Natalie Wood: On the Cusp* 1960-1963 (Part One)

[This post is part of a planned series of essays on the film career of Natalie Wood.  They are intended to illuminate not each and every film, but rather the choices, situations and circumstances that led to her participation in the more important films of her career and the performances she gave in them.  (In some films, “West Side Story” for example, I spend time on analysis of aspects of that particular film beyond her participation in it.)  Her’s is a career —  and life — that fascinates more with each revelation of the many twists, turns, coincidences, ironies and the patterns that seem to emerge and form a sort of narrative of her so very brief time here.  In each of these essays, I present facts as I know and understand them (and I ask the reader to keep in mind that essays are opinion, not recitiation of facts and hard evidence to reach a degree of proof), and I offer my analysis and interpretation of those facts for the benefit of the reader who may, in turn, draw their own conclusions If those conclusions differ, so much the better for discussion and exchange of new ideas and diverse opinions.]

Natalie Wood was a rare commodity in the fading film factories of Hollywood at the end of the nineteen-fifties:  a former child actor with a future.  She had been an adorable and precocious child actress, but not overly cute or precious — never quite the “star” child; maybe not being the next Shirley Temple worked to her benefit.  As she outgrew childhood, she was pretty in a delicate way unusual for that typically awkward period between onset of puberty and blossoming adolescence (a period of youthful development not given its own name until the era of ‘tween tyros Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus).  Eager to shed the ponytails her mother and directors forced her to wear in film roles until she was nearly 15, she was ready to explode through that ‘tween period into full-blown, but still young, womanhood in her first significant young adult role as Judy in “Rebel Without a Cause” (Warner Brothers, 1955, directed by Nicholas Ray), opposite James Dean.   A more iconic film, director and co-star she could not have selected had she been able to control the vagaries of fate by sheer force of will.

Yet this would be the unfortunate pattern of her career:  huge steps forward, followed by stultifying periods of inertia, of hesitation — time lost, and not recovered — or worse, two steps backward.  And that is precisely what occurred after “Rebel” was released.

Her next role after “Rebel” was a small part in a major film, another landmark of mid-twentieth century American filmmaking, John Ford’s masterpiece, “The Searchers,” (WB, 1956), with the top American male star of the era, John Wayne, and one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood, Jeffrey Hunter.  Despite her relatively high billing (fifth in an outstanding, veteran cast) her screen time, all of it in the last five minutes of the film, could be counted in seconds.  She had no lines of dialog.  But the character of “Debbie,” (played as a small child in the opening scenes by another actress), offscreen and unseen from the time her family is slaughtered and she is captured by a native tribe, is the focal point of the film and the object of her uncle Ethan’s (Wayne) search.  She is also nearly the victim of his powerful race hatred, but is saved at the end of his search for her by his loyalty to and love of family.  For these reasons, this tiny part is far more than a footnote to a great film  — it is a catalyst for the emotional climax of the narrative, a story that resonates with audiences to this day, as timeless now as it was fifty years ago, or as it will be a hundred and fifty more from now..

ABOVE: Ethan (John Wayne) pursues the fleeing Debbie (Natalie Wood), his niece who was captured and raised to adulthood by a native tribe, and married to a "buck" indian. Just moments before this scene, Debbie's indian husband had been killed by her cousin Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). Ethan, in the fury of his race hatred, intends to kill Debbie too -- as the "wife" of an indian, she has been "ruined" for white civilization and white men. BELOW: Debbie, expecting to be killed, is stunned when her uncle Ethan instead lifts her off the canyon floor. She collapses into his arms, soon to be reunited with her surviving relatives.

For Natalie Wood, “The Searchers” was of modest value at best to the development of her career, which at this point required adult roles — young, to be sure, but no longer adolescent — no more dreamy teens were necessary after “Rebel.”  A strong followup to “Rebel,” would have made sense of her participation in “The Searchers;” it would have put that limited role in its proper context within her developing career:  a small but significant and memorable part in a great film, working among a cast of stars and veteran character actors, and working for a legendary director.

But her next role was in a routine police drama, “A Cry in the Night,” (WB, 1956, directed by Frank Tuttle), a black and white (figuratively and literally) crime story, better suited for the small screen in 1956 (the nucleus of its production company would create a legendary television series, the long-running western drama, “Bonanza,” three years later).

In “Cry,” she played the kidnapped victim of a young male sociopath.  He was the dominant character in the screenplay and likewise in the completed film as portrayed by Raymond Burr (another future legend of television in two long-running series) as the twisted, misunderstood, momma’s boy, hulking but sensitive:  James Dean with a streak of psychotic mother-love and violent, lightening-quick mood swings.  It was clearly Burr’s film, and did little for the career of Natalie Wood but mark time.

