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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Monday Glamour Starter --- Natalie Wood --- Part 1

Some of us neighborhood boys were gathered in a tree house around 1963 when one of our number began to brag about having seen Gypsy the previous day. Yeah, man, it’s about this stripper, and Natalie Wood is totally naked through the whole thing! Now that was a pretty incendiary claim for anyone to have tossed about in that year, and we were more a bit skeptical. Now wait a minute, did you say totally naked? Like she showed everything? Absolutely, he swore. Well, I wasn’t buying that tall-tale any more than the one I’d heard from a kid at school describing a scene in Black Zoo where it showed a lion biting a man’s head off. But we’re here to talk about Natalie Wood, not Michael Gough. For a lot of people, Natalie Wood as an actress made Crawford look like Sarah Bernhardt, but whether or not Natalie could act was never the point. She was a product --- the movieland equivalent of those exciting new frozen TV dinners being offered for the first time in the mid-fifties. She was the glorious last stand for that dying era when the studios could make the public believe anything. From the beginning, they knew it was just the kids who’d buy her. This was the Confidential era. Stars were being outed on any number of accounts --- be it past criminal records (Rory Calhoun), alleged promiscuity (Maureen O’Hara – she sued), or that favored stand-by, the closeted homosexual. This last one was the net that closed around several of Nat’s co-stars and "boyfriends", and it was considered the most damning. Teenagers didn’t generally read the peek-a-boo rags, though. They were more Dad’s speed, something to go with cocktails and ribald conversation during Happy Hour. Besides, Natalie had real integrity. She was a teen just like them, save for the Thunderbird, the pool, and the ermine jacket (even fan mags liked to have a little fun with their readers). As for her own reading, Nat was said to favor Dostoevski and Nietzsche. She and Nick Adams used to read Thomas Wolfe together. Is it any wonder they came terribly close to getting married? Her soulful side was duly celebrated in the fan press, though sometimes they went far afield, as in Nat’s confession that she carried a snapshot of James Dean’s headstone in her wallet. That one had to give parents the willies, but the Dean death cult was a popular avalanche that simply could not be banked, and all the young stars enjoyed mild flirtations with it, particularly those ambitious young players trying to get ahead at Warner Bros. Some of them went to extremes --- Nick Adams, Dennis Hopper, etc. For all I know, Hopper’s still trying to channel Jimmy’s spirit, for all the Dean-prattling he still makes with during interviews (could this be why he’s so credible in all those latter-day psychotic villain parts?). There’s nothing quite so gooey and ghoulish as Natalie and others grave-worshipping Dean in all those post-9-30-55 fan profiles. All of her dates for a while were would-be Dean reincarnations, from swarthy thrift-shop "rebel" Scott Marlowe (he of several AIP J.D. cheapies) to poor lifelong star sycophant Nick Adams with his customized hot rod patterned after Jim’s wheels. For herself, Natalie didn’t want to be tarred with a "rebel" brush. Indeed, she was an apostle of clean living --- Why drink? If I drink, I’m bound to feel bad, and I won’t be able to work the next day. If I don’t work, I’ll be unhappy --- and look at the money I’ll lose for the studio, not to say myself. Indeed, Natalie preferred sodas. So did the parents of her young readers. The same parents who gave their children an allowance to buy movie magazines and go see Natalie Wood pics. Everybody understood the rules, you see, and abided by them. It’s true they wouldn’t much longer, but Natalie was there and at the top while they still did --- riding the last glorious wave of a culture that would soon disappear. I wonder if she realized it?

