Saturday, December 1, 2012

Forever Natalie Wood

On Veterans Day Weekend, I split time between three film series.  The San Francisco Film Society's Cinema By the Bay at the Viz, DocFest at the Roxie and Forever Natalie Wood at the Castro.  The Natalie Wood tribute was a Marc Huestis Presents event.  Marc Huestis is a local events filmmaker and film tribute events planner.  For more than a decade, Huestis has been holding tribute screenings at the Castro with the guest of honor present for an on-stage interview.  I've somehow missed all of them.  Typically, these events are one night only but the Natalie Wood event was three days so I was able to catch three films.  Obviously Natalie Wood couldn't be there but her sister, Lana Wood was there although I missed that evening to see Amity.

The three films I saw were:

This Property is Condemned starring Natalie Wood & Robert Redford; with Charles Bronson & Robert Blake; directed by Sydney Pollack; (1966)
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice starring Natalie Wood, Robert Culp, Elliott Gould & Dyan Cannon; directed by Paul Mazursky; (1969)
Inside Daisy Clover starring Natalie Wood; with Robert Redford, Christopher Plummer, Roddy McDowall & Ruth Gordon; directed by Robert Mulligan; (1965)

Other films screening in the series were Rebel Without a Cause, Gypsy, Love With a Proper Stranger, Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story (sing-along).  When was the last time the Castro played West Side Story without the karaoke subtitles?

Before the event, I knew a few things about Wood.  She was of Russian descent; her sister Lana's full name is Svetlana.  She was deathly afraid of water as she almost drowned during a movie shoot.  Also, she injured her left wrist at a young age (also on a movie shoot).  Wood's mother was worried if the wrist was treated and cast, Natalie would be dropped from the film so they hid her injury and it was never treated.  As a result, it healed incorrectly and her wrist was noticeably deformed.  Whenever Wood's wrist was exposed, she would wear a bracelet or wristwatch over it to hide the protruding bone(s).  In every Natalie Wood film I've seen, I see the bracelet or watch.  Huestis mentioned that Wood is in water for many of her films which must have been difficult for her.

I think Natalie Wood was a terribly sexy woman.  For many years, I was not aware that she was the girl in Miracle on 34th Street but as Huestis alluded to, her years as a child actor affected her the rest of her life...and not necessarily for the better.  I wonder if her childhood years infused her acting with a vulnerability that many men find appealing at some level.


This Property is Condemned is based on a one act play by Tennessee Williams.  Francis Ford Coppola shares screenwriting credits.

Wood plays Alva Starr, the beautiful elder daughter of Hazel Starr (Kate Reid), owner of the Starr Boarding House which caters to railroad workers; there is a maintenance facility in town.  Starr Boarding House is a raucous place with Alva as the object of the boarders' attention.  Used to the attentions (wanted and unwanted) of the many men who come & go through her mother's boarding house, Alva is intrigued by Owen Legate (Robert Redford), the new and mysterious boarder.  Legate is put off by Alva's coquettish behavior.

Legate is tight lipped about his job because he is the railroad's hatchet man.  He's there to layoff workers due to a dropoff in railroad traffic (the film is set during the Great Depression).  Among the layoff victims are two residents of the Starr Boarding House - J.J. Nichols (Charles Bronson), Hazel's boyfriend who shows a not-so-secret preference for Alva and Sidney (Robert Blake), a younger man who is Alva's most unctuous admirer.  Both men sense Alva's attraction to Legate which adds one more reason to resent him.

Hazel has been pressuring Alva "to be nice" to an older and wealthier boarder, Mr. Johnson.  Hazel is essentially pimping Alva out to Johnson, whose wife is an invalid.  With marriage out of the question, Hazel hopes Johnson will be Alva's sugar daddy with some of the excess sugar going into her pocket.  This desire is made more intense when news of Legate's layoffs makes the rounds.  Hazel realizes her boarding house isn't worth much with the railroad workers to fill it.  She manipulates Johnson into agreeing to relocate the Starr family to Memphis and bankrolling a new boarding house there...if Alva will play nice and go along with the implicit arrangement.

Alva has plans to go to New Orleans with Legate but Hazel manipulates his insecurities about Alva's true character.  Legate and Alva have an argument which ends in him calling her a whore a leaving.  Thinking she has achieved her desired outcome, Hazel, J.J., Alva & Johnson to out to dinner to celebrate but Alva gets drunk and reveals J.J.'s untoward behavior towards her.  To spite Legate & her mother, Alva manipulates J.J. into asking her to marry him which she readily accepts.  They marry that night and the next morning, Alva sneaks out of their room with J.J.'s cash and the marriage certificate.

Alva makes her way to New Orleans to see Legate although that is not stated.  They eventually reunite and reconcile although Alva keeps her marriage a secret.  Happy for the first time in her life, Alva asks Legate if they can send for her younger sister (Mary Badham who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird).  Alva sends a postcard to arrange her travel but Hazel intercepts it and arrives in New Orleans with revenge on her mind.  Over her daughter's pleas, Hazel informs Legate that Alva is already J.J. and he wants his wife back.  Horrified that her secret has been revealed, Alva runs off into the rainy night.  We learn through Badham's voiceover narration that Alva later died of lung disease most likely brought on or exacerbated by her flight into the night.

