Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Happy Birthday Natalie Wood!

A lovely portrait of Natalie from the mid-1960's.
78 years ago today, Natalie Wood was born in San Francisco. Her birth name was Natalia Zakharenko. (Her family later changed their last name to Gurdin.) Celebrate Natalie and her talent and beauty by watching one of her many great movies today!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Details on the new Natalie Wood Book!

The cover of the upcoming book, Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life. This photo was taken by William Claxton in 1963.
As promised earlier in the spring, Natalie's daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner has co-authored a book about her mother. It's due to be released on October 11th. Manoah Bowman co-wrote it with Natasha, and the title is Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life. Robert Wagner wrote the foreword, and Robert Redford wrote the afterword. The cover photo is a gorgeous shot of Natalie taken by William Claxton in New York City in 1963. The list price is $35.00, you can pre-order your copy here on Amazon. It should be a terrific book, I'm looking forward to reading it. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sex and the Single Girl, starring Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall (1964)

Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood discover some shocking information when they read the book the movie was based on.

Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda in Sex and the Single Girl, 1964. Henry looks like he's saying, "I don't know why I'm in this movie."

The lovely Natalie Wood, 1964.

Natalie looking stunning in her white dress, 1964.
Sex and the Single Girl was a change of pace for Natalie Wood as an actress. It was her first comedic role as an adult, and it was the second of three movies she made with Tony Curtis, the first being 1958’s Kings Go Forth, and the last being 1965’s The Great Race. Sex and the Single Girl was based on Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 non-fiction best-seller. The movie didn’t really have anything to do with the book, the studio just wanted the titillating title, and paid $200,000 for the film rights. 

The movie is an example of a very specific genre, the “sex comedy” that flourished in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Of course, thanks to the production code that was still in effect, the main characters don’t actually have sex until they are safely married. Perhaps the ne plus ultra of sex comedies from this era is 1959’s Pillow Talk, starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Sex comedies are replete with characters assuming false identities, and that becomes integral to the plot of Sex and the Single Girl. 

Natalie Wood is cast as Helen Gurley Brown, and the film has changed her occupation to psychoanalyst. In real life, Gurley Brown worked in advertising and publishing. In 1965, shortly after the movie was released, Gurley Brown got the job that she’s best known for, as she became the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and transformed the magazine into one of leading women’s magazines. Tony Curtis plays Bob Weston, a writer for Stop magazine, which takes pride in being the lowest of the scandal rags. As the movie opens, another writer for Stop has just published a scalding critique of Gurley Brown’s best-selling book, titled Sex and the Single Girl. But Weston thinks there’s more to this story, and he wants to meet Gurley Brown in person, as he thinks she’s a virgin who is masquerading as a sex expert. (This is not the movie to see if you’re looking for enlightened attitudes about men and women.) It seems odd that Stop magazine would want to publish another story about Gurley Brown, since their takedown of her just appeared. 

Weston goes to Gurley Brown for treatment, but he doesn’t tell her his real identity. Instead he tells her the marital problems his friend Frank, played by Henry Fonda, is having with his wife, played by Lauren Bacall. Gurley Brown is much too nice to Weston, and quickly develops a crush on him. Hilarity, or something meant to approximate it, ensues. 

And there the plot summary stops. It’s no use telling you about how “funny” it is when Weston fakes a suicide attempt, only to have Gurley Brown save him from drowning (it’s always a little sad when Natalie Wood’s movies feature her in a water tank) or how completely “hilarious” the ten minute long car chase at the end of the movie is. I put “funny” and “hilarious” in quotation marks because I didn’t find Sex and the Single Girl to be very funny. It’s a movie that has not aged very well, and it’s ideas and stereotypes about women are hopelessly dated. I know, I should let it go, but the movie just didn’t work for me.

Tony Curtis is a charming and funny actor, but he doesn’t get to do much that’s very funny in this movie. He’s much funnier in Some Like It Hot and Operation Petticoat. I like Tony Curtis a lot, and his voice is just great. You can tell in Sex and the Single Girl that Tony is starting to lose his hair in front, as it’s always combed forward. Natalie Wood does the best she can, and she brings an earnest conviction to the role that is appealing, but the movie doesn’t give Helen Gurley Brown very much depth. I wonder how the real Helen Gurley Brown felt about the movie? I would imagine that she was probably excited that someone as beautiful and talented as Natalie Wood was playing her, but it probably annoyed her that she was turned into a woman who at the end of the movie gives up her career for her man. 

