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Hollywood Splendor 

Gavin Lambert on Natalie Wood, Vivian Leigh and the meaning of stardom

Thursday, Mar 11 2004

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The maintenance of identity in the midst of its disintegration has always been an important theme in Lambert’s fictional works — most strikingly in Norman’s Letter, his roman à clef about fabled drug-addicted international boy toy Denham Fouts — a subject of interest for many writers, including Isherwood and Truman Capote. But in Lambert you sense the steel inside the willow — something that’s always keyed his interest in individuals dismissed as “weak” by the less observant.

“I always found it interesting that Vivien Leigh was Natalie’s favorite actress,” Lambert continues, noting the irony that he was as close to that great, emotionally troubled star as he was to the far more resilient Wood. “There are many similarities [between them]: the fragility, the living on the edge — and wanting to live on the edge in a way. Vivien — who I knew from working with her on The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone — had moments of great strength. We had a terrible producer, who decided that even though the movie was in color, all the rushes would be printed in black and white. I witnessed Vivien walking into his office and saying, ‘Now you listen to me. I once made a film you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind. And nobody at MGM would ever think of printing the rushes of a color film in black and white. You should know that if you’re any kind of a professional whatsoever!’”

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Leigh’s co-star in that Lambert adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ novella was Warren Beatty, who only a few years later would quite famously have an affair with Natalie Wood. But Warren Beatty is not known only for his love affairs; he’s just as famous for his refusal to discuss them for public consumption. Consequently, Lambert’s getting Beatty on the record (in his book about Wood) is a major coup. ‰

“I remember that they were considering an Italian actor who, being Italian, would have been right for the part of the gigolo in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone,” Lambert recalls. “But what Warren projected very well that atoned for his accent was the way
he conveyed a kind of corrupt sexuality — which was very essential to the part.”

While certainly wise to sexual corruption, Beatty, Lambert feels, isn’t quite as reckless as some would make him out to be, particularly in the case of Natalie Wood. Lambert’s book recounts a not very well-known incident in the mid-’60s, when Beatty, long after their affair was over, met Wood again by chance. Later that evening, she took an overdose of medication, collapsing at the bedroom door of her houseguest and very close friend Mart Crowley. She was briefly hospitalized, a fact that Beatty, who had no clue as to the situation, didn’t find out about until some time afterward. It never made the papers, as it doubtless would today. But the incident has turned up in other books on Wood, and Beatty wanted to set the record straight.

“I think he knew she was in a very down mood,” Lambert says. “People have said or implied that he’d done something so that she drove herself to it, which I think is absolute rubbish. If that were the case, she would never have seen him again. They remained very good friends.”

In Hollywood, apocrypha of the rich and famous get lives of their own, regardless of the facts. And this was never truer than at the time of Wood’s death — an accidental drowning when she fell off her and Robert Wagner’s yacht, Splendor, in the middle of the night off Catalina. It was during the shooting of what would be her final film, Brainstorm, and co-star Christopher Walken (who has never discussed the incident and declined to be interviewed by Lambert) was also onboard.

“It was sad, very sad, that she died as a tabloid heroine, and who she was and what an extraordinary actress she was were shoved aside. But the films will outlive that.” And indeed few would disagree that Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story and even the underrated Inside Daisy Clover will live on to profoundly affect audiences in ways that tabloid musings about her sad passing never will. Moreover, Lambert feels, it’s safe to say we’ll never see a career like hers again. For when Natalie Wood died, she took a large part of Hollywood right along with her.

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