|Photo by David Ehrenstein|
“I came here in the winter of ’56-’57,” Gavin Lambert recalls, somewhat wistfully. “The studio era was going to be over pretty soon. There were big cracks in the walls, even though the building was still standing.” For the next five decades, this great British writer — who will be celebrating his 80th birthday this year — has recorded those cracks. A leading light of that brilliant band of British émigrés (Christopher Isherwood, David Hockney, Aldous Huxley, Tony Richardson) who helped to define Los Angeles and its chief industry, Hollywood, Lambert has written memorable fictions on this double-barreled subject, The Slide Area, The Goodbye People and Inside Daisy Clover among them. Then there are his biographies of Norma Shearer and Alla Nazimova, his interview book On Cukor and the very personal Mainly About Lindsay Anderson. It was in this 2000 study of the great film and stage director that Lambert revealed that his affair with director Nicholas Ray (for whom he co-wrote the screenplays of Bigger Than Life and Bitter Victory) was instrumental in bringing him to Los Angeles.
“I knew I had to get out of England one way or another. The snobbishness, the insularity. There’s still a lot of it among some of them here. I go to a screening at the British Film Academy, I look around, and I know exactly why I left. Those people are here to get what they can — it’s the whole superiority complex.”
Lambert himself has never indulged in airs of superiority — which is one of the reasons why he came to know and appreciate the subject of his latest book, Natalie Wood: A Life. He finds in both the career and the character of this iconic Hollywood actress all of the things that have fascinated him about the industry, the stars it creates and the lives they lead. As a result he has written something unique in biographical literature: a book that regards its subject with objectivity, yet is unsparingly personal when it comes to dealing with the details of an inner life that only a close friend would know. And this is ideal for Natalie Wood — an actress whose singular power was an ability to evoke intimacy.
“Look at her performance in Splendor in the Grass,” Lambert says, relaxing in his newly redecorated Hollywood apartment on a recent sunny afternoon. “She has a wonderful knack of taking you with her — like you’re seeing through her eyes, and feeling through her nerves. All the really great stars had that. [In the book] I talk about her making an appearance at the San Francisco Film Festival. They didn’t want to let her go. They crowded around her as she was leaving, and she stayed to talk to them. Now Joan Crawford wouldn’t have stayed. She would have done the Q&A and then have gone out the back, where the limo was waiting.”
Crawford, whom Nicholas Ray had directed so memorably in Johnny Guitar, was the first star of Hollywood’s fabled studio era that Lambert met when he came to town. He also met Wood through Ray, and Lambert quickly learned that the former child star had lost her virginity to the brilliant, highly manipulative bisexual director during the shooting of his Rebel Without a Cause. James Dean was, of course, the star of this epochal teenagers-in-trouble melodrama. And Ray was attracted to him as well and their co-star Sal Mineo. But sexual shenanigans aside, it was an important personal and professional breakthrough for Wood.
“Rebel was an extraordinary revelation for her, not just that she and Nick Ray had an affair, but that he was the first director who asked her what she felt about a part. And it was the part of a young girl who was questioning her own life. She was totally in this new world. It absolutely saved her and she never looked back.” By the 1960s, Wood had become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, thanks to performances in Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story and Gypsy. As the years went on, she kept up with the times (take Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice). “Still,” says Lambert, “she was very worried towards the end about the age thing, because she saw what happened to other actresses, and the way the movies were going there would be less and less for her.” And as Lambert shows throughout his book, Wood knew what the stakes of stardom were from childhood, and she dealt with it not only by changing with the times, but by establishing a definite distance between her life onscreen and off of it.
“The whole concept of stardom is to construct somebody. People often get confused between the image and the person because very often the image is more powerful than the person. And I think particularly so in the case of someone like Natalie, who was a child star, the image was constructed very early. In a sense that’s what Inside Daisy Clover was about. That’s why she was so good for that movie.”
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!’”
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.
“The major change from the time I first came here is that Hollywood, the movie industry, has become part of corporate America,” Lambert says. “And it’s not just Hollywood — it’s the whole country. It’s ruled by corporate power. Now corporate power is not only corrupt — corporate power is essentially impersonal. And the movies, when they were the movies that we all love, were essentially personal. They were about personalities. Their appeal was the stars. And the wonderful character actors as well. Now that’s all gone.”
As for Wood’s legacy, Lambert sees a spark of it in Scarlett Johansson. “She’s absolutely brilliant. She hasn’t quite reached stardom, but she’s going to, obviously. There’s some sort of meeting between her and the audience — you want to watch what she does. Yes,” says Lambert brightly, “that’s a definition of a star.”
NATALIE WOOD: A LIFE | By GAVIN LAMBERT Alfred A. Knopf | 370 pages, hardcover | $26