He Treated Me Like a Friend: ‘Ed Wood’ and Imperfect Heroes
The cult of personality is not new. We know the mythic acts of ancients such as Hercules and Perseus because people passed those stories down through generations, another person wrote them down, and they became ingrained in Western culture. The flaws of those heroes are part of what has helped them resonate through millennia. We don’t know if Hercules’s biggest fan ever met the hero, but there’s a good chance the mighty Greek was a jerk to his fans.
The personal lives of heroes all too often leave fans wishing they’d never met them. But who is responsible for that? Should average fans expect heroes to be flawed and get over it or should “we” hold those we worship to higher standards, even at our own peril?
In Tim Burton’s 1994 film Ed Wood, we see the hero-fan relationship play out. While this is based on the true story of hack filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. and actor Bela Lugosi, the portrait given in the film is interesting enough without needing to compare fiction and reality.
Wood, played by Johnny Depp, wants to make movies. One day, he meets Lugosi, played by Martin Landau. Lugosi is well beyond his prime: slope-shouldered, wrinkled, ready to die. None of that matters to Wood, who proclaims he’s seen all of Lugosi’s movies. Wood asks when Lugosi’s next picture will be out, at which point Lugosi tries to shatter Wood’s idealism. He hasn’t made a movie in four years. Wood drives Lugosi home, still star-struck and ignoring the reality of Lugosi’s age and forgotten career. Whenever someone tells Wood they thought Lugosi was dead, Wood emphatically states, “No, he’s very much alive.”
Even from that first meeting, we see Wood, the soon-to-be confessed cross-dresser, seeking validation from others. Movie producers and critics have shunned him. His girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) doesn’t understand Wood’s need to wear women’s clothing. Bela, though, understands. “He treated me like a friend,” Wood tells Dolores. But how real is that friendship? Wood casts Lugosi in a series of low-quality movies, giving him roles as a friend and fan. Upon arrival for his first scene with Wood as director, the first thing Lugosi does is ask Wood for his $1,000 fee. Is the relationship solely transactional, like the celebrities charging $100 for an autograph at a convention? Is it symbiotic or parasitic? Let’s look at two other relationships to help answer that question.
Before playing Ed Wood, Johnny Depp played the title character in another Burton film, Edward Scissorhands (1990). Opposite Depp is Vincent Price, portraying Edward’s creator. We see the delight Price has in his creation and the pain when he dies before completing Edward’s hands. While there is not a hero-fan relationship between Edward and The Inventor, there are parallels between the Wood-Lugosi relationship in Ed Wood and that of director Burton and Price offscreen. Price, sadly, was gravely ill during filming and died before the film was released. Having Price give his final performance in Burton’s film reflects the circumstances in which Lugosi made his final on-screen appearances for Wood. The hero-fan relationship between Burton and Price is more symbiotic in that it was mutually beneficial but not based solely on a transactional foundation.
A much more parasitic hero-fan dynamic takes place in Misery (1990). Writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) needs Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in order to survive his car accident. Wilkes, Sheldon’s self-proclaimed Number One Fan (Wood calls himself Lugosi’s biggest fan) appears altruistic, helping because she is there and because she can. We soon see how that relationship flips and becomes something darker. The assumption by the fan that the hero owes them something becomes parasitic and nearly kills Paul.
Wood, again in the context of Ed Wood, could have abandoned Lugosi numerous times when the relationship was no longer profitable. Indeed, Wood maintains the relationship during Lugosi’s hospital stay and does his best to get Lugosi help after the elder actor is forced out of the treatment facility for being unable to cover the bills. Wood, fortunately, finds the validation he sought among the core friends that had been with him for the entirety of the film and a new romantic relationship that is not dependent on co-careers in entertainment. As Wood learns the value of real friendship over hero-worship, he is even able to walk away from a chance encounter with his other hero, Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) without the same potential stalkerish behavior his friendship with Lugosi seemed to begin with.
Having heroes and people we look up to is great but knowing the boundaries between being a friend and being a fan is perhaps more important. Our heroes are people with flaws. They are also people who don’t owe us anything. The books we buy, the movies we see, the music we listen to can move us and make us feel close to someone we don’t even know. But that’s it. End of transaction.
If you ever meet your hero, I hope they aren’t a jerk. And if your hero ever meets you, don’t be weird. It’s possible that you might become friends, but it isn’t likely. 🩸
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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