The real problem with Sex and the Single Girl is the script. It’s a real dog, and oddly enough, it was written by Joseph Heller, of Catch-22 fame. The funniest part is probably when Tony Curtis is wearing Natalie Wood’s nightie (long story) and he remarks that he looks like Jack Lemmon in that movie where he dresses up like a girl. Curtis’ character can’t remember the name of the movie, but of course, it’s Some Like It Hot, which Tony Curtis starred in. It’s a funny joke, but then it gets overdone as everyone remarks on how Bob Weston looks like Jack Lemmon. There are also some bewildering jokes about Tony Curtis’ character having to put coins in everything in the Stop office building. Curtis even needs a coin so a mirror will be revealed so he can comb his hair in the men’s room. I assume this was a joke about the popularity of automats, as after the scene in the men’s room Curtis goes to the automat for lunch, but automats had been popular for decades before 1964. They weren’t exactly a new thing, so it seems like an odd joke. 

Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall don’t have much to do in the movie. But I could listen to Henry Fonda read the phone book. He had such a great voice. The supporting cast is rounded out by Mel Ferrer, playing the rather pointless role of Rudy, another doctor in Gurley Brown’s practice whose only purpose in the movie is to flirt relentlessly with her. Although a successful actor in his own right, Mel Ferrer is probably best known today for being married to Audrey Hepburn. 

Natalie Wood looks beautiful throughout the film, and her Edith Head wardrobe is fantastic. In particular the white dress and the white robe she wears are just jaw-dropping. 

Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad researched her contract for Sex and the Single Girl, and discovered that, in addition to being paid $160,000 for her role, Wood had a lot of “riders” in her contract. Wood stipulated the color of the phone that was to be in her dressing room. (Unfortunately, Finstad doesn’t reveal the color.) “She requested white cigarette holders from a shop in London, a special oil of gardenia available in Cairo, and stipulated days off during her menstrual period.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.290) 

Finstad interviewed Tony Curtis for her book, and she got some very interesting quotes from him. Curtis told Finstad that he had the best on screen chemistry of any of his co-stars with Wood. Curtis said, “Natalie and I had to be careful, because we found each other quite attractive, but I just didn’t want to degenerate the relationship and neither did she.” Curtis then tells Finstad the real reason he didn’t sleep with Natalie: “Natalie’s boom-booms weren’t big enough. To each his own.” (Finstad, p.293) That’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course, that might only be Curtis’ lame excuse. The truth might be that she just didn’t want to sleep with him. Clearly something happened in their relationship, because by the time they started filming The Great Race, shortly after Sex and the Single Girl wrapped, Curtis and Wood were estranged. (Finstad, p.295)

Wood was likely less than happy with the way the script of Sex and the Single Girl made fun of analysis, as during this time in her life she was going to therapy almost daily. Wood said, “I was in analysis for some time, and I found it very beneficial…for me it was a different way of looking at things. I think it made me less introspective, more open to other people. It really changed my life.” (Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, by Christopher Nickens, p.131)

Sex and the Single Girl was released in December 1964. Cue magazine called it “thoroughly coarse, irritating and stupid.” (Nickens, p.126) Despite unfavorable reviews, it grossed $8 million and was the 20th highest grossing film released in 1964. It’s an interesting time capsule, but one that hasn’t aged very well. Despite the movie’s shortcomings, you can still enjoy the beauty and talent of Natalie Wood in it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Natalie Wood on the cover of People magazine

Natalie Wood on the cover of People magazine, 2016. They picked a great photo of her for the cover, but I think they should have picked a color photo of her.

Natalie and her daughter Natasha.

Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, 1970's. Their outfits are just so wonderfully 1970's!
Natalie Wood is on the cover of this week’s People magazine. While the cover promises to give us “the untold story,” there’s not much new inside. But there is a nice interview with Natasha Gregson Wagner which doesn’t tread the same ground as the recent New York Times profile of her. There are also some great photos from Gregson Wagner’s personal collection, including one of a radiant Natalie holding Natasha at 6 weeks old. There’s also a great photo of the whole Wood/Wagner clan, including Natasha’s half-sisters Courtney and Katie, from 1977. In that photo, Robert Wagner is wearing a denim jacket that’s just barely buttoned, and Natalie is wearing super high-waisted jeans that of course look really good on her, because no style of clothing looked bad on her. 