Based on what we know now, Natalie’s "romances" take on an almost surrealistic quality. Check out her dance card for 1956-57 --- Tab Hunter, Sal Mineo, Raymond Burr (gulp!) --- the list goes on. Safe dates all, and after a traumatic sexual assault that was alleged to have taken place when Natalie was just fifteen, you can understand her reasoning. Tab’s excellent new autobio goes into their on and off-screen partnership. While he and Nat were photographed endlessly on studio manufactured "dates", Tab says he was shacked up with Tony Perkins, something Natalie presumably knew all about. Well, she and Tab were both Warner contractees, and useful to each other, as well as to the studio, so it was a comfortable arrangement, as long as fans bought the lie (which they did, in droves). Tab went on to say that he and Scott Marlowe were an item before Marlowe took up with Natalie in an affair that she seems to have taken somewhat seriously. Well, who says Brokeback Mountain’s a new idea? The notion of pairing Nat with Sal Mineo was downright cracked, however. Even the dumbest kid in the auditorium had to be hep to Sal, but again, he was caught up in the same studio net as she, and each was comforted by the other’s skill at playing the game. For me, Raymond Burr’s the joker in the deck. Now where’d he come from? Well, as it turns out, they’d done a little picture together called A Cry In The Night, where Ray was convincing, as always (what a great actor!), in the part of a psycho Mamma’s Boy who kidnaps Natalie (this was before WB knew best how to exploit her). She and Ray hit it off, or so it was alleged by the breathless fan corps --- "he opened up new worlds of culture to her" (what, that again?). We were assured that nothing serious would happen with Tab (I’ll say it wouldn’t) because "her real heart is Raymond Burr" (you’ll have to forgive some of that prose, folks, cause it ain’t like these mags had Thomas Wolfe on their editorial staffs). Ray, or his publicists, had already dreamed up a cockamamie story involving at least three previous marriages (one of the wives supposedly went down in Leslie Howard’s doomed plane!) and even a son that no one had actually seen, so Ray was no stranger to showbiz subterfuge. "Once there was an understanding for the future with Raymond Burr", they all gushed, but one can only hope that Natalie never bought into that. As for these fan magazines, I can’t really recommend them to modern readers. Having just examined a brace of them, my brain feels like a bowl of oatmeal that’s been left on the breakfast table too long.

These Warner publicity stills require little explanation, other than to point out the script in Natalie’s lap (it’s resting on that rather alarming leopard skin she appears to be wearing). Close examination reveals that it’s for The Searchers. Wonder if Natalie made any margin notes? Perhaps a few suggestions for Mr.Ford as to how he might improve his movie…. You’ll note too that Natalie’s a little fickle about her dogs. Were they both hers, or was one discarded in favor of the other? "From Betty Higgins’ shop in the swank Royal Hawaiian Hotel came this exotic cocktail gown of a rare silk and gold metallic material imported from India." That’s the caption for this fashion tie-in on The Girl He Left Behind (1956), which goes on to say, "Natalie’s off-screen wardrobe roused the envy and admiration of her co-workers in her current Warner Bros. production."


Blogger Uncle Gustav said...

Those eyes! Those eyes!

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can we get a male Glamour starter for us females.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Doug Gray said...

Natalie Wood. I've had a crush on her since I was about 8 years old. Thanks for posting these great photos!

I just followed a link here recently, and I wanted to say what a great column this is. Keep up the good work!

3:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mom likes Natalie Wood. I don't know why. Mostly 'cause of Splendor In The Grass, I think. My mom's a big fan of the weepies. (I'm not)

It's funny, I liked Natalie Wood just fine in "Miracle On 34th St.", but found her dull in later movies... and downright BAD in that one where she played a pregnant single girl considering an abortion. My god, that was bad high-school drama club level of acting. It was laughable. You'd think it was her first acting assignment or something. But she seemed like a fairly talented child star, so what happened?

Interesting fan magazine snippets. Isn't it a wee bit hypocritical of Natalie to try to appeal to parents out there with a clean-livin', no drinkin', wholesome image... and then pose for photos where she flashes mega cleavage and sticks her butt up in the air? Geez. But I guess she had to show off her body. Who'd go see her movies otherwise?


3:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was going to college I worked for awhile at a bookstore called Martindales' -- a very popular hangout in Beverly Hills on what's called "little Santa Monica Blvd." I'd been going in there since childhood -- it would be easier if I named the famous you DIDN'T see there -- you get the idea. One night, she walked in with R.J. (The "other R.J.", I mean) walked right up to me and asked me about something. To this day I couldn't tell you what she asked, or if she said the building was on fire -- I only know I haven't been the same since!

3:04 AM  

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