An ideal role for her, on paper and in theory, should have been the title character in “Marjorie Morningstar,” (WB, 1958, directed by Irving Rapper).  Some felt she was miscast as the young dreamy Jewish girl who aspires to be a dancer and falls in love with her dance instructor (it anticipated “Dirty Dancing” by about thirty years).  But the real miscasting was 45  year old Gene Kelly (26 years her senior in real life), as Marjorie’s love interest.  Creepy then, creepy now.  The film bombed with critics and audiences alike.   Very unfortunate and certainly unanticpated.  The book on which it was based — by the author of extremely popular, epic, soap-operatic novels, Herman Wouk — was a huge, late-fifties bestseller, and the film version should therefore have had a strong head start with an all-but-guaranteed audience base.  It didn’t work for audiences, critics, and it did not work for Natalie Wood.  What should have been her best film role between “Rebel” and her first triumphs of the sixties was, instead, another opportunity lost.

The single biggest miracle of the career of Natalie Wood, unmentioned directly or else not given the proper context or emphasis in her career by anyone or any writer I’ve ever read, is that she survived this period, a critical period early in her adult career — already a difficult and in most cases impossible transition for successful child or teen actors.  She survived this string — five years — of mediocre films, and had a devastating loss in her personal life: a failed first marriage.  She survived it to become not just successful, not just a star, but a major star on the cusp* of superstardom (before “superstar” had entered the language in the mid-60s courtesy of Andy Warhol and his Factory).  And it all happened with just two breakthrough films — two roles, both perfect for Natalie Wood, and both in the same year, 1961:  Deenie in “Splendor in the Grass” and, of course, Maria of “West Side Story.”  The former was a role that fit like a glove, a role she seemed born to play and one that was plainly reflective of her recent past and hauntingly predictive of her future.  The latter — though hardly created with her in mind — she made her own, and so thoroughly, so convincingly, it seemed that it had been written only for her to play.

But there was still one turd to hurdle, a terrible film made during and at the end of her marriage, her first, to Robert Wagner.  Both of the (2000-2002) significant biographies of Natalie Wood deal with her marriages in detail.  That’s not my interest here.  It’s doubtful that a happier married life would have made her next film, her first of the 1960s, any better.

“All the Fine Young Cannibals” (WB, 1960), is without question the worst film of her adult career, and her worst performance as well.  However, my theory of film acting gives close to equal credit or blame to the person who has the final say, at least on set, as to when a performance is good enough — the director.  Suffice to say that it was not a high point of  Director Michael Anderson’s career (whose work prior to “Cannibals” included the widescreen big budget epic “Around the World in 80 Days” (1958), and the film for which he is probably best known today, the sci-fi thriller “Logan’s Run,” (1976).  Nor was it characteristic of  the career of the man who had the final word on the production, Executive Producer Pandro Berman, who had been responsible in large part for the amazing streak of wonderful Astaire/Rogers films of the thirties at RKO.

Natalie Wood was not alone in this travesty.  It was also home to the worst (also, by far) screen performances of Robert Wagner, George Hamilton and Pearl Bailey (still doubt my director-acting theory?).  No one escaped unscathed except veteran character actress Louise Beavers as (what else) the maid of a wealthy family.  The strongest element of “Cannibals” was the photography — not surprising given that the cinematographer was William Daniels, whose career up to that point spanned more than forty years.  Daniels was Greta Garbo’s favorite “cameraman,” and was one of the two cinematographers on Erich von Stroheim’s monumental film project, “McTeague,” released as “Greed” by MGM in 1925, and a film many (myself included) consider a highpoint of silent film.

But this is where fate, in whatever form it may take, intervened in the career of Natalie Wood . . . and not a moment too soon.

THE REALISTS: "Riff" (Russ Tamblyn) leader of "The Jets" on the mean streets amid the tenements (before 1960s demolition for the Lincoln Center complex) of Manhattan's West Side. THE DREAMER: Tony (Richard Beymer) and his premonition that something great is coming . . . and it would come, but in the final 12 hours of his life.

Tony's dreams lift him -- and us -- from the dismal, dank alleyways upward to where the clotheslines appear transformed into a kaleidoscopic dreamworld . . . leading to . . .

. . . another Dreamer, . . . Maria . . .

. . . and Dreamer Maria is confronted with another Realist, her cousin Anita (Rita Moreno).

“West Side Story” was an innovative stage musical, and one of the greatest success stories in the history of American theater.  In its melding of modern dance with a 400 year old story of star-crossed lovers and an operatic score by Leonard Bernstein as counterpoint to its gritty, modern urban setting, it was a landmark of musical theater of any form.  An it is as close to opera in form and presentation as earlier, more celebrated works, such as George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”

Leonard Bernstein was already a celebrated figure in American music, the “face” of classical art music to the general American audience of the mid-twentieh century.  The choreography, the modern dance “set pieces” that drive the story forward, were by Jerome Robbins.  The “book” by Arthur Laurents and song lyrics by Stephen Sondheim was “Romeo and Juliet” with racial/ethnic conflict (as opposed to the kind of teen angst ala “Rebel Without a Cause” that one might have expected to come out of the explosion of pop psychology in the 1950s).