The cover also tells us that “Robert Wagner Breaks His Silence,” and features a nice little sidebar in which he discusses Natasha and Natalie. “Break His Silence” seems a little melodramatic as a headline, since it makes it sound like he hasn’t discussed Natalie Wood since 1981.

It’s great to see Natalie on a magazine cover again, if you’re a fan of hers, you should go pick up this week’s People.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Great Article About Natasha Gregson Wagner

Natalie Wood and her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, 1973.

The perfume recently released by Natalie Wood's estate, "Natalie."
Last week The New York Times published a very interesting interview with Natalie Wood’s daughter, actress Natasha Gregson Wagner. Gregson Wagner has just released a perfume, “Natalie,” in memory of her mother. You can buy the perfume here. The perfume is based on Wood’s favorite perfume, “Jungle Gardenia.” Gregson Wagner doesn’t often give interviews about her mother, so the piece is a really interesting glimpse into her life, and how she dealt with losing her mother at age 11. The article also says that there will be a coffee-table book about Natalie Wood’s life coming out this fall. That’s great news, because there’s really no good photo book about Natalie Wood in print-the only one I’ve been able to find is Christopher Nickens’ 1986 book Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, which is long out of print. Here’s the link to the article, which is essential reading for Natalie Wood fans.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Gypsy, starring Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden (1962)

Original poster for Gypsy, 1962.

Natalie Wood as Louise, and Rosalind Russell as Rose in Gypsy.

Natalie Wood as Louise and Karl Malden as Herbie in Gypsy. (Note Caroline the cow in the background.)

Natalie Wood, after Louise's transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. *Sigh* She was so beautiful.

Natalie Wood on the set with the real Gypsy Rose Lee, who was at least 5 inches taller than Natalie.

Natalie Wood in her dressing room. I love this photo, and not just because of what Natalie's wearing. It's such a great composition, the way Natalie is standing is such an interesting pose. She seems unaware of the camera, and there's the mystery of all the people whose faces we don't see. Who are they?
The 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy introduced the world to a character with a huge personality: dedicated stage mother Rose Hovick, whose only ambition in life is to make her daughter June a vaudeville star. No matter that vaudeville is already on the way out, Rose will find a way to make it happen. The character of Rose is widely known in pop culture as “Mama Rose,” but she’s actually never referred to that way in either the play or the 1962 movie version. Gypsy featured a book written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Laurents and Sondheim had previously collaborated on West Side Story. Oddly enough, Natalie Wood starred in both the movie versions of West Side Story and Gypsy

The score of Gypsy is simply fantastic, and it features many great songs like “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “All I Need is the Girl,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Let Me Entertain You.” While the Broadway production starred the legendary Ethel Merman as Rose, the movie starred three actors not known for their singing voices: Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden. The decision was made by someone to cut all of the songs that Karl Malden’s character, Herbie, sings, turning it into a non-singing part. That decision meant ditching the super cute song “Together (Wherever We Go),” which was filmed, but then cut. It’s included on the DVD as a bonus feature. Natalie Wood had her singing voice dubbed for West Side Story, much to her annoyance, and she did all of her own singing in Gypsy. Rosalind Russell had appeared in musicals before, as she starred in the original Broadway production of Wonderful Town, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein. But for Gypsy her vocals were mixed with those of Lisa Kirk. Some songs, like “Mr. Goldstone, I Love You” are all Russell’s voice, while others are a mix, and Kirk did an excellent job of matching Russell’s voice. 

In terms of acting, Russell, Wood, and Malden all did excellent work. The role of Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering boyfriend, requires a “normal guy” actor, and Karl Malden certainly fit that bill. Malden is by turns intense and also good-naturedly laid-back, and it’s another superb performance from an actor whose career was full of them. Russell is marvelous as Rose, who comes off as something of a more intense version of Russell’s Auntie Mame. Like Mame, Rose sucks all the oxygen out of any room she’s in. Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way. Wood is fabulous as Louise, the plain older sister who is never the star, but finally blossoms into the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. For the role of Louise, you need someone who is believable as both a shy wallflower and as the belle of the ball. Wood was such a good actress that she pulled it off very convincingly. I know, we all KNOW Natalie Wood is gorgeous, even when she’s dressed up as plain as she can possibly be. The costume designers did a really good job of making Wood look plain as Louise. (Orry-Kelly designed Natalie’s dresses for the burlesque scenes, but I doubt he had anything to do with the drab clothes Wood wears as Louise.)