This Property is Condemned is one of the better Tennessee Williams adaptations I've seen.  I have to believe a young Francis Ford Coppola's script treatment must have contributed to my opinion.  Some knowledge of Wood's life comes in handy as well.  Wood made her transition to adult roles with Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) directed by Nicholas Ray.  Ray, in his 40s at the time, and Wood, 16-17, became lovers which no doubt influenced the casting of the role.  There is some debate about whether Wood was the sole instigator or if Wood's mother put the idea into her head.  With that tidbit in my mind, the scenes between Kate Reid and Wood, as mother and daughter, took on special meaning.  Reid's performance was one of the best parts of the film.  Maybe I saw what I wanted to see w.r.t. Wood's performance but her best scenes with Reid were the most powerful in the film.  This (strong scenes between Wood & her on-screen mother) a trend in a few of her films - with Rosalind Russell in Gypsy and with Ruth Gordon in Daisy Clover. 


Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was a film I saw many years ago.  I was familiar with the general plot but not the details.  Bob & Carol Sanders (Robert Culp & Natalie Wood) start the film at a...I'm not quite sure what to call it.  It's not New Age but it's similar.  It's an institute where people strive to achieve emotional honesty through open discussion, hugging, scream therapy. etc.  I see the term "Esalen" used but I'm not familiar with that organization or its technique.

Changed by the experience, Bob & Carol pledge to live their lives in a more honest manner.  They share their new outlook of life with their best friends Ted & Alice Henderson (Elliott Gould & Dyan Cannon) who are more conservative and skeptical of what they are preaching.  Alice seems to have some sexual hangups that interfere with her marital relations.  Ted, frustrated by his lack of relations with Alice, just needs a little push to embrace the free love concept which evolves from Bob and Carol's respective extramarital affairs.  Rather than keep them secret, the Sanders proudly share the news with Hendersons.

In one of the best scenes, Alice sees a psychiatrist and it becomes clear she has latent desires for Bob which she has not confronted due to her friendship with Carol.  Bob's extramarital affair seems to bring out Alice's jealousy; it was a "if you are going to cheat, why not with me?" resentment.

The famous bedroom scene takes place in Las Vegas as the two couples drive there for a weekend getaway.  When Bob exposes Ted's past infidelity, Alice retaliates by voicing her desire for Bob.  In the name of emotional honesty, Carol I believe, proposes they swap husbands to make everything all right between.  Ted is the last one to go along with the idea but he eventually is on board (with some odd looking jockey shorts).

They don't "go all the way" but they go close enough that it gets uncomfortable which is the moral of the story.  Honesty is frequently not the best policy and the Sanders' honesty have caused problems between themselves and it's seeped into the Henderson's life.  When you are married, a good rule of thumb is to keep your mouth shut regarding sexual desires and sexual relations with people not your spouse.  It's an interesting and oft debated moral quandary.  What if dishonesty (a "white lie") is morally superior in the big picture?

The film has gotten a reputation for salaciousness and there is some.  Wood rocks a bikini like no one's business.  At its core, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is exploring the morality of the era which did revolve around sex to a large extent.  Gould & Cannon had some of the best scenes, particularly the bedroom scene after Bob admits his infidelity to them at a dinner party.

The final scene was inspired also.  Bob & Carol, followed by Ted & Alice lead an ethnically diverse procession of people out of their Las Vegas hotel while Jackie DeShannon's (music by Burt Bacharach) What the World Needs Now is Love plays on the soundtrack.

I enjoyed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice more than I thought I would.


Inside Daisy Clover must have hit close to home for Natalie Wood.  Set in 1930s Hollywood, Daisy Clover (Wood) is a teenager who submit a recording of her of voice to Swan Studios, hoping to break into the movie business.  Daisy lives on the beach with her mentally unstable (but sweet natured) mother (Ruth Gordon) selling "autographed" photos of movie stars.  Studio executive Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer) signs Daisy to a contract and puts his studio to work manufacturing her stardom.  To better sell her image, Daisy becomes an orphan while her mother is put in an asylum   This actually happened to Marilyn Monroe by the way.

The headstrong Daisy clashes with the equally assertive Swan while his wife Melora (Katharine Bard) plays a more maternal role.  Always present is the efficient Walter Baines (Roddy McDowall), Swan's eyes, ears and hands (when he doesn't want to get them dirty).  Unhappy, Daisy quickly becomes involved with handsome Wade Lewis (Robert Redford), Swan Studios biggest matinee idol.  Despite her being underage, the two get married over Swan's objections.  He abandons her in a Arizona roadside motel and we later discover Swan is bisexual making Daisy's abandonment more painful.

After a failed romance with Swan and her mother's death, Daisy has a nervous breakdown.  There is a great scene where she is singing voiceovers for one of her films.  She is in a soundbooth watching the film being projected while singing to match her on-screen lip movement.  The director keeps asking her to do take after as her mental state slides downward.  By the end, she has a full nervous breakdown.  When the camera is outside the booth, we hear silence.  When the camera shows Daisy from inside the booth we hear the beep-beep-beep-beep of the countdown from 4 to 1 before the images come on the screen and Daisy sings.  The beeping sound is haunting.

The film is very depressing and a damning indictment on the Hollywood studio system which Wood grew up  in and which, to a limited extent, the movie was produced in.  Gordon received an Oscar nomination for her role although I wasn't that impressed.  Once again, Wood seemed to thrive in scenes where her character was abused or vulnerable.  Christopher Plummer was very convincing in the role of the studio honcho who views Daisy as a commodity to be exploited.  Also the musical numbers were  not quite as toe-tapping as I was expecting.

I didn't like Inside Daisy Clover as much as the other two films but it was still worthwhile.

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