Friday, July 20, 2018

The "Splendor" of Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood — entertaining us all.
The "Splendor" of Natalie Wood.
by Denis Ferrara

“I SAID, turn it off, Mother!

“Nobody laughs at me! Because I laugh first. At me! Me, from Seattle! Me, with no education. Me, with no talent, as you kept reminding me my whole life! Well, Mama look at me now. I'm a star! Look! Look how I live! Look at my friends! Look where I'm going!

“I'm not staying in burlesque! I'm moving, maybe up, maybe down! But wherever it is, I'm enjoying it. I'm having the time of my life! Because for the first time, it is my life! And I love it. I love every second of it! And I'll be damned if you're gonna take it away from me! I am Gypsy Rose Lee! And I love her! And if you don't, you can just clear out now!”

That was the final showdown between Louise Hovick, better known as ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, and her driven mother, Rose, in the very much unfairly dismissed film version of the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents musical. Rosalind Russell starred as Mama Rose, and Natalie Wood, in all her vulnerable/sexy glory was Gypsy.

With the exception of the original Merman production, I’ve seen every stage revival of the show, as well as the better-forgotten TV version with Bette Midler.  And for my money, and with no aspersions cast on any of the talented women who played Louise/Gypsy, nobody ever captured the character as well as Miss Wood. 

Perhaps because of Wood’s own real-life issues with her real-life, driven mother. Issues that also seemed to emerge with startling intensity in films such as “Splendor in the Grass” (“Spoiled?  Did he spoil me, Mama?”), “This Property is Condemned” (“Yeah, this is hard corn liquor I’m drinkin’ Mama. Hard as your heart”)
HAD Natalie Wood lived, today would have been her 80th birthday. Her drowning in November of 1981, remains one of the most shocking, tragic and wasteful of all premature Hollywood deaths. It’s right up there with Harlow, Carole Lombard, James Dean.  Oh, I know, you thought I’d include Garland, and especially my dear Marilyn.  But Judy, gallant and working to the end was a shell of herself, and Monroe?  Fate was kind in taking Marilyn when it did.  She never could have survived aging, not with her image, not with an industry so negatively inclined to coddle her demons.

But Natalie?  Although she had entered “difficult” years for an actress (back then 43 was not yet the “new thirty” it is now) Wood was busy, highly respected, deeply loved by the industry and — inspired by the career resurgence on Broadway of her friend Elizabeth Taylor — was planning her own stage debut, in a production of “Anastasia” as the tragic Russian who may or may not be a surviving member of the last Czar’s royal family. (Among other things the project appealed to the Russian roots of the girl born Natasha Zakharenko.)  Troubles?  Sure there were troubles, but Natalie had survived career and personal conflict with grit and aplomb.  Her future still seemed plump with promise. 
Natalie Wood as Anastasia circa 1981.
Natalie Wood played her share of neurotic characters onscreen, but her essential appeal was that of a glorified girl-next-door, a perfect young lady.  Unlike her sisters in child-acting, Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland, Natalie lacked a certain quality of abandoned excess — she wasn’t, in the end, camp.  She didn’t acquire iconic status before or after her death, because of her seeming normalcy; her personality was distinctive (jittery, slightly manic; she was a modern Miss) but not unique enough for pop mythology.  Nor was her private life (the “public” private life) as charismatically messy as that of Liz and Judy Natalie’s ugly death stunned Hollywood and the world because it was so uncharacteristic of her perceived image.  Nothing so lurid should have happened to Natalie Wood.

But the story behind the often perfect façade was sometimes lurid and heartbreaking. Especially in the beginning.  Raised by a disturbed fantasist of a mother, Maria Gurdin, who breastfed her at the cinema, literally — Natasha at age three was trained to sit silently through two-hour films without moving — Natasha was groomed from the cradle to be an actress, a star.  For Maria Gurdin, nothing else existed but that image.
Mother and daughter.
For Natasha, soon re-christened Natalie Wood, her entire life would be alternate enslavement to her mother’s fantasy, and a desperate battle to escape and find herself — whoever that was.  Raised in a household steeped in her mother’s hysterical Russian superstitions, her father’s violent alcoholism, enduring, with an eternal smile the destruction of her childhood, Natalie Wood suffered greatly. And it was her mother who instilled in Natalie her morbid fear of “dark waters” — the dark waters in which she would horribly drown. Outwardly perfect, inwardly conflicted, she had a natural affinity to perform, but did not know how “programmed” she actually was.  Years of therapy only partially soothed her anger, confusion.

