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NATALIE WOOD TRIBUTE: A MIXED BAG
on March 12, 2009
Natalie Wood definitely deserves a tribute. This DVD box set, comprised of movies she made for Warner Brothers studio, is definitely a mixed bag. No one will argue that "Bombers B-52" or "Cash McCall" are especially memorable, or among Natalie's best work. That leaves us with two classics ("Splendor In The Grass" and "Gypsy"), one silly farce ("Sex And The Single Girl") and one oddity that is interesting and worthwhile ("Inside Daisy Clover").
"Splendor In The Grass" (1961) is easily the best film in this box set, and probably the quintessential Natalie Wood film. Deanie and Bud (Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty) are in love, but her mother (Audrey Christie) tells her that "nice girls don't enjoy sex." Deanie is confused, especially with the example of Bud's promiscuous and free-spirited sister Jenny (Barbara Loden) before her. Bud wants to stay on the family farm and marry Deanie, but his overbearing father (Pat Hingle) wants him to go to Harvard. Deanie's sexual repression leads to a dangerous suicide attempt at a waterfall (Natalie did the frightening swimming scene herself) and mental breakdown. Natalie, who received an Oscar nomination, is an appealing mixture of poignancy and strength, and Warren Beatty is quite impressive in his film debut. "Splendor" holds up extremely well. If you don't believe me, just watch the terrible TV remake from the 1980's with Melissa Gilbert, mis-cast and totally out of her depth, in Natalie's role. The original, with Natalie, is a classic. (5 Stars). 1961 was an excellent year, professionally, for Natalie. Following "Splendor," she gave another beautiful performance, as Maria in the Oscar winning smash mega-hit "West Side Story."
"Gypsy" (1962): After having her vocals dubbed by Marni Nixon in "West Side Story", Natalie's singing is all her own in this film version of the Broadway classic. Natalie is perfect as Louise Hovac, whether as a tomboy, dressed in baggy clothes with a page-boy haircut, or later, all woman, sexily stripping off as sophisticated Gypsy Rose Lee. Rosalind Russell is just fine (with vocal help from Lisa Kirk) as her ambitious, driven, and delusional, Mama Rose. I certainly did not miss the hideous Broadway hag known as Ethel Merman. (4 Stars out of 5).
"Sex And The Single Girl" (1964) Tony Curtis, working for a smutty tabloid magazine, is determined to prove that Natalie Wood, as "sexpert" Dr. Helen Brown, is actually (Gasp!) a virgin! Whether she is or not is never anwered.
This ridiculous sex farce soon runs out of steam and becomes a slapstick farce, with a wildly prolonged car chase on the freeway. (3 Stars Out of 5).
"Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) By age 26, Natalie Wood is too adult to be entirely convincing as a 15 year old "child singing star", but she does have the Hollywood credentials. The page boy haircut that worked so well in "Gypsy" does not work so well for "Daisy Clover." Daisy is supposed to be a singing sensation, in the mode of a teenage Judy Garland. Natalie's vocals are dubbed by another lady again. Marni Nixon's dubbing for Natalie in "West Side Story" was well-done. The dubbing for Natalie in "Daisy" (not Marni Nixon) is bad...well, honestly, awful!
Everything else about the film seems a bit off, too. Gavin Lambert's script veers wildly between macabre black comedy, satire, and melodrama. The best performances are given by Robert Redford as Wade Lewis, the "closeted" gay matinee idol who encourages Daisy's rebellious nature, marries her, and promptly abandons her; and an especially effective and creepy Christopher Plummer as "Prince Of Darkness" movie mogul Raymond Swan. In Natalie's best scene, she has an altogether too convincing and frightening nervous breakdown inside a recording booth. The overall film is uneven, but worthwhile and interesting, nevertheless.
(3 Stars Out of 5).