Dolores Fuller, actress and muse of inept filmmaker Ed Wood, dies at 88

May 12, 2011

Dolores Fuller, an actress and early muse of Ed Wood, a 1950s filmmaker who single-handedly redefined cinematic ineptitude, died May 9 at her home in Las Vegas after a stroke. She was 88.

In a long show-business career, Ms. Fuller contributed lyrics to Elvis Presley movie musicals, co-owned and operated a record company and managed entertainers including Johnny Rivers. In later years, she helped book talent for Vegas casinos.

Much as she tried to forget it, she is best remembered for her starring role in Wood’s “Glen or Glenda” (1953). As the fiancee of a secret cross-dresser, she overcomes her initial shock when she discovers his fetish and, in a gesture of ultimate selflessness, hands over her white angora sweater. Wood played the leading role, wearing a blond wig.

Low-budget studios, maverick visionaries and avant-gardists have long worked outside the Hollywood mainstream. But for sheer clumsiness with a camera, for plotlines so outre they would embarrass soap opera fanatics, for dialogue and acting so leaden that second-graders would feel pity, few were closer to the bottom of the heap than Ed Wood.

And yet, in later years, the collective gagging of ticketbuyers and movie critics gave way to a new fascination with Wood’s oeuvre.

Wood’s indigestible movies — whether “Glen or Glenda,” the crime drama “Jail Bait” (1954) or the zombie-vampire-alien invasion flick “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) — found an enduring following among independent and grindhouse filmmakers.

Director Tim Burton’s acclaimed 1994 movie biography about Wood, with Johnny Depp in the title role and Sarah Jessica Parker as Ms. Fuller, partially rehabilitated Wood’s reputation by presenting him as a man of subversive artistry in Eisenhower-era America.

Renewed attention came to Wood, who died in 1978, and to anyone still around who had worked with him. The fact that Ms. Fuller had starred in two of his films, including “Jail Bait,” and had been his live-in girlfriend added to her allure among Wood devotees.

Ms. Fuller, a Hollywood bit player and stand-in for Dinah Shore, was a newly divorced mother of two when she won her role in “Glen or Glenda” after wearing an angora sweater to an audition. She soon moved in with Wood. She said she found him more charming and handsome than the portly, cigar-breathed producers who usually leered at her.

Admittedly less than perceptive, she didn’t realize “Glen or Glenda” was semi-autobiographical. She said she knew Wood liked to wear angora sweaters to unwind after a hard day, but she assumed his habit was a small price to pay for his companionship.

She ignored other clues that suggested a deeper devotion to women’s clothing.

“Oh, you’d find your underpants weren’t in the drawer where they should have been,” she told the Kansas City Star in 1994. “I didn’t know then that Eddie was wearing them under his trousers.”

She said Wood was a man of compartmentalization. He did not let her see the full script of “Glen or Glenda,” and she said it came as a surprise to her when she saw her boyfriend in drag and a blond wig for nearly the entire movie.

“The first time I saw the whole film, I wanted to crawl under the seat,” she told the Star. “I wasn’t crazy about our private life becoming public.”

They soon went their separate ways in large part because of Wood’s excessive drinking.

Her friendship with movie producer Hal Wallis led to a new career contributing to songs for Presley musicals in the 1960s, including “Blue Hawaii,” “Kissin’ Cousins,” “Girl Happy” and “Spinout.”

Dolores Eble was born March 10, 1923, in South Bend, Ind. She grew up in California and was staying with her family at a motel near Los Angeles when Frank Capra shot part of “It Happened One Night” (1934). Her experience as an extra led to her acting career.

After a decades-long hiatus from acting, she appeared in fare such as “The Corpse Grinders 2” (2000). She was also featured in the 1994 documentary “Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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