The Queen of WB in NYC, 1963
March 1963. Natalie Wood arrives in New York City to begin rehearsals for her next film, “Love with the Proper Stranger,” and to shoot exteriors on location in the City. She is the hottest property in Hollywood, the most valuable commodity in the business of motion pictures. And she is in demand — everyone wants her for their next film project. She is working under a long-term, multi-picture contract with Warner Brothers and she is the undisputed queen of the WB lot. But this is an era in which the film studios of Hollywood’s golden era and their signature product, the theatrical “feature film,” are more than ten years into a losing war with television for the entertainment dollars of American audiences. This meant one thing for certain: the film studios’ money centers in New York would require that the Risk/Reward ratio of their business model be calculated with “R” (for Risk) = 0.
Despite the phenomenal success critically and financially of her two recent films — one an adaptation of a huge Broadway hit musical (“West Side Story”) and the other (“Splendor in the Grass”) directed by Oscar-winning, film and theater legend Elia Kazan, for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar Nomination, their next film assignment for Natalie Wood was a conservative, safe bet. A “can’t miss” project: a film adaptation of yet another hit Broadway musical, “Gypsy.” It didn’t “miss,” either. “Gypsy” proved very successful at the box office and was generally well-received by the media. However, as a mile-marker in her quest to grow into greatness as an actor, it did little but mark time.
But “Gypsy” was her third straight mega-hit movie. Natalie Wood now had considerable leverage in the choice of her next project. But she wasn’t going to sit back and wait for Warner Brothers to dangle their idea for her next film. Her contract with the WB allowed her an option to make one film per year outside of their domain. After making three safe, mainstream films for them the time seemed right to opt for something out of the ordinary, something audacious. And in 1962, the audacious, forward-thinking element of Hollywood was buzzing over the “French New Wave” and the outlandishly eccentric (by American standards) films Federico Fellini made in the Cinecitta studios of Italy. Films that were challenging and intellectually stimulating, yet gritty, urban, real and relevant in a world with the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse (Fall, 1962: “Bay of Pigs”).
It would have to be a small film — the antithesis of what Hollywood had been churning out year after year after television took “small” away from Hollywood theatrical films. Not necessarily a small-budget, or independent production. Being under contract for a specified period with a minimum number of films required within that time frame (and having as your representative a talent agency with close business ties to your employer, the film studio) made it difficult if not impossible for a performer to work within or set up their own production company. Not that Natalie Wood hadn’t tried. She had; and the result was that her agent received the “you’ll never work in this town again” threat from his employer, the talent agency. But that wasn’t an insurmountable problem.
Through her representatives and her friends and acquaintances in the business, she had been deluged with scripts and scenarios. Projects in the early stages of planning, some partially cast, and others with European directors seeking rising American stars to attract financing for their next films. Tony Richardson, Robert Rossen and Rene Clement were among them. In addition were projects from veteran filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock (for “Marnie”), George Stevens (“Greatest Story Ever Told”), Otto Preminger (“Bunny Lake is Missing”) and yet another musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” for MGM (to be directed by one of the few remaining holdovers from MGM’s era of great screen musicals, Charles Walters).
In the end, she decided upon a “small” film, about a character with whom she felt instant empathy — a young woman smothered by family, who wants desperately to be independent yet fears life alone and unloved, and in trying to find love out of loneliness instead finds life-altering complications and near-tragedy. Already cast opposite her is Steve McQueen (only a couple of steps behind her on the Hottest in Hollywood scale). The film is to be directed by Robert Mulligan, fresh from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a huge critical and box-office success of 1962, for which he received a Best Director Nomination by the Academy (whose Awards ceremony was only weeks away in April). The original script is by Arnold Schulman, who told Natalie Wood biographer Gavin Lambert that director Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula became involved, and Paramount studios agreed to finance the project, only after Ms. Wood agreed to participate. Schulman, according to Wood biographer Suzanne Finstad, tailored his script after meeting with her, using “aspects of her in Angie,” which Ms. Wood described as being “the healthier parts” of herself, and Angie as her “least neurotic role.”
Finstad also relates that, years later, at an American Film Institute Seminar, Natalie Wood remembered “Love with the Proper Stranger” as “the most rewarding experience I had in films, all the way around . . . my personal life was quite meager then, and the picture was ‘it.’ We were like a family.” What follows are my descriptions and still frames from key scenes of “Love with the Proper Stranger.” I’ll reserve my remarks on the film as a whole until the end of the illustrations . . .
