BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE NATALIE WOOD COLLECTION

By • Feb 26th, 2009 •

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An adequate actress for the most part, and lovely to look at, Natalie Wood was a studio staple through the late 50s and the entire 60s. I spotted her once at Trader Vic’s, a restaurant/drinking spot in the basement of the Plaza Hotel, back in ’62 within a few weeks of the premiere of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. She was with a contingent of stalwart, fawning men, and was draped in a white fur coat. I was fascinated with how small she was (5’3″ in heels that night; her real height was 5′), which is not how she filmed. But I was not at all surprised at how radiant she was, filling the area with energy. I got up, probably slightly inebriated (I don’t remember that part too clearly now, 45 years later), walked over and introduced myself, telling her how much I enjoyed her work. She was remarkably generous, shaking my hand, and introducing me to her friends, one of who was Jerome Robbins, who also shook my hand warmly. They had recently done WEST SIDE STORY together. Robbins also directed and choreographed GYPSY on stage, but was not involved in the film to the best of my knowledge.

When Gypsy Rose Lee was diagnosed with cancer in ’69, she called it” a present from mother.” Quite the Cronenberg-like comment. At one of her mother’s weddings, long before, a chimpanzee served as the ring bearer. And it is said that her quintessential stage mom actually killed a man who tried to molest either her or her sister. Although Rosalind Russell does a fine job conjuring a tunnel-visioned woman hellbent on making her family successful on stage, it doesn’t come close, apparently, to the real thing. That would have had to be a horror flick on the level of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and Aldrich’s film would probably make a good double bill with GYPSY. If filmed today, honestly capturing the full truth rather then honestly capturing half the truth, her characterization would most probably be more in line with the demons populating the Asian horrors currently in vogue.

Russell, while excellent in the lead role, is never sympathetic. Perhaps somehow she was more so in ’62, but she’s cold, ruthless, and sociopathic, today. The gruesome narrative is bolstered by the disc’s exemplary transfer, which highlights the rich color and an overabundance of widescreen art direction, opulent and gaudy like an Italian wedding hall. There’s one set – a foggy, empty train stop in the middle of nowhere – which thoughtfully encapsulates the death of vaudeville. My grandfather, Benny Burke, was the leading booking agent for the Keith Circuit in the heyday of vaudeville, so I have an historic familiarity with the faded entertainment venue, and I think GYPSY recreated it well, far more so than the antiseptic mise en scene of Attenborough’s CHAPLIN.

The play is an enduring one – other Mama Roses have included Anglela Lansbury, Bette Midler and Ethel Merman. The musical ensemble – Jule Styne, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim – is formidable. One of the numbers is even called “I Have a Dream”, and pre-dates Martin Luther King’s famous speech title, but within a short enough period for the orator to have heard it. And the DVD contains two numbers excised from the final cut, one of which features Karl Malden and Rosalind Russell and is a rare treasure (nice that Malden, at 96, is still around to enjoy its rediscovery.)

I also suspect that since the main character is so relentlessly hard, the promotion for the film was shifted to Natalie Wood’s brief non-strip tease. I remember seeing all the publicity at the time. As I recall there was even a spread either in Life or Look. Seeing it today, it’s odd how absolutely nothing is revealed, except that she’s fully clothed behind the props. But the real Gypsy Rose Lee, who had affairs with Mike Todd and Otto Preminger in her day, didn’t reveal much more in her act, so again, the film was nothing if not fairly accurate historically.

Of all the performances in the film, my fave was by Betty Bruce as Tessie, a tall, blond, over-the-hill stripper with Thelma Ritter’s voice. I was fascinated by her brief but memorable turn, which was based on a real character, stage-named ‘Tessie the Tassel-Twirler.’

In ’59 Joseph Pevney directed Ms. Wood in CASH McCALL. Pevney’s unobtrusive sense of style (euphemistic for ‘none’) gave us some flat but moderately enjoyable time-passers, including MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES and THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY. His last twenty active years were spent, more appropriately for his talent level, churning out episodes for the tube. During his generally misspent theatrical feature years he gave us this well-plotted, well-cast, respectable narrative about a wheeler-dealer (the name of another Garner vehicle). As its leads, Garner and Wood are totally competent, but nothing more. It was enjoyable seeing Nina Foch, Dean Jagger, Henry Jones and other supporters giving no-nonsense performances. A gaggle of miscast hams could have sunk this lightweight vehicle like a stone.

