'No one could lose control like her'
Her dad was a drunk. Her mum ignored her if she failed an audition. So Natalie Wood found happiness in movies - and men. Gavin Lambert on the rise and fall of the 'wonder child'
Friday 15 June 2004
irst of all, she was Russian; and the great acting teacher Stella Adler once commented on the uniquely Russian "extreme sensibility of reacting, caring, feeling". Natalie Wood's parents, who fled the 1917 revolution with very little money and no prospects, first met after they settled in San Francisco. It was a flammable match between two very different emotional extremists: Maria Gurdin had one ruling passion, to create a future for herself through her daughter, whom she admittedly "raised to become a movie star". Nicholas Gurdin, basically gentle but weak, was fixated on a past that the revolution had forced him to leave behind. The more he lamented it, the more he drank - and erupted with violent rage.
For her actor friend George Segal, "nobody could lose control on the screen like Natalie", and he cited her extraordinarily intense breakdown scenes in Splendour in the Grass, Inside Daisy Clover and the television movie The Cracker Factory, as well as her near-breakdown before leaving the family home in Love With the Proper Stranger.
In fact, the first time Natalie lost control on the screen was in her first film Tomorrow is Forever. She was seven years old, and cast as an Austrian orphan from the second world war. To ensure that she'd cry on demand when she tested for the part, Maria primed her with a hair-raising account of watching a boy tear off the wings of a live bird. Because Natalie had talent as well as star quality, she'd have cried anyway, although maybe not so wildly as to amaze the director and producer when they ran the test.
Maria, no mean actress herself in the cause of manipulation, continued to implant all kinds of irrational fears and anxieties in her daughter, most dangerously that only Maria herself could be trusted. It was only after Maria had put her through another 16 movies and three TV shows during the next eight years that Natalie was able to catch her breath, and realise that not only her mother but her directors had always told her what to think and feel, leaving no time to think and feel for herself.
In many of those 1940s and early 1950s movies, the Wonder Child, as she quickly became known, played the daughter of ideal parents in an ideal world where all problems and misunderstandings were resolved in the end.
Not surprisingly, she felt happier in a make-believe studio home than in the real world of a drunken father and a mother who replaced warm affection with a cold shoulder when Natalie lost a part. But when she finally began to look back on her life, she had to confront the fact that by escaping into a cunningly fabricated illusion of reality, and posing for publicity photos of growing up in a "normal" family, she'd lost her real self.
As often happen with actors, a role helped her find it again. Two years later, when Nicholas Ray cast 17-year-old Natalie as Judy in Rebel Without a Cause, she found a mirror image in the character of an adolescent girl alienated from her family, and impatient to rebel. And after years of being told what to do and think, she was astonished by a director who asked her opinion of a scene and even encouraged criticism, and by James Dean, who insisted on exploring a scene in different ways until he found the approach that felt right.
Creative and sexual liberation went hand in hand when Ray became Natalie's first lover; and shortly afterward she invited Dennis Hopper, who was cast in a supporting role, to become her second. Recalling how she made the first move, and "the cool way she handled two simultaneous affairs", Hopper realised she was "way ahead of her time".
But the price of liberation, her first Academy nomination, and eventual stardom was high. It involved a seven-year contract with Warner Bros, and a frustrating series of mediocre parts in mediocre movies, with the exception of John Ford's The Searchers, in which she (rightly) felt miscast. A lost childhood had left Natalie painfully insecure, and her personal life soon foundered: a brief first marriage (to Robert Wagner) that ended abruptly in divorce, like the second (to a leading British talent agent, Richard Gregson); years of psychoanalysis to undo her mother's work, and the lapses into uncontrollable panic or melancholy it had caused; years of affairs, some serious (with Warren Beatty), and some not (with Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen), but most as short-lived as her marriages; one serious suicide attempt, and one not.
Released from professional bondage in 1961, when Elia Kazan cast her in Splendour in the Grass, Natalie won a second Oscar nomination in a movie that established her as a star. Throughout the 1960s she gave a series of outstanding performances, working with directors she admired: in Love with the Proper Stranger (Robert Mulligan), Inside Daisy Clover (Mulligan again), This Property is Condemned (Sydney Pollack), Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (Paul Mazursky). "She had a quiet determination to grow as an actress," Mulligan recalled. "No declarations. It was just there."
"When the persona fit the character," said Kazan, "you couldn't do better." The characters that fitted it best were outsiders, in rebellion against authority or their families. But win or lose she remained vulnerable, one of the reasons that Natalie particularly appealed to women and gay men. From the first, Robert Wagner noted, she accepted something generally considered unacceptable at the time, and formed "many friendships with gay men". During the Warner years, her best male friend was Tab Hunter, and her later circle included playwright Mart Crowley, Howard Jeffrey, dancer and assistant to Jerry Robbins, Jerry Robbins himself (who once proposed marriage), Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, John Schlesinger and me.
When I first got to know Natalie during the 1960s, she was at her professional peak. Enjoying stardom while shrewdly aware of its unreality, she was accessible, loyal, generous, with a pungent sense of humour. But the child-woman's interior demons were still stirring, and only seemed to rest when she remarried Wagner in 1973. After several chance encounters - during which they made only small talk, but "the subtext was loaded" as Wagner said - they decided they'd always been in love. As Natalie explained: "We got back to where we started, and should have stayed."
She'd already had one daughter by Gregson, was eager for another child by Wagner, and after the birth of a second daughter, concentrated on motherhood and domestic life for three years. In Hollywood-speak, it was a bad career move. At 38, Natalie (like all famous screen beauties) was close to being considered over the hill, and knew it. Typically, when offered good roles on TV, she didn't consider the small screen a comedown, but welcomed the opportunity to do some of her best work. At Laurence Olivier's invitation, Natalie and Wagner played Maggie and Brick to his Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She followed this with the Deborah Kerr role in a mini-series based on From Here to Eternity, and a harrowing portrait of a disturbed housewife in The Cracker Factory.
Its director, Burt Brinckerhoff, found Natalie "at the top of her game", but also realised that her interior demons were stirring again. During the last two years of her life, they became fully awake, and the rest of the story is of addiction to painkillers and too much white wine out of frustration at a stalled career: the final movie, Brainstorm, she accepted because there was nothing better on offer; her infatuation with its leading man, Christopher Walken, and the tension it caused in her marriage; the increasingly tense and drunken weekend on the Wagner yacht that ended with Natalie's accidental drowning.
All this leaves me with only one thing to add. In Meteor (a last resort dud that preceded Brainstorm), the role obliged her to be buried under a million tons of mud when a large chip of extraterrestrial matter fell on Manhattan. And after her death, Natalie was buried under a myriad tons of tabloid mud - was it murder or suicide, which one of the three was really making it with the other etc etc? It completely submerged the person and the actress - and one reason I wanted to write about Natalie was to clear the sludge away.