A capsule personality portrait of Rocky Pappasano (Steve McQueen, in “Jean-Paul Belmondo mode”), an irresponsible, womanizing musician looking for work at the musicians’ union hiring hall. Rocky takes full advantage of women — all of whom seem unable to resist his charms. He encounters an old acquaintance, Marge (played by adorable character actress Arlene Golonka, uncredited here, but a familiar face in film and television in the 1960’s and 70’s), who allows him to use her back literally, to jot down info on a gig, and a quick peck on the cheek as thanks.
Rocky is sought by Angie Rossini, a single girl whose drunken one night stand with Rocky has resulted in pregnancy. She quickly realizes that it was a mistake to even see Rocky again much less expect him to take any responsibility for her situation. But later, Rocky at “home” is busy creating more problems for himself . . .
Rocky lives with his current girlfriend, Barb, a stripper (“Barbara of Seville,” a female matador routine, we suppose, played by the delectable, underrated and underutilized Edie Adams). Barb: “You know me in the cold weather. I love to be in love.” Rocky: “Yeah. You with yourself, me with myself.”
“Hey, Barb? A friend of mine asked me if I’d ask you if you knew the name of maybe a kind of a doctor or something . . . he’s got himself in a little trouble with a girl . . . hey, Barb?”
“You . . . want . . . ME . . . to find . . . YOU . . .
. . . a DOCTOR?!!” “Now wait a minute, I didn’t . . . ”
After Rocky regains consciousness, he finds himself out of her bed and on the outside of her West 4th Street, Greenwich Village apartment with not much more than the clothes on his back. Positively 4th Street indeed. [For pictures of this intersection nearly a half century later, see the end of this essay.]
A slice of Angie’s life — as she leaves work as sales clerk in the sporting goods department at Macy’s, her three overly protective brothers pull up to give her a lift in their produce truck, much to her embarrassment.
Angie has a blow-out with her family (who are unaware of her “situation”) . . .
and the fight results in her half-hearted (and probably not her first) attempt to leave (“Don’t love me so much, I can’t breathe!”) the apartment she shares with her widowed mother and her three brothers, the eldest (Herschel Bernardi) of whom acts as surrogate father. But later (Below), she quietly returns home.
The next day, to Angie’s surprise — to her shock — Rocky shows up at Macy’s with a proposition . . .
. . . He will help her find “a doctor.” (The word “abortion” or “abortionist” is never used in the film — this is 1963, and it is still Hollywood filmmaking under the Production Code. Two years later the word would be acceptable, though still controversial, in a mainstream American film.)
“Look, all I came to tell you was, I made you an appointment Sunday afternoon and I got you a doctor, OK? I’ll write down the address and, if you want, it’s $400 . . .” (Rocky pauses, apparently waiting to see if she can pay for it, when he sees her hesitation, he knows she can’t.) “How much can you raise?” “Maybe two — at the most.” “Alright, you raise half . . . and I’ll try to raise half, OK? I don’t know anything about this guy, so I’ll meet you there at 3 o’clock, Sunday afternoon. You got a piece of paper?”
Wordlessly, Angie agrees. Below, her protective eldest brother watches, unseen.
Rocky meets Angie at a nearly deserted section of a Downtown produce district (it appears to me to be part of the old Washington Marketplace area that would disappear in the construction of the World Trade Center complex beginning several years later).
Waiting for the man. In what seems to modern eyes a depiction of the anticipation of a drug deal, Rocky and Angie await the arrival of an abortionist — or in this case, the go-between for the abortionist.
A false alert as a mysterious vehicle pulls up toward them, then drives past without stopping . . .
. . . but the mystery car returns. He pulls up short, then gets out and opens his hood in an apparent signal to his would-be customers.
Rocky cautiously approaches with the $400, but is told that it is not enough: the man needs an extra $50 “for me.” He gives Rocky an address and instructs him to be there with the rest of the money in an hour, and “If you’re five minutes late don’t bother coming.”
“I got $13 . . . how much you got?” “… about $11 . . . some change.”
“We got about 45 minutes, you got any ideas?” (Silently, Angie shakes her head.)
“Come on.” “Where?” (Rocky now has a plan:) “To get the money.”
From the lower west side of Downtown near the Hudson, across town and up forty-five blocks to mid-town and an asphalt park next to FDR Drive, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the East River, Rocky and Angie alight a crosstown bus to meet . . .
. . . Rocky’s mother . . .
. . . and father . . .
. . . and a little money . . .
. . . and a little more . . . and then a little homemade ‘vino’ . . .
Then Angie sees that her brothers have followed her . . . they’ve stopped their truck in the middle of the highway pretending to be broken down . . .
A quick ‘goodbye’ and Rocky and Angie are on the run . . .
. . . in the shadow of the United Nations Building, past a churchyard . .
. . . over rooftops, and down into the cellar of a building occupied by the upholstery business of Rocky’s father, where he finds the key . . .
A brief respite, a few musings, a little more vino . . . and back to find . .
. . . the Man.
who pimps for the back-alley abortionist, an elderly “midwife” with a suitcase containing the tools of her trade . . a blanket, towels . . . and . . . a large FLASHLIGHT . . . “Come on, hurry-up, get undressed . . . ”
As the tension builds, so do Rocky’s suspicions about the “doctor.”
He bursts into the room and sees the abortionist with her “surgical equipment” laid out on the filthy floor . . .
. . . and Angie half-naked, quivering by the window . . .
“You a DOCTOR? . . . YOU SAID A DOCTOR !” (the woman:) “Take it or leave it . . .”
“C’mon — get your clothes on, were gonna get outta here . . . c’mon get your clothes on . . . come on . . I’m gonna get you outta here . . . come on! I want ya to get outta here! Get your clothes on! (Rocky literally tries to slap some sense into her) . . .”
. . . at which point she sees the abortionist’s equipment laid out on the floor (being hurriedly scooped back up by the spooked abortionist and the Man), and she really begins to get hysterical. It’s all Rocky can do now to hold on to her and hold her together.
The scene of terror slowly dissolves into a relatively placid cab ride through Times Square, 1963 . . .
. . . with neon signs advertising “WARNER . . . CINERAMA” . . . curious for a Paramount picture. [Directly above their taxicab, we see the sign for the old ASTOR Hotel (then owned by Sheraton but demolished a few years later), the coolest building ever to occupy the Square, and recall Bob Dylan’s description of his first night in New York City, in January two years earlier, in a room with its window overlooking Times Square and surrounded by the neon “O” of the “ASTOR” sign. He took it as a good omen . . . and it surely was.]
And now, Rocky, being somewhat “homeless” at this point, takes Angie to the West Village apartment of his understanding girlfriend, Barbara of Seville, so that Angie may recover from her ordeal and Rocky may begin his.
I’ve limited this post to what I consider the core of the film, “Love with the Proper Stranger.” At this point, for me the film descends into 60s sitcom — above average sitcom to be sure — but still sitcom. No spoilers necessary for this one. Watch the film, and you may feel differently, but for me the abrupt change in tone and feel is like watching two different films or having someone changing the channel abruptly in the middle of a good drama. But it still has Natalie Wood . . . and Steve McQueen . . . at their absolute physical, if not professional, peaks. No other film can boast that combination.
“Love with the Proper Stranger” premiered in New York on Christmas Day, 1963. Later that winter, Natalie Wood was nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance as Angie. Also nominated for Oscars for their work on the film were Arnold Schulman, Best Screenplay (Written Directly for the Screen); Milton Krasner, Best Cinematography (Black and White); Edith Head, Best Costume Design (Black and White), and the film’s team of Art Directors for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Black and White).
For Further Reading:
Finstad, Suzanne, “Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood” Harmony Books, 2001.
Lambert, Gavin, “Natalie Wood: a Life” Knopf, 2004.
Finstad’s book, the first published of the two, was the first major biography of Natalie Wood, and is the more detailed of the two in terms of family and family background, childhood and early career, and most notably, on her death and the circumstances surrounding it. Lambert was a personal friend of Ms. Wood from the time of “Inside Daisy Clover” (1965, he authored the book on which the film was based) to her death. He also had access to her personal correspondence and “day book” in which she jotted down notes on film activities and those film projects in which she had an interest. Neither book contains interviews with Robert Wagner and the Wagner family after her death in 1981, although Wagner published an autobiography in 2006 which I have not read, nor have I read memoirs of her sister Lana, published several years before either of the above two biographies. With respect to the Finstad and Lambert bios, I can’t honestly recommend one over the other. I can only say that together they would make a great biography. If you have more than a casual interest in the subject, you will want to read both.
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Here are a few recent pictures of the Greenwich Village neighborhood where Rocky’s stripper girlfriend lived in the the film. This area of the West Village, around the intersection of West 4th Street and West 11th Street has lost whatever grittiness it may have had in 1963, and gained quite a few tree-lined sidewalks as well. In 2011, the greenery almost obscures the corner townhouse, and the cigar shop on the opposite corner of 4th St is now a cafe (and the famous Magnolia Bakery is a block away on Bleecker). (2011 photos from GoogleMaps Streetview.)