Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Wood Wiggery


The mystery wig, and Natalie Wood wearing it in a publicity still for All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960)

In spite of such novel guesses as Errol Flynn, John Travolta and Tony Curtis, our latest Mystery Guest was, indeed, decidedly female: Miss Natalie Wood! The wig in question was worn by Natalie in the all-star potboiler, All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960). Besides Nat, the jaw-dropping cast also included her then-hubby, Robert Wagner; Susan Kohner, fresh off of her brilliant performance as the tragic mulatto passing for "white, white, WHITE!!!!" in Imitation of Life (1959); rising young smoothie George Hamilton; and Pearl Bailey (!).


This foray into the "love hungry world of the sophisticated young moderns" was another tentative step towards full-fledged adult stardom for Natalie, who had grown up in front of the camera. As a child star, she appeared in such classics as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Miracle on 34th Street (both 1947); as a budding teen starlet, she scored with Rebel without a Cause (1955) and The Searchers (1956). But as a bona fide leading lady, Wood had yet to make an impression; her first attempt, Marjorie Morningstar (1958), was considered something of a misfire, and a lesser credit for her established co-star, Gene Kelly.


In spite of its glamorous cast, plush trappings, and melodramatic plot, Cannibals fared even worse with the critics, and it seemed that adult stardom was going to elude Natalie's grasp. However, within a year, she surprised everyone with the hat trick of West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass (both 1961) and Gypsy (1962). Suddenly, Natalie was not only a star, but a superstar -- a box office draw and an Oscar-nominated actress. Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) continued her critical and commercial streak, culminating in another Oscar nod; but then it became all too easy to knock on Wood again as Natalie found herself alternating between glossy, inconsquential sex comedies like Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Penelope (1966); and glossy, improbable melodramas like Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property is Condemned (1966).


Apart from the all-star Blake Edwards comedy, The Great Race (1965), all of Natalie's 1964-66 output was met with lukewarm critical response, and some outright reviling. She was off the screen for nearly three years, battling emotional issues (and turning down Bonnie and Clyde in the process) before making a comeback in the now-dated, but then-sensational Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). Although the film was one of the Top 10 box office hits of the year, Natalie decided to concentrate on raising her family rather than take advantage of her newly-restored popularity. She did periodically make celebrated television appearances, most notably in the telefilms Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) and The Cracker Factory (1979), and the mini-series From Here to Eternity (1978). Her movie ventures were less carefully considered; Meteor (1979) was a disaster film in every sense of the word, and The Last Married Couple in America (1980) was middling entertainment, at best. Still, the lingering stardust of Natalie's storied history as one of the last links to the Golden Age of Hollywood was enough to give her legendary status -- at least according to Blackglama, who tapped her for their campaign in 1981.


The "What Becomes a Legend Most" ad featuring Natalie was running worldwide when the shocking news of her death at age 43 made headlines. Having harbored a lifelong fear of water, Natalie died in a drowning accident when she fell overboard from the yacht she shared with Robert Wagner, whom she had remarried in 1972. Strangely, Natalie's mysterious, early death has somehow failed to make her as mythic as, say, James Dean, her former co-star and friend. We hope that occasional tributes like these contribute in some small way to keeping her flame alive; she may not have been the greatest of actresses, but Natalie Wood was, indeed, a genuine movie star -- one of the last created by the greatest myth of all, Classic Hollywood.


12 comments:

  1. Natalie was fabulous being both a star and mother and keeping it real as well as living the superstar life. Her mother was a complete nightmare according to the books, ditto her sister Lana.

    I loved her as Daisy Clover, if only the movie had followed the book continuing her story as Daisy became a nightclub star in New York. Natalie seems to have liked the gays - Clover's author Gavin Lambert became a friend and he wrote that good biograpohy on her, and of course then there was her secretary Mart Crowley.... and all those rumours surrounding RJ!

    Cannibals is deliciously trashy - has anyone ever seen a companion piece from the same time also by MGM - 'The Subterraneans' ? its one that has totally eluded me - by Jack Keruac, Leslie Caron and George Peppard as beatniks????

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  2. The beautiful Miss Wood! She was one of the few who transitioned very successfully from child star to bona-fide movie star, and that she certainly was. My favorite film of hers is probably "Gypsy," with the also-fabulous Roz Russell.

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  3. Speaking of wigs, that last one looks like she borrowed it from Joan in "Strait-Jacket!" Natalie had such a complicated life. Very sad. At least she seemed to have found some degree of happiness at points. Great article and stumper!

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  4. What a great beauty. Interesting how Kohner is with her in Cannibals, I always thought she resembled Wood. Splendor in the Grass is one of my all time favorite films.

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  5. I just love this girl! I'm so glad you did this piece on her.

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  6. what a wonderful tribute ! when i was a kid, west side story was the first movie from Hollywood's Golden Age Area that i managed to see... and i coulnd't help but admire this great actress...
    to this day, west side story, and "this property is condemned", "inside daisy clover" are my favorite films of her !

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  7. I love Natalie, and I remember driving back to college that Sunday after by Delaware Resevoir south of my hometown of Marion Ohio when I heard the news that she had died and I was dumbstruck. How oculd she have died? She was too young to die!

    And think her death hit people much harder than we realize because following her drowning there were a rash of Natalie Wood dark humored jokes ("Why didn't Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat? She preferred to wash up on shore.") and you only get that type of humor when there is no other way to make sense of the senseless, or cope with the reality that someone in your life has died.

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  8. In Natalie's biography it says that her mother had the strange hobby of apartment hunting when they lived in San Francisco, they moved many times.

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  9. The mystery is: why would Natalie Wood be wearing a wig in that film in the first place? She'd be wearing a long dark brown wig over her own long dark brown hair?!

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  10. This film All The Fine Young Cannibals is supposed to be inspired by the life of Chet Baker.

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  11. It is still incomprehensible that the mystery surrounding her death has yet to be cleared up... A spectacularly beautiful lady, with a spectacularly fucked-up domestic life, apparently. Jx

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  12. Thanks for this lovely, well-written piece and these glorious pictures. Natalie certainly made a few stinkers, as well as truly wonderful, timeless films, but I must admit I love All The Fine Young Cannibals. Yes, it is soapy and melodramatic, but in a compelling way, and (almost) all the leads being rather despicable makes it quite interesting. I find it irresistible to watch every time it plays on TCM, and to my mind, it's campy, but not a bad film as such.

    I'm curious as to why you find Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice 'dated'. Sure it's very much of its time, but it's a wry satire of its time. It offers canny insight into a particular time and a particular attitude. To me, that can never be 'dated'. The film holds up very well and is still considered a classic.

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