Lighting and cinematography are strictly TV caliber. The sets, however, are bigger than what you would find on TV. And Pevney’s blocking of the actors, and his choice of cutaways, have surprising dramatic power. Added to this, the transfer itself is excellent.

Corporate entrepreneurs and raiders haven’t changed much over the decades, if we’re to believe the screenplay before us. It’s fun to see an intelligent foray into the subject. One could call it Rod Lurie-esque, down to the current director’s straightforward visual style. And Chuck Jones’ HIGH NOTE, the film’s unrelated supplement, is a pleasant WB Looney Tune about the Blue Danube.

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER is a misfire by the producing/directing duo who gave us TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The first act is a painful lesson in the misconception that expending lots of emotional energy on screen, including the physical waving of arms and legs, equates somehow to drama. However, things pick up to a degree in Act Two, hindered by the appearance of Robert Redford, whose line readings of poems, Shakespeare, and the stilted screenplay reminded me of Anthony Perkins’ far superior delivery in CRIMES OF PASSION. Ms. Wood is hit and miss, and never pulls off being fifteen years old (I kept thinking how effortlessly Ellen Page could have done it) In the latter part of the film she gets to wear a series of stunned and shocked, and silent, reactions as several different people berate/appeal to her as she sits in bed, which was a pleasantly experimental endeavor. Indeed, director Mulligan’s experiments are where he is most successful – his use of space to indicate Hollywood’s sense of isolation, for example. And the script pulls a few Jim Jarmusch-ie sidesteps of by-the-book structural expectations.

Christopher Plummer is oddly subdued most of the time, doubtless by directorial design, but when he’s venal, he’s chillingly effectively. Roddy McDowall is all slimy efficiency as Plummer’s right hand, but we keep waiting for his payoff scene, and it never arrives. The title music, general score, and two songs, all by Andre Previn, come to far less than what we’ve been led to expect from him. The transfer is lovely, with the aggressive red of Ruth Gordon’s lipstick used to great effect: it makes her seem insane, whereas with a different actress the result might have been to make her appear sexy.

SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL was a film I dreaded having to sit through. Despite having enjoyed STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET, and having been on location watching him direct the enjoyable HOTEL in New Orleans, I’ve long considered Richard Quine one of the worst directors of all time, and offer as my evidence PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES (as bad as ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES) and OH DAD, POOR DAD, MAMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELING SO SAD (worse than ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES). However, the time came when I had to take a deep breath and put the disc into the player. And actually I can’t tell if it’s all Quine’s fault, or half his and half the screenplay’s. The story’s inner logic is all askew, and the madcap third act is frantic, bewildering, and godawful. Also there’s an embarrassing scene midway through the film where Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall go to a nightclub and do the ‘Twist’ together. Very painful. I guess I will finally have to assign Quine most of the blame, since he’s credited with writing a song for the film, suggesting that his involvement was whole-hearted.

It says on IMDB that Quine may have committed suicide at age 69 because he was unable to make the kind of light comedy films he wanted to, so I’ll bite my tongue and refrain from commenting further, except to say that on the positive side, as with the others in this collection, it’s a lovely transfer, and Natalie looks beautiful. Actually Lauren Bacall looks even better.

Time is known to deliver un-planned whammies, as it does with premonition-like sequences in two of the films in this collection. As Redford and Wood seek refuge from the Hollywood scene at one point in DAISY CLOVER by escaping to his yacht where they both proceed to get drunk, one can’t help but recall that twenty years later a real-life scene such as this would end tragically for Ms. Wood. And in SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, she and Tony Curtis both jump/fall off a pier into the water and have to be rescued. At least she gets drunk later this time, after they’ve gotten back to her apartment. Warner Bros is also re-issuing BRAINSTORM as an adjunct to this collection, and that is Ms. Wood’s final screen appearance. She died during production, and Lloyds of London wanted to terminate the shoot. Producer Joel Freedman told me that he put the editorial department into hyper-drive, preparing a cut which convinced Lloyd’s that it could be made to work. As a farewell to her career, I wish the film were more cohesive and powerful. It’s a nice concept, interestingly directed by Douglas Trumball, but it works only fitfully, which is a shame.

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