Perhaps the saving grace of Natalie’s life was that she did not, unlike Elizabeth Taylor, become a star instantly.  Taylor made only a couple of movies before “National Velvet” catapulted her to world attention.  Elizabeth was also already beginning to develop the voluptuous body that would push her image in glamour and adult roles, while emotionally she was still a child.  Natalie — tiny, exquisitely proportioned and small bosomed, was allowed to remain a child onscreen.
Putting on a happy face for mother.
Natalie made 17 films as a child and teenager, well-known, eventually, but not yet a star — except in fans magazines, obsessed with her budding adolescence.  What is striking about her early work is that she (like Taylor) is unmistakably the adult Natalie Wood, even in her earliest roles.  She is also an effortless performer (unlike Taylor, who was rather saccharine during her brief tenure as a child actor.)  Later, Natalie’s work was not always quite so effortless.  She took it seriously.  Too seriously.  There could be an artificial, slightly mechanical quality to some of her later performances.

She made her first great mark on film in “Rebel Without a Cause” as the rebellious, hysterical teen-ager who bonds with broody James Dean and misfit Sal Mineo.   It was a powerful performance, the first of her three Oscar nominations. 
From then on, her studio, Warner Bros. promoted her as the ultimate datable American girl.  With her pixie haircut and her tight Capri pants she was a fan magazine favorite, even if most her films were forgettable (“The Girl He Left Behind” … ”The Burning Hills”… A Cry in the Night” … ”Kings Go Forth” … Bombers B-52.”)  She had an important role in John Ford’s “The Searchers” but her acting was not lauded.

Her publicity was fairly innocent. However, the behind-the-scenes story of Natalie’s adventures before the age of consent, were enough to fill a therapists notebook for years:  The realization that she had forfeited normalcy triggered a bitter rebellion. For awhile she was Lolita on the fast track to hell.

Losing her virginity at 15, to a young dairy farmer she wanted to marry (he tried to kill himself when the affair ended) ... she was famously promiscuous by 16 (one of her many conquests at the time included Frank Sinatra) … and used shockingly by her “Rebel Without A Cause” director Nick Ray. (Today, such  an affair between a 16-year-old and her adult director is a scandal that could never be kept secret. Ray — and Frank Sinatra for that matter — would have had to join Roman Polanski in Europe and others ruined and exposed by MeToo and TimesUp.)  She was brutally raped by a famous movie star.  Her mother, whom one detractor called “basically a pimp,”  thought the attack was not so bad,  it was, after all perpetrated by a “star.”  (This rapist is still alive — a revered member of the Hollywood community.)
Wood and Dean with Rebel director Nicholas Ray.
She drank, she smoked, she swore. She dated Elvis and worshipped James Dean.  One lover at this time found her teen sexual expertise “very sad.”  Though it was not so sad that he didn’t sleep with her.  But rebellion didn’t comfort Natalie; she wanted only to please — her mother, her public, her expectations of herself, which were intolerably high.  She was, as her friend Robert Blake commented, “Riddled by demons.” 

As Natalie matured, she made massive efforts to adjust, to find herself. (She also became in time, rather prudish, a traditional bourgeois.)  Like Marilyn Monroe, she reached up in life.  Unlike Monroe however, Wood was a respected member of the Hollywood “community” and utterly professional. Natalie’s upward climb was not derided.  Her great escape came in her work — she was highly disciplined, driven to excel. (So unlike Wood’s  glamorous “role model” Elizabeth Taylor, whose attitude toward her career was one of utter ennui — ET was a tougher cookie; she lived to pleasure herself.  Making movies was something Taylor did in-between marrying, mothering, drinking, eating and acquiring jewels and furs.)

Still, Natalie’s career in 1960 seemed stagnant — not even “Marjorie Morningstar” based on the wildly popular novel, jelled.  Nor did her loan-out to MGM for “All The Fine Young Cannibals” redeem her — although she looked better than ever, and enjoyed working with then-hubby Robert Wagner. (Their romance and marriage had thrilled the fan mags — a “perfect couple.”)

It seemed as if Natalie Wood might become one of those gifted child stars who did not make the adult transition. 

But then she fought for the role of Deanie in “Splendor In the Grass.”  Nobody thought she was right for it, especially director Elia Kazan. Could she cast aside her movie star mannerisms, take off most of her make-up, really “live” the character — a girl who essentially loses her mind in the grip of love and (especially) lust for Warren Beatty?  She insisted she could and she did. It would be the second breakthrough performance of her career — intense, lyric, vulnerable — and earned her a second Oscar nomination.  (It was also the first of several major films in which Natalie had a contentious, explosive relationship with her on-screen mother.  If she never confronted her own mother in real life, she consoled herself with riveting show-downs in cinema.)

Now was Natalie’s time, and her career soared.  Unfortunately her rise coincided with the end of her marriage to Robert Wagner, whose career was not soaring. 
Natalie consoled herself with hit after hit — “West Side Story” (miscast but sweet) … ”Gypsy” (again, the best of all who have played the fabled stripper) … ”Love With the Proper Stranger” (her third Oscar nod!)

But times were changing and as young as Natalie was she was considered part of Old Hollywood.  “Sex and the Single Girl”…”Inside Daisy Clover” … ”The Great Race” … ”Penelope” … and “This Property is Condemned” did not meet box-office expectations. (Although “This Property …” a Tennessee Williams Deep South hot-house mess, contains Natalie’s very best adult performance, save for the 1979 TV movie, “The Cracker Factory.”)
Dissatisfied with her career and Hollywood life, Natalie married producer Richard Gregson, had a child, Natasha, and withdrew from the hurly burly.  She was lured back in 1969 with the contemporary sex comedy “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.”  She was at her physical peak, the movie was a huge hit and Natalie had a piece of the profits.  It made her very rich.

Not so rich was discovering that her hubby was sleeping with her assistant. Natalie ended her marriage the second she found out, changing the locks on her house and throwing Gregson’s belongings into the street. But the Hollywood fairytale that Natalie’s mother had raised her on was not yet over.  Natalie re-connected with Robert Wagner, now well-established as a TV star.  They fell in love once more, remarried and had a child, Courtney.   Together again, these two beautiful people — once the epitome of teen-age love — became the symbol of what was left of Hollywood royalty in Hollywood itself.  They were adored.
Natalie once again put her career aside for mothering and hostessing and being a good wife.  But eventually the actress in her could not be stilled.  There were some feature films (“Peeper” … ”The Last Married Couple in America” … ”Meteor”)  and TV movies, the best of which was 1979’s “The Cracker Factory” — a completely mature, stripped-down performance; the ultimate grown-up version of all her conflicted younger heroines. 

But lovely as she remained, Natalie had entered the dangerous age of her early forties — what was there for her? Despite her relative youth, and the care she took of herself, she was considered a figure of slightly antiquated stardom. And her latest role, in the sci-fi thriller “Brainstorm” was not turning out as she’d hoped.  The lure of “Anastasia” and the encouragement of Elizabeth Taylor arrived happily.

Natalie, deep into the script had posed for “Anastasia” publicity photos, was eager to begin the Los Angeles run. Then came the terrible Thanksgiving weekend, of 1981.  The shock was palpable. 

No Hollywood script could have envisioned this particularly beloved star dying as she did — floating off the Catalina coast, a drowning victim.  (I’ll never forget receiving the phone calling telling me Wood had died.  My friend Bill Goulding, who knew Natalie, gasped, “My God, do you know who died?”

Flippantly, I said, “Liz” meaning another of our favorites, Elizabeth Taylor.  Taylor’s habits and recklessness seemed always to put her on the edge of the fatal abyss.  When he said, “Natalie” I literally dropped the receiver.)
Rumors persist to this as to what happened on the Wagner’s yacht Splendour.  I don’t think it really matters anymore.  It was a ghastly accident, fueled by liquor and others matters we are not required to be privy to.  The “truth” won’t bring her back. People have to live with what they did or possibly did not do. 

With an exquisite irony, Natalie actually uttered her own epitaph as Deanie, in “Splendor in the Grass,” quoting William Wordsworth in her final scene:  “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower/We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.” 
Natalie Wood left a marvelous legacy — her delicate art which deserves re-examination and appreciation, and her life, an ongoing  attempt to live in realistic terms despite her upbringing and the sometimes soul-bending aspects of a show business career. And there was that wondrous face — vivid, beautiful, unforgettably alive and eager.  Had she lived, today she’d be a glorious grand dame, still acting occasionally, but much more likely a force behind the camera — directing, producing, and writing. She would have found the peace and stability that was the center of her brief but ardent journey.

We do find strength, and pleasure, in “what remains.” How wonderful that as long as film exists, we can bring back Natalie Wood’s “hour of splendor” — as often as we like.
Contact Denis here.