The film adaptation was also as innovative as one could find in mainstream American filmmaking at the dawn of the 1960s.  The film was perhaps the best example to date (in 1961) of the reinvigoration of the screen musical that began in the early to mid–1950s, spurred by the adaptation of Broadway stage musicals to film via widescreen with Cinemascope, then later in the decade with the 70mm format, which was the process chosen, and wisely, for the screen adaptation of West Side Story.   The location shots (though few in number and almost all in the first ten minutes (including the opening montage from above New York City); and the dance sequences in particular, benefited greatly from the wider format, and gave nearly as much depth as width to those scenes, with judicious camera placement, editing and process photography.  It gave added depth and meaning to the quiet, non-dance moments within or between the angular and often frenetic dances on city streets, rooftops . . . and at the gymnasium where Tony and Maria first lock onto each other’s gaze:

At the far left and far right in each of the two frames above, Maria and Tony stand riveted, each by the sight of the other, motionless, as the rest of the dancers on the gymnasium floor melt away . . .

BELOW:  Director Robert Wise, possibly better known to fans of film noir for his work in that genre in the late ’40s and early ’50s, uses the 70mm format not just to take advantage of its extra wide field, but to add depth of field by filling successive planes within the frame from front to back, as in this sequence with Bernardo (George Chakiris) and Anita (Rita Moreno), the “Sharks” and their girlfriends. The scene culminates in the extended “America” dance set-piece, a highlight of the film:

Anita (to Bernard0, arguing over their former home, Puerto Rico): "Was it good there? We had nothing!"

“I like the isle of Manhattan . . .

. . . smoke on your pipe . . .

. . . and  put THAT in !” 

“America,” music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  “West Side Story,” United Artists, 1961.

In the noisy hallways of their west side tenement, and in Maria's room, quiet but for the sound of her prayers, vibrant colors jump from the frame in each setting. The use of color by director Wise and cinematographer Daniel Fapp, while not as purposeful and focussed as in later works in the decade by Fellini or Antonioni, is more prominent in "West Side Story" than any mainstream Hollywood production before the mid-sixties. Color as used here, in the film's interiors seems to belie the difficulty of the lives of Puerto Ricans in the America of Manhattan's West Side, as opposed to the far less vibrant, and often dull colors of the "exteriors," at least those shot on sets in the studio (the scenes shot on location in the streets of New York at the film's beginning, in daylight, are more saturated in color).

ABOVE and BELOW: In these two sets of frames from the "Tonight"/"Somewhere" sequence, all the elements of wideframe composition, width and depth, and the subtle but intense use of color, and crisp deep focus in which every physical detail, the brick alleys, windows illuminated warmly among the brick facades of the tenements and cast iron fire escapes (which were the chosen image used in the poster art for the film by Saul Bass), are combined to create the film's most iconic image, the "Romeo & Juliet" balcony scene, in a mid-20th century reincarnation: Tony and Maria and their back-alley "balcony."

BELOW, in the first set of frames:  Maria’s father hears voices outside their apartment, and calls to her that it is late, and past bedtime.  Tony, with the certainty that this “love at first sight” is the beginning of a life partnership, assures her, “I will like him, and he will like me . . .”

ABOVE and BELOW:  Almost immediately, Maria’s smile disappears and now she becomes a “realist” — she knows that the hatred in her father’s heart and mind toward others not of their kind will never allow him to accept Tony . . . but she puts on a brave face, and with Tony’s exhuberance beginning to infect her, she manages to smile once again.

BELOW, the classic images of Tony and Maria in the film adaptation of “West Side  Story.”   In New York and Paris, the film played multiple showings seven days a week, continuously, for two years (1962-1963) after its premiere in late 1961.

After the emotional climax of the “Tonight”/”Somewhere” sequence, the play, the film, and Tony’s twelve hours of anticipation and bliss are nearly half over.  The hours that spanned the late afternoon premonition “Something’s Coming,” the evening at the dance and the revelation of “Maria” to him, and their late night emotional bonding between the tenements in “Tonight” and “Somewhere,” are now behind him.  The remaining hours, and with them Tony’s dreams . . . and his life . . . will be gone before the sun rises.

[End of Part One, Natalie Wood: On the Cusp* 1960-1963.  Part Two will begin with the critical and commercial response to “West Side Story,” industry acclaim for Natalie Wood, “Splendor in the Grass,” her best performance on film, and will return, fittingly, to New York City in early spring of 1963 and the making of “Love with the Proper Stranger.”]

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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