Gypsy was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who had a long career in Hollywood stretching back to the dawn of the talkies. An old school studio director who could handle any genre, two of LeRoy’s best known films today are Mister Roberts and Quo Vadis. I really enjoyed the sets in Gypsy. The sets throughout the movie are obviously fake. For example, the train station where Rose sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the Western set as Louise becomes the new star of the act after June leaves. I think it was an obvious choice to make the sets look like sets, and I took that to be a way of showing the audience that these characters don’t exist in the “real world.” Their whole lives revolve around showbiz, and they are disconnected from any other kind of reality. Especially Rose, who creates her own reality wherever she goes. 

There aren’t many interesting behind the scenes stories from the set of Gypsy. As a small nod to my ongoing fascination with Warren Beatty, I’ll point out that Beatty was dating Wood during the production of Gypsy, and most days he could be found on the set, being a supportive boyfriend. According to Gavin Lambert’s 2005 biography of Natalie Wood, the reason that Rosalind Russell played Rose instead of Ethel Merman was a simple one: Russell’s husband, theatrical producer Frederick Brisson, owned the film rights to Gypsy, and sold the rights to Warner Brothers on the condition that Russell would play Rose. (Natalie Wood: A Life, by Gavin Lambert, p.184) 

Natalie Wood began her career as an actress at the age of 5, and Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad has a rather dramatic view of her role in Gypsy: “Natalie was driven by demons to play the stripper with the stage mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose-played in the movie by Rosalind Russell-viewing Gypsy as the catharsis for all her years as a child star under the tyranny of Mud.” (Mud was a nickname for Natalie’s mother Maria Zakharenko.) (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.279) However, Christopher Nickens’ 1986 book Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, says the opposite. Nickens writes, “Maria realized early on that Natalie was destined to be a performer, and she was wise enough to encourage her daughter’s talents and help her make the most of them.” Nickens also includes two quotes from Natalie to back up his point. Natalie told Hedda Hopper during the filming of Gypsy, “My mother was the furthest thing from a stage mother.” When asked how she dealt with being a child actor, Wood told the Los Angeles Times: “It all depends more than anything else on the parents. I happened to enjoy it all. I wanted it. I wasn’t being pushed. I was lucky.” (All three quotes from Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, by Christopher Nickens, p.113) 

So, which was it? Was Gypsy just like Natalie Wood’s own childhood? Or was her mother nothing at all like Rose Hovick? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I think it’s fair to say that Wood had a sometimes difficult relationship with her mother, and she probably related to Louise in some ways. Natalie’s beautiful rendition of the song “Little Lamb” is proof enough for me that she felt a connection to Louise. 

Another member of the Wood/Zakharenko family who might have felt a close connection to the overlooked Louise was Natalie’s little sister, Lana Wood, who also became an actress but whose career never climbed to the same heights as Natalie’s. 

Wood was at the peak of her movie stardom when Gypsy was released in November 1962, and if you watch the trailer you’ll see that Warner Brothers was really selling the movie as “Natalie Wood Strips,” while in reality it’s only the last 15% of the movie that’s about Louise’s transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. Wood received some stripping tips from Gypsy Rose Lee herself on the set. Wood was understandably a bit nervous about the stripping scenes, but in the finished film she handles them with aplomb. Because Wood was so petite, with reports of her height ranging from 5’0” to 5’3”, and the real Gypsy Rose Lee was 5’8”, director Mervyn LeRoy and director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. did their best to make Natalie look as tall as possible during the stripping scenes. Natalie’s clothes were made to accentuate her legs and give the illusion of greater height. Most of the camera angles are low, so you’re looking up at Wood, making her look taller. And notice how during the New Year’s Eve strip, the showgirls disappear into the wings by the time Natalie appears on screen, so you never see a showgirl towering over her. Wood certainly looked glamorous and very beautiful and attractive in the scenes where she’s Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy was a financial success, earning $11 million at the box office, making it the 9th highest grossing movie of 1962. Warner Brothers’ other 1962 musical release, The Music Man, made just under $15 million, making it the 5th highest grossing movie of 1962. Wood and Russell were both nominated for Golden Globes for Best Actress in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, and Russell took home the trophy. Malden was nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, losing out to Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian Style

Gypsy is a wonderful film of one of the great American stage musicals, and it showcases great performances from Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden.