[Paleopsych] TLS: (Natalie Wood) Splendour on the screen

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Splendour on the screen

    Philip French
    02 July 2004
    NATALIE WOOD. 352pp. Faber. £17.99. By Gavin Lambert. US: New York:
    Knopf. $25.95. 0 375 41074 0. 0 571 22197 1

    Child stardom, adult glamour, a mysterious accident: the troubled life
    and death of Natalie Wood

    Natalie Wood's colourful life began and ended in mystery. Her curious
    death at sea in 1981 brought a telegram of condolence from Queen
    Elizabeth to Wood's husband, the movie star Robert Wagner, and had the
    scandal sheets talking of murder and suicide. She was born in San
    Francisco in 1938, but there are considerable doubts over her
    paternity. Her story reaches back to the Russian Revolution and the
    eastward flight of Wood's mother with her family when the news of the
    Romanovs' demise reached their estate in southern Siberia. This could
    be the stuff of a Kitty Kelly showbiz biography or a Jerome Robbins
    roman-a-clef dishing the dirt on Hollywood. But though this book
    doesn't stint on sordid revelations about daily life in Tinseltown,
    Wood's life and career are safe in the hands of Gavin Lambert, who has
    a rare combination of talents. He is an outstanding film critic, a
    gifted biographer, the author of some of the shrewdest fiction written
    about Hollywood, and has been closely involved in moviemaking as a

    Moreover, they have something in common. Both had sex with the
    charismatic bisexual Nicholas Ray on the day they met him. Lambert's
    encounter was in London and he followed Ray to Los Angeles as his
    assistant. Shortly after his arrival he encountered Natalie Wood, who
    earlier that same year had lost her virginity at the age of sixteen to
    Ray while he was testing her for Rebel Without a Cause, a film that
    would change the course of her career. Lambert became one of her many
    gay friends, and a decade later, in 1965, she appeared in a film
    version of Lambert's novel Inside Daisy Clover as the eponymous
    troubled movie star.

    Wood's mother Maria was a manipulative monster, even worse than the
    stage mother Rosalind Russell played to Wood's Gypsy Rose Lee in
    Gypsy. A romantic fantasist obsessed with her lost Russian heritage,
    she had a brief marriage to an army officer in China (which produced a
    daughter), before crossing the Pacific to San Francisco. There she
    contracted a hypergamous relationship with a Russian emigre from a
    more humble background, a dockworker who also felt cut off from his
    roots and was violent when drunk. "What did your father die of?"
    someone was later to ask Natalie. "My mother", she replied. Natalie
    was born four months after the marriage, and though she was never to
    know it, her real father was almost certainly a brutish Russian-born
    captain in the American merchant navy with whom Maria conducted a
    lifelong affair. The mother was determined to turn one of her three
    daughters into a star, and in 1943 she ordered the five-year-old
    Natalie to go and sit on the knee of Irving Pichel, who was directing
    a movie in Santa Rosa, the little town north of San Francisco where
    they lived. She and her older sister Olga got walk-on roles in crowd
    scenes, and immediately Maria shifted the family down to Los Angeles
    and began grooming Natalie for the screen.

    After an impressive debut as Orson Welles's ward in the 1945 weepie,
    Tomorrow Is Forever (Welles recalled "something very sad and lonely
    about this compelling child"), she became an established child
    performer and the family's meal ticket.

    She played orphans, brat sisters, plucky victims of divorce; her
    characteristic role, Lambert observes, was "an emotionally displaced
    child whose problems are resolved by understanding adults (thanks, of
    course, to the understanding filmmakers who contrive a happy ending)".
    Over the next few years her film mothers were Gene Tierney, Margaret
    Sullivan, Joan Blondell, Maureen O'Hara and Bette Davis, her screen
    fathers James Stewart, Bing Crosby, Walter Brennan and Fred McMurray.
    In the greatest film of her early days she was unhappily cast as John
    Wayne's niece in John Ford's The Searchers.

    Maria pushed and pushed, became the keeper of her daughter's fan mail,
    and, using Natalie as a lever, got her husband a job as a carpenter at
    20th-Century Fox. One day he came onto the set of a film she was
    appearing in, and (in something resembling a scene from a Joan
    Crawford tearjerker) she called out "Daddy".

    Everyone was shocked, and Maria told her she must never again
    acknowledge her father's presence at the studio.

    Natalie grew up in Hollywood at a time when the big studio system was
    reluctantly giving way to independent production. She found herself
    under contract to Warner Brothers, whose penny-pinching production
    boss, Jack Warner, supervised her career, making ten times her weekly
    contract payment by hiring her out to other studios. The House
    Un-American Activities Committee stalked the movie colony and everyone
    was in thrall to the suffocating conformity of the Eisenhower era. In
    this enclosed world Natalie had to play the game, kow-towing to the
    vindictive gossip columnists Loella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. She also
    had to cope with the near-insanity of Maria, whose account of a
    Russian Gypsy's curse induced a lifelong terror of "dark waters" in
    her daughter.

    Anticipating the horror movies of Wes Craven by some forty years,
    Maria told Natalie of a figure called "Jack the Jabber" who stabbed
    errant girls through the backs of cinema seats. She didn't, however,
    offer information about menstruation, and Natalie never recovered from
    the shock of her first period.

