythicized in movie glamour magazines is not to be trusted, that danger and despair lurk at every turn for all but the lucky few granted access to the Mount Olympus of the studio system. (Wood's failed acting career may have contributed to his bleak outlook on the star system.) Ironically, his own writing style is saturated with the moistly sweaty prose of the Hollywood Confidential-styled magazines he decries. His lurid warnings about lecherous casting couch producers (whom he generically refers to as "Mr. Sleazy") are wackily overwrought slices of melodramatic pulp. "Don't think it can't happen to you.... I can relate stories of sex and how sex leads to dope and how dope leads to smut films that can not only degrade your very being, but end your career forever as the coffin lid fits over your head in Forest Lawn Cemetery!"

From fashion and grooming tips to screenwriting advice and housing suggestions, Wood pulls no punches in exposing the rotted innards of tinseltown, which he describes as a "monster that can trample your dreams before you even get off the bus." At the same time, he also quite nakedly reveals his own psyche and lifestyle issues, such as his well-documented cross-dressing fetish (legend has it that the former Marine wore bra and panties under his fatigues while storming the beaches of Tarawa during WWII), under the guise of fatherly advice: "Having read and reread all your movie magazines you already know what you should look like--you dress in your most beautiful, expensive and luxuriously fuzzy angora sweater and tight brown skirt--here you are in Hollywood and Hollywood is damned well going to know it!"

Today, the reader of Race can only speculate what kind of bewilderment '60s teenagers, their heads filled with visions of glamorous movie stars like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, would have felt over Wood's rapturous descriptions of his own bizarro-world version of the swinging Rat Pack: hulking Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson, has-been '30s cowboy star Bud Osborne, TV horror hostess Vampira, effete pyschic-to-the-stars Criswell and drug-addicted former Dracula star Bela Lugosi. Wood's affinity for society's outcasts may not have matched middle-America's idea of Hollywood royalty, but it certainly made for an interesting alternative to the industry's prefabricated ideals of beauty (as well as for some undoubtedly off-kilter movie wrap parties).

Despite his own outsider status, Wood here frequently chastises those who would dare to criticize the status-obsessed class system of "his" Hollywood, insinuating that those who do so are "probably communists," while steadfastly supporting the right of the individual to "do his own thing" in a society "where the masses control the very patterns of our existence." This dichotomy of the put-upon outcast who remained masochistically devoted to a conformist industry that never accepted him is what allows Race to transcend its campy surface, as it paints a moving and even insightful picture of the ways that the lust for fame can distort reality and warp artistic fervor--sort of a Portrait of the Artist as a Bizarre Young Man.

Ed Wood Jr. died in 1978 at the age of 54, a broken, poverty-stricken alcoholic writing porn novels out of his dingy Hollywood Boulevard apartment, maintaining his status as struggling artist to the bitter end. His campy cult status today (his last unfilmed screenplay, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, has recently been made into an independent film starring Hollywood hipsters like Christina Ricci and Sandra Bernhard), belies the toll that the Hollywood rat race took on Ed himself. What Hollywood Rat Race inadvertently reveals, in Wood's own words, is the tragic story of an iconoclast who was devoured by the very dream he hungered for all his life. Like his films, it also offers something for everyone (if "everyone" happened to have a taste for the eccentric)--for the Ed Wood enthusiast, it stands as a unique appendix to the already sizable body of Wood-inspired literature; for the uninitiated, a glimpse into the mind of a truly original artist from Hollywood's past; for the disinterested, proof positive that true strangeness lurks just beyond the normal range of vision. And as an added bonus, it offers the chilling (and increasingly salient) advice to Julia-Roberts-wanna-be's everywhere: Stay the hell out of Hollywood!

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