In Praise of Natalie Wood

"A mixture of orphan and clown" is what the great Natalie Wood played in 1965's musical melodrama Inside Daisy Clover, but that could also describe Natalie herself--a porcelain anti-waif whose radioactive spunk seemed to be a compensation for never quite feeling she was good enough or truly belonged. But unike Marilyn Monroe, Natalie didn't take her insecurities out on other people; she approached the biz with a serious work ethic that she'd carefully learned as a child star and held onto as she aged into a siren.

In fact, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center screening of Clover the other night, director Robert Mulligan's wife said, "She was always on time, she knew the script, and there wasn't a lot of Hollywood jazz going on."

Alas, the print they showed wasn't quite as professional; it had at least 10 minutes missing, quick jump cuts leaving out some crucial scenes. But it still came off as a fascinating high-gloss version of an art film--Natalie's Star is Born, which beautifully rips away the artifice of moviemaking and the way the ritualized trickery erodes at character and confidence. Natalie is on fire from beginning to end, Ruth Gordon is priceless as her dotty mom who's not that off base in thinking the Hollywood limo outside is a hearse, and Robert Redford plays the elusively decadent guy about whom Natalie is told, "Your husband never could resist a charming boy." (As if that's not gay enough, Christopher Plummer preens as the soulless studio head with the manic-depressive wife and Roddy McDowall inevitably pops up as his prissy assistant.)

The musical numbers are exquisitely bizarre, especially since its supposed to be the '30s but they look like they could be taping Hullaballoo (if directed by Ingmar Bergman). And you come to appreciate the extra levels of irony here--i.e. that this is a movie about the phoniness of Hollywood and yet it stars a 26-year-old as a 15-year-old. And that Natalie's big scene has her breaking down in a recording booth where she's dubbing the singing for herself, but of course the movie dubbed Natalie with someone else.

By the end, Daisy pulls her head out of the oven and chooses to live. I wish this movie would too--in a better print!


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