    Unlike most child stars, Natalie made the transition to adult
    performer: she became a piercingly brown-eyed, black-haired beauty and
    an actor of feeling and subtlety. Rebel without a Cause was the
    turning point that preceded key roles in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the
    Grass opposite Warren Beatty and Robert Mulligan's Love with the
    Proper Stranger opposite Steve McQueen. Playing desperate victims of a
    repressive culture, she attained Hollywood star status, and was Oscar
    nominated for all three performances. In between the last two there
    was West Side Story, which made her bankable. She worked under
    constant pressure from family, studio and filmmakers, and it would
    seem that sex became her principal act of rebellion, recreation and
    self-assertion. Lambert uses that curious old-fashioned term "highly
    sexed" to describe her, and suggests that her sex drive was part of
    the Russian heritage she readily embraced. But her conduct didn't
    differ markedly from that of Sinatra, Beatty, McQueen and other male
    stars acclaimed for their arrogant concupiscence. They figure among
    several dozen famous lovers, including our own gently retiring Tom
    Courtenay, who happened to be in Hollywood making King Rat in 1965.
    Like Princess Diana, Natalie had an inner circle, which she called her
    "nucleus" (the equivalent of Diana's "rocks"), a larger group she
    called her friends, and within it a special section known as "friends
    you occasionally sleep with".

    This permissiveness was subject to limits. When her second husband,
    the British talent agent Richard Gregson, father of the first of her
    three children, was revealed as having had a fling with her secretary,
    Natalie called the police, who escorted him off her Beverly Hills
    mansion with his bags and baggage. She herself expected to be forgiven
    for her transgressions and flirtations during her first and third
    marriages to the same man, the charming Robert Wagner, who had broken
    away from his upper-middle-class background to become a movie actor.
    It was a turbulent relationship the second time around, their
    reputations shifting month by month through the successes and failures
    of their work in television, and not helped by alcohol and Natalie's
    increasing reliance on prescription drugs to calm her nerves and
    prepare her for social occasions.

    Neither had any serious professional training, and their shared
    insecurity appears to have been played on by the brilliant, demonic
    Christopher Walken, who starred with Natalie in the misconceived
    science-fiction melodrama Brainstorm in 1981, and was probably her
    lover. He seems, quite legitimately from his position as a committed
    New York stage actor, to have challenged them to address their
    professional careers with greater seriousness. During a holiday break
    from shooting, Walken joined the Wagners on their yacht. They cruised
    to the holiday island of Catalina; immoderate amounts of booze were
    consumed and dangerous words exchanged. The next day the ship's
    motorized dinghy was retrieved along the coast and Natalie's body
    (filled with alcohol and prescription drugs) was fished out of the
    sea. The coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death: she had
    slipped on a greasy strip of teak while preventing the banging of the
    dinghy that was keeping her awake. As far as Tinseltown history is
    concerned, the jury is still out.

    The yacht was named Splendor after the movie that was Natalie's
    greatest triumph, and the dinghy was called Valiant, an ironic
    reference to the Arthurian comic-strip epic Prince Valiant which made
    Wagner a star in 1954. The celebrated golden couple were mocked and
    patronized in much the same way that the Beckhams are today, and glib
    judgements are unfair in both cases. Lambert rightly claims that
    Natalie was on the point of regaining control of her own career at the
    time of her death. She had always wanted to play Blanche Du Bois in A
    Streetcar Named Desire, and regularly interrogated Lambert about
    Vivien Leigh, whom he had come to know as a result of writing the
    screenplay for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone.

    Natalie had performed creditably with Robert Wagner in a television
    version of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the weakest
    element of which was Laurence Olivier's Big Daddy. Natalie had
    acquired the rights to Nancy Milford's biography of Zelda Fitzgerald,
    and was preparing to make her stage debut (at the age of forty-three)
    in Anastasia with Wendy Hiller. This all suggests sanity and ambition.
    But she seems also to have seen her life as a split screen; towards
    the end, she took to leaving different messages on her agent's phone
    as, variously, "Natalie", "Natalie Wood" and "Mrs Wagner". Perhaps
    this was a joke, for she had become a mistress of irony.

    Living in Hollywood all her life, Natalie must have become aware that
    most childhood stars would, sooner or later, sink into painful
    obscurity. Robert and Natalie entertained to dinner an elderly,
    drunken Bette Davis. Talking of her performance in The Star, Davis
    said: "But of course, you're too young to remember it". "Bette,"
    Natalie replied, "I played your daughter in that picture." Davis went
    on unheeded.

    The death of Natalie Wood had a predictably sordid aftermath in legal
    actions, family squabbles and old acquaintances spilling dubious beans
    to ensure their moment of fame and a few tarnished dollars. This Gavin
    Lambert scrupulously records. But he also takes away the sour taste in
    our mouths and the guilty feeling that we may have been engaged in a
    prurient exercise. His sensitive, sympathetic book ends with a coda
    that reviews Wood's movies and the development of her career over a
    period of thirty years. It guarantees her position in movie history.

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